Tag Archives: Laura Sheahen

Happy to be home in Nepal

By Laura Sheahen

Madhu Tharu used to be a bonded labourer. With the help of a Caritas loan, she now runs a roadside snack shop. Photo by Laura Sheahen/Caritas

Thirty-year-old Madhu Tharu has been working for other people since she was a little girl. A bonded labourer in a village of bonded labourers, the Nepali woman basically belonged to her landlord. The system of serfdom that trapped her wasn’t abolished in Nepal until the early 2000s. So for years, she worked all day. Her brothers, at least, were allowed to go to school. As a kamalari–a servant girl– she wasn’t.

As teenagers, Madhu and thousands of girls like her were prime targets of traffickers, criminals who sell girls into forced prostitution or forced labour. As adults, women like Madhu are prime candidates for overseas work as housemaids. Uneducated and impoverished, they sometimes face physical and sexual abuse when working for Middle Eastern families in places like Kuwait.

Though some women do indeed earn money when they go abroad, the risks of migration are serious.  Even in the best cases, where employers treat women well and pay them fairly, mothers must leave their children behind when they go abroad. So Caritas tries to give women options that allow them to remain home.

A Caritas Nepal programme gave Madhu a small loan. She’s using it to run a tiny roadside kiosk that sells snacks. Her two sons can go to school, and her husband, a rickshaw driver, doesn’t have to work so hard.

Sumitra Bista was similarly vulnerable. “I have one son I have to support. My husband married another wife,” she says. “I used to have a small tea shop, but with the Caritas support I could buy more supplies and expand. The tea shop bloomed.” Working from 5 am to 8 pm, Sumitra sells about 100 cups of tea every day.

“There was no tea shop here before she came. She’s an entrepreneur,” says a man sitting on a bench in her shop. “People from the clinic nearby come here. The tea tastes good.”

Yam Kumari Bhat, left, was going to go abroad as a maid. A Caritas staffer urged her to use a Caritas loan to run a business. She now runs this tea and donut shop. Photo: Laura Sheahen/Caritas

The small loans are helping poor women—especially widows and those with sick or absent husbands—to stay with their children and be self-supporting. The loans also mean the women don’t have to take job offers that are suspect. Though some women find a happy ending when they go overseas, the female face of migration doesn’t always look very good.

Madhu is proud that she’s now running her own business. No longer an indentured servant, she is her own boss. “I used to work in other people’s houses. Now I don’t have to,” she says. “I’m happy I can earn money.”

Laura Sheahen, a Communications Officer for Caritas Internationalis, recently visited migration programmes in Nepal.

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Filed under Advocacy, Asia, Migration, Minor migrants, Nepal, Trafficking, Women

Home alone in Nepal

Schoolchildren in the Bardiya district of western Nepal. Many of their parents are working overseas. Photo: Laura Sheahen/Caritas

By Laura Sheahen

“Where’s your mother?” Usually when you ask small children this question, the answer is predictable: At home. At the market. At work, a few kilometres or a drive away.

In villages of Nepal, a deeply impoverished country on India’s northeast border, children answer differently. “In Kuwait.” “In Saudi.” “She’s in a foreign country.”

Mahesh Upadhaya is older—he’s 17. “My mother went to Saudi Arabia for two years. I was 15 when she left,” says Mahesh, who lives in an area of western Nepal called Bardiya. “When my mother wasn’t here, I couldn’t go to school. I had to do chores and work in the fields.” Mahesh’s father is deaf, and as the oldest of five children, Mahesh had to help the family get by until his mother began sending home the money she earned as a maid for a Saudi Arabian family. About 200,000 Nepali women like his mother have gone abroad, usually to be live-in housemaids in Gulf countries. Some are treated well. Some aren’t. Continue reading

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Filed under Advocacy, Asia, Migration, Nepal, Trafficking, Women

Bhutanese refugees in Nepal: A day in the life

A woman weaves in a Bhutanese refugee camp in eastern Nepal. Women and girls in the camps are vulnerable to unsafe job offers and wife-beating. Photo by Katie Orlinsky/Caritas

In the early 1990s the country of Bhutan, in the Himalayas, forcibly drove out over 100,000 ethnic Nepalis they claimed were not true citizens. These Bhutanese refugees ended up in eastern Nepal as migrants in limbo. Required to stay in refugee camps, they’ve lived for 20 years without electricity or good health care. The camp residents are also vulnerable to underhand job offers.

In March 2012, photographer Katie Orlinsky and Laura Sheahen of Caritas Internationalis visited the camps with Rupa Rai, who runs safe migration programmes for Caritas Nepal.

8:00 As we drive along the road to the camp, we see refugee men bicycling into the nearby town of Damak for work like bricklaying. At the camp entrance, we pass a dozen thatched-roof kiosks with Western Union signs. Many refugees have finally been admitted into countries like the USA, Australia, and Canada. Some are doing well and are sending money back to their relatives.

9:00 We see big warehouses filled with bags of rice and pulses from the World Food Program. We pass a marriage procession–complete with young men bearing a heavy car battery on a stick, the better to play wedding music in a place that has no electricity. This is a legitimate marriage, our camp guide explains, not a contract marriage. Since Bhutanese refugees are now being relocated to desirable countries, some Nepalis want to marry them in name only, to get the visa. At times, though, the contract marriage ruse is used to lure girls into more dangerous situations. Told that she’ll receive money if she goes to a place and is part of some paperwork formalities, the refugee girl may end up sold into, say, farm labour in Korea—or sold into a brothel in India.

10:00 We walk through the dusty lanes of the camp, where the bamboo-slat huts are about a metre apart. The walls are papered with newspapers inside to keep out the wind. Continue reading

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Filed under Advocacy, Asia, Migration, Nepal, Refugees, Trafficking, Women

Domestic worker abuse: Battered, bruised but back in Nepal

Twenty-four-year old Damber Kumari Gurung had left her village in Nepal for Saudi Arabia to work as a maid. Now she is back in Nepal after suffering abuse. Photo by Katie Orlinsky/Caritas 2012

By Laura Sheahen,

“When I got home, my family saw my condition and cried.”

Twenty-four-year old Damber Kumari Gurung had left her village in Nepal for Saudi Arabia to work as a maid. More than a year later, she came back covered with bruises.

She’d worked long hours in a private Saudi home, getting about four hours of sleep each night as she struggled to keep up with the cooking, cleaning and washing. The family she worked for rarely paid her, and when she asked for her salary, they sent her back to the employment agents in Riyadh.

She can’t say exactly what happened next. She remembers fighting back when they tried to strip her, and ripping one of the agent’s shirts. When she arrived at the airport in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, she was black and blue. “I was crying bitterly. People surrounded me,” she says.

A woman at the airport asked if she needed help. Though afraid the woman might exploit her as well, Damber Kumari went with her. It turned out that the woman worked for Porukhi, an organisation that helps migrant women. Learning that the girl was from an area of eastern Nepal called Damak, Porukhi called Caritas.
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Filed under Advocacy, Asia, Domestic servitude, Labor exploitation, Migration, Nepal, Women

Drugged, kidnapped and enslaved in brothel: how one Nepalese woman fought back

Charimaya Tamang was one of the first women in Nepal to prosecute the person who trafficked her. She now leads awareness-raising sessions in rural areas and runs a shelter for survivors of trafficking. Photo: Laura Sheahen/Caritas

By Laura Sheahen

“In the brothel, there were no windows. The only light was from the lightbulb—that was the sun and the moon for us.” Charimaya Tamang grew up in the hill country of Nepal, working on her family’s farm. She was used to the outdoors and sunshine and freedom. But after waking from a drugged sleep thousands of miles from her village, the sixteen-year-old was shut in a room behind three doors, each one locked after the other.

Unlike most girls from rural Nepal, Charimaya knew early on that the men who eventually abducted her were criminals. One had approached her in her village, complimenting her intelligence and her classroom work, suggesting she leave her home for better opportunities. “They’d say, ‘You have potential, you could work in a business,’” she remembers.

But Charimaya had read in a book about human traffickers who buy and sell unsuspecting people into forced prostitution, beggary or labour. She knew that people were sometimes promised jobs that didn’t exist, or taken to the big city without knowing what would happen next.

So she was wary, all the more so because she saw unfamiliar girls hidden in the upper floor of a small hut in her village. Though there was no high school where she lived, Charimaya was taking informal classes. She even pointed out to her fellow students that trafficking might be happening where they lived.

They had to drug her. Though she usually went to cut grass with other village women, one day she was in the forest alone. Four men grabbed her, tied her hands behind her back, and made her swallow a powder. Continue reading

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Filed under Advocacy, Asia, Migration, Nepal, Trafficking, Women

Radio interview: Kenya food crisis

While Caritas and other aid agencies have helped millions of East Africans through the worst of the region’s food crisis, more remains to be done. Susan Hodges of Vatican Radio interviews Caritas’ Laura Sheahen about her visit to Caritas projects in Kenya–and about the ongoing impact of the 2011 drought. Listen to the interview

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Filed under Africa, Conflicts and Disasters, Emergencies, Food, Kenya, Malnutrition

Japan after the quake

In a town on the coast of Japan, a ship is beached on dry land after a massive tsunami on March 11, 2011. Credit Laura Sheahen/Caritas

By Laura Sheahen in Kamaishi

When you’re in a tsunami-hit zone, there are no ground floors. At my six-story hotel in Kamaishi, a town on the east coast of Japan, signs point the way to a staircase surrounded by what I assume are “under construction” signs. From the top of the stairs, the third stories of nearby buildings look OK. But at street level, the buildings are just broken frames. Shattered glass, jumbled furniture, and mud-stained scraps of cloth stretch as far as I can see.

Thanks to Japanese engineering, many buildings on the coast withstood the earthquake that struck on March 11, 2011. Even with the ground floor gutted, Japanese engineering is holding up my hotel. But nothing could keep the tsunami water from crashing in.

Cruel geographical accidents determined what the wave destroyed and what was saved. I walk three blocks on flat land, peering into ruined shops and homes. Then, taking about twenty steps, I walk up the slightest of hills to a parish complex that’s now the base for Caritas Japan’s relief efforts here. I wonder where Caritas would be staying if not for that incline.

“The people who live right near the ocean, they knew to act when they heard the tsunami warning,” says a woman visiting with Caritas volunteers at the church. “But people who live more inland couldn’t believe the water would come this far.”

Sitting with four other women in the parish hall–now open as a free Caritas café–she describes how she escaped the wave. Most town residents took their cars first, but when traffic jams made it impossible to move, they got out and started to run. Kamaishi is surrounded by low mountains, and many people headed for a temple at the top of a hill. From there, they watched as vehicles, boats and whole buildings were swept in and then out by the tide. “I couldn’t believe how strong the wave was when it pulled back,” says one woman. “I saw a huge, one-ton ship pushed in, and then dragged back much more quickly. The tsunami destroyed more going out than it did coming in.”

Some of the immense ships never went back to sea. They sit on dry land with green grass sprouting around them. Cranes and earthmoving machines heap debris in enormous piles. Volunteers, including ones from Caritas, sort through the ground rubble.

Six months after the tsunami, most people would like to start rebuilding somewhere. But certain low-lying areas are now restricted until the local government develops its city plans. Land on higher ground is at a premium and the government must use part of it for temporary, prefabricated housing.

“Goodbye baseball,” murmurs Reinhard Wuerkner of Caritas Germany, who is part of a Caritas group visiting the tsunami zone. On a former baseball field, the government has constructed a sophisticated trailer park to house the survivors. Thousands of people along the coast are now living in such trailer parks after their number came up in the housing lottery.

For those who lived in shelters like school gyms for months, the trailers offer much more privacy. They’re small, but very well-equipped, down to the air conditioning, recycling bins, and mail slot. Still, they are a far cry from home.

For now, the trailer parks have one indisputable advantage: their altitude. They’re far from the sea and high up. “I don’t want to live where we lived,” says another woman at the Caritas centre. “The water still comes close to it, especially in the evening.” For those who lived near a shoreline now permanently eaten away in spots, for those who were saved because they were close enough to a hill, height is what matters.


Filed under Aid Success Story, Asia, Conflicts and Disasters, Emergencies, Japan