The woman who failed retirement

Until 1984, Olga Murray had never heard of Nepal. Now, all her energies are focused on the country

Most people fall in love with other people. I do that with countries,” says Olga Murray, brimming with an energy that belies her age—she is 90 years old. For decades, she was in love with Greece, visiting it every opportunity she got. Then in 1983, when she was 58, Murray realised that she had never been to Asia and decided she would travel to India. As an afterthought, however, she switched the destination to Nepal. A year later, she was trekking from Pokhara to Siklis, around a week-long trek in the Annapurna region. There, in the middle of the trek, as she prepared to sleep inside her sleeping bag, thinking about life after retirement, she made a decision that would define the past 25 years of her life—she would educate the children of Nepal.

In 1990, semi-retired from her job as the law clerk to the chief justice at the California Supreme Court,  Murray officially registered Nepal Youth Foundation in the US and Nepal. This non-profit organisation would go on to touch the lives of around 45,000 children in Nepal, 12,500 of whom would be Kamlaris, Tharu girls sold to domestic slavery.

Fifteen years ago in June 2000—a month before the government formally abolished the Kamaiya, indentured labour, system—the foundation decided to rescue bonded girl-child labourers, then around 20,000 in number, by offering to buy them out with a piglet or a goat. Tharu families sell their girls, as young as five, to landlords and rich people for a few thousand rupees on the day of Maghi, the Tharus’ New Year’s Day. Most of the girls never return home, with some sexually abused in the house of their employers and a few murdered. Murray’s organisation promised the families of the Kamlaris that they would rescue the children if they promised to use the money obtained from raising a piglet or a goat to educate the children. The programme became so successful that in 2010 the rescued girls formed the Freed Kamlari Development Forum, now with more than 1,350 former Kamlaris as its members. The number of girl-children still working as Kamlaris has also fallen to around 300, but they have been hard to locate.

Murray says the decision to work in Nepal came out of the blue, but not the fact that she wanted to work with children. Even when she was a lawyer at the California Supreme Court, Murray used to do volunteer work with children, especially the abused and neglected. She does not have children of her own, but she knew that she felt the happiest around them. “I feel much worse about the suffering of children than that of the adults,” she says.

After she made the decision to educate Nepali children, Murray came back to the country every year, except in 1986. In 1985, she visited orphanages and children’s homes and provided five boys scholarships out of her pocket. In 1987, after she broke her leg while trekking to Helambu, she met Dr Ashok Banskota, founder of the Hospital and Rehabilitation Centre for Disabled Children at Jorpati. She went to the centre and provided financial aid for the education of the disabled children. Her organisation today runs children’s homes for the poorest children, most of whom are without parents and have no one to take care of them.

With orphanages and children’s homes under fire for housing children who should be with their guardians in their communities, Murray says the foundation first concludes that the children are truly homeless before taking them in. The background of every child—either brought to them by other non-profit organisations or individuals or found through newspapers—is thoroughly checked, she says. A staff from the organisation visits the child’s home, tries to find a relative who could take care of her and when no one can be located, the staff gets a letter from the district child welfare board and takes custody of the child. Apart from these children, the foundation also supports hundreds of others with scholarships to stay in school and college.

The organisation also works with malnourished children, most of whom are under five. In 1998, it opened its first Nutritional Rehabilitation Centre here in Kathmandu. Since then, it has opened 15 more, 14 of which are in each zonal hospital. After five years of operation, these centres are handed over to the government. Eight of them are already in the government’s control; the remaining eight will be by the end of the next five years. In these centres, severely malnourished children stay with their mothers for about a month, and the mothers are taught to prepare nutritional meals using vegetables and grains found locally—the lessons they are to share with other mothers in their community. So far, almost 14,000 children have been restored back to health through these centres. “We have realised that it’s not poverty, but ignorance that perpetuates malnourishment,” says Murray. “If we teach the mothers to combine diets, the children remain healthy. We have a 98 percent success rate and 93 percent of the mothers and children come back for a follow-up visit.”

It is this belief in education that is driving Murray even at the age of 90. She says she was moved by the children she met during her trek in 1983. They did not go to school, but wanted to. But perhaps the desire to educate children, especially girls, stems also from Murray’s own background. It was not easy being a woman back when she was young. Born in Transylvania, Romania, to a Hungarian family, she immigrated to the US in June, 1931, as a six year old. In September, she had to be ready for school. Her parents forced her to socialise with the neighbours’ children and within three months, she was speaking English as fluently as a native speaker. Her mother and father, who taught himself English using the New York Times and an English-Hungarian dictionary, understood the value of education. She graduated from Columbia University with a degree in Political Science in three years and later went to law school at George Washington University. “Even Sandra Day O Connor, the first female Supreme Court justice in the US, when she graduated out of Stanford Law School, the first question she was asked in a job interview was whether she could type,” says Murray.

Perhaps the secrets to what drives Murray, the philosophy that guides her to continue working for the children of Nepal, will be revealed in her upcoming memoir, entitled Olga’s Promise: One Woman’s Commitment to the Children of Nepal. As her organisation turns 25 this year and she 90, the book should be a perfect way to celebrate her successes and failed retirement.

Published: 21-02-2015, The Kathmandu Post