From Kennett Square to Nepal, a volunteer offers hope
By John Chambless
In February, Mike Korengel of Kennett Square was on the other side of the world. Surrounded by crowds of eager children in Nepal, he was struck by how they were the same ages as his grandchildren, yet their lives were so very different. Korengel had paid his way to Nepal as part of a Rotary International outreach to Asha Nepal, a refuge for women and children who have survived unspeakable cruelty as slaves or sex workers.
"The things that they see by the time they're 12," Korengel said, his voice trailing off. He didn't need to say more.
During an interview at his Kennett Square home last week, Korengel tried to convey his experiences in a culture where poverty is the norm and hope can be in short supply.
"From the time I was a little kid, Nepal and Tibet have been on my bucket list," he said. When Carol Metzker of the One World Rotary E-Club called him last fall and suggested a trip to Nepal to investigate whether Rotary could help Asha Nepal, Korengel quickly agreed. After four months of planning, he was one of the Rotary representatives who took a 31-hour flight to Katmandu in February.
"Asha Nepal is primarily in Katmandu," he said. "We spent several days there, looking for projects that we could partner up with. There are Rotary clubs in Great Britain who would be interested in partnering with us. That's what Rotary does around the world -- different clubs team up for different projects. Asha Nepal has an office in Great Britain, so that's what got us started. There's a branch of Asha Nepal in western Nepal as well, so we went out there for a few days and looked at that organization."
There are many aid organizations in Nepal, and Asha Nepal is just one. The facilities are in large houses in neighborhoods. "When we were there, 13 women lived there," Korengel said. "They usually stay six to nine months. They get some basic education, work skills and psychological help so they can be reintegrated back into their communities. Some of them want to go back to whatever town or village they came from. Some can't, or won't. Particularly if they are Muslims, they are really ostracized back in their villages."
There is a nearby facility for children in Katmandu -- some of whom have themselves been trafficked, and others whose mothers are victims.
"Mental health services are a big need in the country," Korengel said. At places like Asha Nepal, women are seen by part-time counselors, and taught a trade.
"To have a trade that can generate enough income to support a family is just an unbelievable dream for a lot of people there," Korengel said. Even the simple purchase of a sewing machine can start a business and turn around generations of poverty, allowing women to pass an inheritance on to their children.
"What they need is money on the ground there," Korengel said. "The American dollar goes very far in Nepal. You can put together a whole computer system -- laptop and printer -- for about $300. That's 30,000 Nepali rupees. ... The great part of Rotary is that they can take $1 and turn it into $3 or $4 by matching it with different grants that are already in place. So let's say a local club has a project that's $10,000. The local club may only have to come up with $2,500 to do an overseas project. The Rotary is good about tracking the money. The money gets right to the project."
The cost for housing a child at Asha Nepal for a whole year, for instance -- food, clothing, education, medical services -- is $1,100, Korengel said. Classes are usually held in private schools, since public education in Nepal is traditionally lacking, and many of the traumatized students need ongoing services offered at shelters like Asha Nepal.
At the crux of the trafficking issue is the nation's cycle of poverty.
"A lot of girls are born into families that are so poor, that somebody comes along -- a lot of times it will be some distant relative -- and says, 'I'll help you out. I'll take your daughter to the city and get her a job. She can be a waitress or a maid,'" Korengel said. "Parents think they're doing the best they can for their girl. They don't realize what the end is. The one thing they have is hope. These people -- a lot of them work for less than $1 a day."
Those "family members" often turn out to be traffickers who steal young women and sell them into lives of prostitution in India or elsewhere, with virtually no chance of escape.
There are, however, success stories.
"I met one girl who went with a relative and he really did get her a job in a hotel," Korengel said. "She worked her way up to be hotel manager. She was basically supporting all her distant family, back in their village. Families do hear these success stories and think, 'Well, that could be my daughter.'"
On a previous trip, to India, he met a 20-year-old victim of trafficking who had learned to be a seamstress, returned to her village with a sewing machine and had done so well that she was running a rice processing business and was being paid by local farmers.
But for every instance of success, there are countless horror stories. Even girls who are not trafficked must cope with the caste system in Nepal, which dictates which families can succeed and which families are forbidden to better themselves.
"One girl I do remember," Korengel said. "I met her at a school in Nepal. The teachers had asked this group of children to perform for us -- perform a poem or sing a song. This one girl sang a song about, 'You Can't Drink the Water.' She was of the lowest caste. Therefore, if she drank the water, those below her could not drink the water. Even though it was a school for at-risk children, she was still somewhat shunned because she was in that lowest caste."
Korengel was a favorite visitor for the young children, nearly all of whom lack a positive male role model in their lives.
"I come back from these trips certainly hopeful that we'll be able to do something," he said of the Rotary involvement in Asha Nepal. Evaluations are still ongoing. "I'm a realist," he said. "You can't do everything. But you can make some changes. You can touch a lot of lives, but if we change one for the better, then we've made an impact."
Korengel stayed at inns in Nepal, and said he felt safe when traveling. "A lot of the people speak English, they were generally very helpful. We were out several evenings, walking around, and I didn't feel unsafe at all."
The democratic country has some 200 political parties, he said, and the resulting inertia is reflected in the building projects everywhere that get started and then run out of funds. "There are also 14 hours of electricity a day in the whole country," he said. "In any 24-hour period, depending on what day of the week it is, you'll have two five-hour periods where you don't have electricity. Most public places will tell you when they won't have power, or they have generators. The reason for that is that when the Maoists were in control, they didn't have the money to build power plants, so they signed a deal with India to build the power plants. In return, India gets most of the power."
Korengel worked in marketing for several insurance companies during his career and took an early retirement. "Life has been good to me," he said. "It's time to give something back."
In Nepal, he said, "we traveled all over and we certainly touched a lot of lives, but in the end, if we can change one life, then that trip was a success."