Building a house of hope in Nepal

Williston’s Namjou seeks to raise money for home, school for impoverished children

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

It was a beggar afflicted by polio, pushing himself on a skateboard along the streets of Kathmandu, who launched a Williston resident’s journey to create a home for poor Nepali children.

It was1997. Part-time Williston resident Maggie Namjou had been living in Kathmandu, Nepal, on and off the previous 13 years – teaching and working on literacy issues.

She’d known Ram Prasad Devkota, the skateboard-bound beggar, for several years. During a conversation one day, he invited her home to meet his wife and children.

“He had never mentioned to me that he had family,” Namjou said. “It was a whole new world for me to realize beggars had family.”

“Home” for Devkota was a squatter cell. The ceiling was falling in, Namjou said, and dirty mats filled the floor.

As Namjou began to spend time with the family, she kept seeing Menaka, the seven-year-old daughter, with a man from Belgium.

“He would take her away and she would come back wearing frilly dresses,” Namjou said last week. “He’d been giving her father large amounts of money. There was a guest house next to their house; I later learned (it was) a place pedophiles stayed. That terrified me.”

To spare Menaka the fate of many impoverished Nepali girls – being kidnapped and sold into Indian brothels – Namjou asked if she could put both children in a boarding hostel. But the facility turned out to be poor, so eventually she asked if she could take them into her home.

“I didn’t give it a lot of thought, but it seemed like the right thing to do,” Namjou said.

The children came to live with her, and their father visited weekly. In time, two children became two dozen, and Aastha (pronounced “Ah-sta”) House was born.

Aastha House, translated as house of faith and hope, allows destitute children – some with parents, some without – to get off the streets and be guaranteed a clean and safe home in which to live. In a country where the child mortality rate is more than 10 times that of the U.S., Aastha House kids attend one of the area’s top schools and are fed healthy, nutritious meals. Once a week the kids have meat; the average Nepali has meat once a year, Namjou said.

Williston Observer freelance photographer Karen Pike has traveled to Nepal and stayed at Aastha House twice in the last five years.

“If I could, I would go back every year and do everything I can to help Maggie,” Pike said this week. “Unlike kids in the U.S. where there are government agencies … you literally just see children sitting on the curb, waiting to die, because they’ve been hungry so long.”

“I think that Maggie really believes that the only way to help Nepal is by helping this generation so that they can make the country better in the future,” Pike said. “Otherwise it’s going to implode.”

Aastha House has had as many as 28 kids at one time. Now Namjou, and a Ugandan couple that works with her, are caring for 21 kids, ages three to 16. Some kids have grown and gone on to a university. One left for marriage.

Namjou, now 47, has supported Aastha House with her own money since the beginning. Currently, the house is rented. Namjou is looking to raise $200,000 so that her nonprofit, the Rising Child Nepal Foundation, can build a permanent home and school that will serve between 40 and 60 kids. Namjou already has purchased the land.

“The main problem is the landlords are terrible,” Namjou said last week. “They really don’t care about the kids. They continue to raise the rent and make outrageous demands.”

Namjou, who has a master’s degree in international development from the School for International Training in Brattleboro, first found herself in Nepal when a group of friends invited her to take a four-month tour of Asia. She accepted, deferring her start at Tufts Law School to pursue a career in human rights law.

“The only thing I really knew about Nepal was that Mt. Everest was there; I knew absolutely nothing else about it,” Namjou said. She arrived there in April 1984.

“Immediately when I got off the plane, I felt like I knew this place. That was it. I can’t explain it.’”

Namjou’s road hasn’t been entirely easy; employment was not always guaranteed and for a number of years now, after a divorce, she’s been raising a son, now 18, on her own.

Also difficult has been her journey to determine which children to accept.

“I couldn’t accept every child,” Namjou said she quickly learned. “Literally every day I’d get people telling me about children in crisis.”

Namjou realized she didn’t have the resources to take in children with major health problems, or those addicted to glue sniffing – what Namjou said is an escape from hunger.

Namjou knows she cannot save the world. But she said she knows if she changes individual children’s lives in drastic ways, there is a domino effect of her work on their families.