SISTERHOOD OF SURVIVORS

The Sisterhood of Survivors is a new program for Samrakshak Samuha Nepal (SASANE) (www.sasane.org.np), a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting and empowering women who are survivors of human trafficking and gender-based violence in Nepal.
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Before I could shake off my jet lag and recover from my two day journey back to Canada, I received a message from my Nepali sisters. It was go time. All of our hard work, training and preparation were going to be put to the test. The Sisterhood of Survivors staff would be hosting its first group of G Adventures travellers on April 18, 2014.  

 As you might imagine, I was elated to hear the news. I was also overwhelmed at the same time. It seemed a little unbelievable to me that less than a year after winning The G Project that the Sisterhood of Survivors (SOS) program at SASANE would be up and running.

However, I also knew how hard my Nepali sisters and I had been working over the past three months to get it off the ground. Their strength, determination and eagerness to learn were inspiring. I couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunity to work with them to build a tourism program that will provide sustainable, long-term funding for SASANE to support women survivors of human trafficking and gender-based violence in Nepal.

While the debut of the program was a huge success, it wasn’t perfect. Of course, nothing ever is.  When the G Adventures tour group arrived, there was a bit of last minute commotion trying to get everything prepared for their mo mo demonstration.  All of the SOS staff members were scurrying around trying to put everything on the table. During the rush, a bowl of pickle (mo mo dipping sauce) spilled all over Kabita, one of the SOS staff members.

Once Kabita and the pickle were cleaned up and the dust settled, Anjali began leading the mo mo demonstration.  Unfortunately, in their haste, the SOS staff members forgot to shut off their mobiles. Not one or two, but three mobiles rang right in the middle of the demonstration! Finally, when the third mobile rang, it wouldn’t stop.  In a moment of panic, Asha grabbed her mobile and put it in the freezer, thinking that by doing so no one would be able to hear it ringing.  However, everyone saw her put it in the freezer and started to laugh. The only person that didn’t see what happened was Anjali, which made her nervous because she thought she said something wrong and everyone was laughing at her. However, once she realized what was happening she laughed too. After that, the demonstration went smoothly and the tourists had a great time making and eating mo mos.

It’s a funny and memorable story of a great beginning, one that I’m sure the SOS staff will never forget.  Even thousands of miles away, I felt like I was right there laughing along with my Nepali sisters when I read it.  I couldn’t be happier or more proud that our dream is now a reality. 

Here are a few pictures from the launch of the Sisterhood of Survivors hospitality training program at SASANE:

 

If you’d like to make a donation to support SASANE and women survivors of human trafficking and gender based-violence in Nepal, please visit Planeterra Foundation’s website at: http://www.planeterra.org/sisterhood-of-survivors-projects-85.php. It’s an awesome way to donate because G Adventures matches dollar for dollar, all individual donations made to Planeterra Foundation, for a total of $30,000 per year, and for a maximum of $3,000 total per donation.

SASANE’s kitchen has always been the heart of its guesthouse. Like most homes, it’s a place to share stories, laughs and of course, eat delicious home cooked food. Over the past few months, SASANE’s kitchen has also experienced a flurry of activity as the Sisterhood of Survivors’ (SOS) hospitality training centre. The SOS team has been working hard to create an authentic Nepali lunch experience that G Adventures’ travellers will never forget.

The SOS team couldn’t be more eager or enthusiastic to welcome travellers into SASANE’s guesthouse. Travellers will be greeted with the warmest smiles they’ve ever seen. They will be invited to participate in a hands-on cooking lesson to learn how to prepare mo mos, which is one of the most famous dishes in Nepal. Mo mos are delicious Nepali-style dumplings.

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The SOS staff will practice their English, presentation and teaching skills to guide travellers through this fun activity.  While mo mos look deceptively simple, they are harder to prepare than you might think! The women have held two mo mo practice demonstrations to hone their mo mo making and teaching skills as well as develop the tastiest recipe ever!

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I have the best job in the world at these mo mo practice demonstrations. I’m the official taste tester! I can guarantee they are the best mo mos I’ve ever tasted in Nepal (and I’ve tasted A LOT!). As an added bonus, I get to improve my non-existent cooking skills.  The only downside to this amazing job is the sheer amount of mo mos I can consume in one day. In fact, I discovered my limit is twenty-five. I can’t even imagine how many calories are in twenty-five mo mos. I’m grateful we don’t have a scale in the guesthouse!

After a fun, interactive mo mo making lesson, travellers will chow down on a delicious, thali lunch. What does “thali” mean? Thali is a sampling of several home cooked Nepali dishes. It’s a great way to try a little bit of each of the best traditional dishes in Nepal: dal (lentils), bhat (rice, a staple in every Nepali’s diet), tarkri (mixed vegetables served in a delicious curry sauce) and saga (a type of spinach that’s very popular everywhere in Nepal).

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After lunch, G Adventures’ travellers will learn how they are making a difference to this amazing, grassroots organization just by showing up. For every traveller that enjoys a tasty lunch, G Adventures will make a contribution to SASANE. Of course, donations are more than welcome as well! G Adventures will match individual donations made online on Planeterra Foundation’s website (http://www.planeterra.org/sisterhood-of-survivors-projects-85.php) up to $30,000 per year.

We’ve had two full trial lunches as part of our training program. For our second trial lunch, we invited G Adventures’ CEOs in Nepal to join us. As you might imagine, they were excellent sports when it came to making mo mos!

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As experts on Nepali home cooking, we were eager to hear their feedback on our recipes. We also couldn’t wait to hear their comments on our our mo mo demonstration and service. 

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I couldn’t be more proud to report that the SOS team received top marks for their delicious food, mo mo demonstration and friendly service! We’re grateful for the comments and advice we received. We’ll definitely be using them to improve the SOS hospitality training program.

To our friends at G Adventures, we can’t thank you enough for taking time away from your busy schedules to join us. We look forward to seeing you with your tour groups very soon!

International Women’s Day, Kathmandu, Nepal, March 8, 2014

Over the past few days I’ve been struggling to put my thoughts onto paper for my next blog post.  “You have a deadline” kept running through my head.  International Women’s Day (IWD) is only three days away, now two days and now it’s tomorrow.  I was fretting over what IWD’s “Equality for Women is progress for all” and “Inspire Change” themes mean to me and what they might mean to the Sisterhood of Survivors (SOS) staff at SASANE.

As I secretly worried, I distracted myself by completing my other work. I was grateful when Indira approached me to ask for help on her lunch presentation for the SOS hospitality program.  She had written a short speech to give to G Adventures’ travelers to tell them about SASANE and its programs. She wrote it in Nepali and then with the help of another survivor, translated it into English.  She asked me to help her to edit it and practice.

When we sat down and started reviewing it together, I realized something.  It seemed small at first, but then it became obvious.  Something was lost in translation and it wasn’t because of Indira’s or the other survivor’s English skills.  What she wrote was good and it basically covered everything she wanted to say.  However, it didn’t sound like her. It felt a little artificial and formal.  I asked her how she drafted it. She told me it was pieced together from a few sources and the rest was her own. I think this happens a lot when we think about what we want to say, take the time to carefully write it down and edit or change it with the help of other people.  Somehow we lose ourselves and our own voice in the process.

I had already started to mark her paper with a red pen.  While I could’ve easily corrected her spelling and grammar, it wouldn’t have helped the feeling I had that something was wrong.  So, I stopped and looked up from the paper.  Then, I looked at her.  I looked in her eyes and asked her to tell me how she founded SASANE and why.  I told her that while her speech was good, it didn’t really sound like her.  I wanted her to tell me in her own words.

I knew I made the right decision when she said: “When we started [SASANE] we were seventy survivors.  We used to meet in public places and different spots, but we didn’t have a place of our own.  We talked about how we had problems and that we wanted to solve them, but how? This question inspired us to start our own organization.  We knew we needed a group because as one person we can’t fight, but as a group we can.”

I thought about what she said: “…as one person we can’t fight, but as a group we can.”  It was a simple, but powerful message.  I didn’t hear it when I read her speech, but when I looked into her eyes and really listened, I heard it loud and clear.

All of a sudden, the chaos in the office seemed to disappear.  I forgot the long list of things I had to do and the headache that had been throbbing behind my temples all day.  I felt connected to her, like nothing else mattered except what she had to say.  I imagined the meetings she had with the other founding survivors six years ago.  I felt transported in time to the moment when they decided to stand up for themselves and collectively move forward, together.

I was mesmerized and inspired.  I was inspired not only by her strength and determination, but by the changes she and the other founding survivors have made in so many other women’s lives because of that one decision.  Over the past six years, SASANE has trained one hundred and seventy-five women to become paralegals. SASANE’s paralegals help hundreds of women each day at twenty-five police stations across Kathmandu and six police stations in Pokhara. They are educating women and girls in remote villages to protect them from exploitation and traffickers. SASANE’s paralegals are also educating Nepal’s next generation of leaders by providing anti-trafficking and gender-based violence awareness training in sixty government schools. The progress they have made in only six years is nothing short of remarkable.

So, on this International Women’s Day, I’ll be proudly marching in the streets with my Nepali sisters to celebrate SASANE’s progress.  I hope you’ll choose to join us, wherever you are, to take a stand for women, so that we can end human trafficking and gender-based violence, together.

It felt like a homecoming when I arrived at SASANE’s guesthouse to reconnect with my Nepali sisters.  I was so overwhelmed with joy that I forgot how jet lagged I was from taking three international flights, two crazy airport layovers, the ridiculous time change and almost forty-eight hours of non-stop travelling.  I was almost in tears when I saw their excitement to see me again and to get started on the Sisterhood of Survivors (SOS) program.

Upon arrival, I was immediately given a tour of SASANE’s new and improved guesthouse. Using a portion of the funding from The G Project, the SOS staff made some great improvements to the guesthouse since my last visit.  The living room has been transformed into a dining room, with two beautiful glass and wood tables and chairs (made in Nepal) for guests.  The kitchen was upgraded with a larger two-burner gas stove, a water purification system (it’s safe and more cost effective than boiling water all the time), a new oven and loads of new pots, pans and dishes!

Of course, the biggest and most exciting improvement (in my opinion) was the purchase of an inverter (a large battery backup) for the guesthouse.  The inverter is amazing!  Despite frequent power outages in Nepal of up to eighteen hours a day, the inverter keeps one light on in each room of the guesthouse and supplies power to the office.  Best of all, we have Wi-Fi and Internet access twenty-four hours a day now!  So, while I might miss our candlelit dinners and rousing card games by flashlight, SASANE’s guesthouse and its office are much more productive now!  

I was impressed not only by the initiative that the SOS team took to improve the guesthouse, but also by their management and organizational skills.  The SOS staff had already been selected along with three managers for the program.  I wasn’t surprised to learn who the managers were.  Three of my closest Nepali sisters, Indira, Laxmi and Jashudha, were chosen to lead the SOS team.  I couldn’t be more proud or excited to introduce you to them!

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Indira met me at the airport last year.  I was travelling from India and unfortunately was very tired and still a bit sick from food poisoning, so I felt horrible when I forgot she was the President of SASANE. However, she was so wonderful and welcoming, my embarrassment soon faded. So, I really felt like I was coming full circle when Indira greeted me at the airport upon my return to Kathmandu.  I remembered her beautiful smile and after a few big hugs, we headed back to SASANE.  

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Indira is the head of the SOS family and she’s also the “boss”.  She leads by example and is extremely hard working.  Indira is one of the most generous and caring people I know.  She loves to take care of all her sisters, including me.  I don’t think a day goes by without me hearing: “I’m happy when you are hungry,” from her.  (Don’t worry mom, Indira is here to ensure I’m overfed at least three times a day!)  

In addition to her duties at SASANE, Indira is a fantastic mom to a little two year old girl named Andrina, who often visits us at the guesthouse.  She loves to cook and I think it’s fair to say that she’s obsessed with learning how to cook “Western” food.  (Unfortunately, I am a horrible cook so she hasn’t learned anything from me.)  She is a certified paralegal, a board member and SASANE’s President.  She’s been elected President by her fellow sisters for the past three years.  Indira is the Office Manager for the SOS program.

Laxmi and I spent an enormous amount of time together last year.  That’s because we worked and lived together at the guesthouse.  She was my housemate and friend from the moment I arrived at SASANE.  We spent our days working in the office and our nights laughing while playing cards or Snakes and Ladders by flashlight.  We also had spa nights complete with nail polish and facials.  Yes, the spa nights were in the dark too.  I’ve never been very good at applying nail polish so my toe nails pretty much looked the same as if I had painted them in the light of day.  Laxmi was also my tour guide pretty much every Saturday; the only day of the week that SASANE’s office is closed.  We visited all kinds of interesting historic and religious sites in and around Kathmandu together and of course, took loads of selfies!

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Laxmi is fun, talkative and stylish.  She loved the genuine fake “Ban-Ray” sunglasses I bought for her as a thank you gift last year. Laxmi has a great sense of humour and is constantly making funny faces at me to make me laugh.  She loves movies and music.  She’s pretty much stolen my tablet to watch movies in her room every night! Laxmi lost a mo mo eating competition last year to a Swedish volunteer named Sofia after eating twenty-two mo mos. Sofia, the reigning champion, ate twenty-three mo mos!  (I participated and came in a distant third after eating seventeen mo mos.)  Laxmi is a certified paralegal and one of SASANE’s board members.  She is the Communications Manager for the SOS program.

If you attended the Future of Tourism event in Toronto last year, you may remember that I included a story about Jashudha in my speech at the sold-out Elgin Theatre that night.  In case you missed it, I thought I might include it here because it was part of my winning presentation to The G Project judges: An American university student stopped by SASANE for a visit one day last year while I was volunteering. She was working on a paper for school and wanted to ask us a few questions.  Indira, Laxmi, Jashudha and I (along with a few other SASANE survivors) sat down together to chat.  The student asked my Nepali sisters a simple, yet powerful question: “What does empowerment mean to you?”  I could tell that they didn’t really understand the word “empowerment”, because English is their second (and for some, a third) language.  So, I offered some help by repeating the question in a different way: “How does it make you feel to be part of SASANE and to be a paralegal?”  Jashudha, who at that time, was typically very shy and quiet, immediately spoke up.  A huge smile crossed her face and she confidently said, “It makes me proud to be a leader and to be able to help others.”  In that moment, while I witnessed her pride, strength and resilience, I fought back tears.  

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Jashudha is still a bit quieter than Indira and Laxmi when she speaks English, but when she speaks Nepali, watch out!  Jashudha talks non-stop, a mile a minute!  She’s sweet and is constantly giggling and smiling.  Jashudha is so tiny, that I look like a giant next to her. (I’m only 5’3” when my hair is poofy and well, it’s never poofy).  She has an enormous laugh, the kind that makes you instantly laugh with her no matter how you might be feeling that day.  She loves Hindi soap operas and Facebook.  She is a fantastic cook and is all business in the kitchen!  Jashudha is a certified paralegal, one of SASANE’s Monitoring and Evaluation Officers, the Coordinator of SASANE’s remote village education and awareness program and a board member.  She is the Kitchen Manager for the SOS program.

Shortly after I arrived, Indira, Laxmi and Jashudha introduced me to the rest of the SOS team.  The excitement and enthusiasm that these twelve ladies bring to the SOS program is remarkable.  Manisha, Machhindra, Kabita, Purnima, Anjali, Asha, Shanta, Ganga, Trishanna, Sabbu, Sangita and Aruna are eager to learn and can’t wait to get started!

I look forward to sharing more stories about my Nepali sisters and our adventures with the SOS program with you.  If you’re considering volunteering at SASANE, we could really use your help!  Please contact me via e-mail, Twitter, LinkedIn or contact SASANE directly via the organization’s website.  If you’d like to make a donation to the SOS program (and I hope that you will), please donate through Planeterra Foundation’s website (as G Adventures also contributes $30,000 per year in matching funds made through individual donations online).

After travelling the world in 2013, I hardly expected that my travels would bring me back to Nepal. But I’ve learned travel, like life, is like that. Sometimes you end up where you least expect and that can be a really good thing. It’s not always about the destination. It’s about the journey and the amazing people you meet along the way.  I think I’ve ended up exactly where I was meant to be.

So how did I get here? A lifetime of “should-ing” myself into decisions led me to finally take my sister’s advice: “What you should do is what you want to do”.  The truth was, I always knew exactly what I wanted to do.  I wanted to travel and volunteer.  I wanted to give back, lose myself in the service of others and hopefully in the process, change my life.

So, in December 2012, I left Canada with a plan.  A plan that was created after years of dreaming, many months of saving, endless hours of Internet research, and loads of love and support from my family and friends.  My plan was to travel and volunteer in sixteen countries across five continents in eleven months.  However, through a few twists of fate, hard work and some luck, I ended up travelling to twenty-four countries across six continents in eleven months.  Here’s a quick list of the twenty-four countries I visited in 2013:  New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, India, Nepal, France, Sweden, Norway, England, Morocco, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Costa Rica, Canada, Panama, Ecuador (including the Galapagos Islands), Peru and Bolivia. I also volunteered in three countries:  Cambodia, Morocco and Nepal.

While my bucket-list world tour was filled with excitement and adventure, it turned into an amazing opportunity to give back and change the lives of others. The three and a half months I spent volunteering were by far the most rewarding of all my experiences last year. I spent a month working as an outreach department volunteer at New Hope Cambodia (www.newhopecambodia.com), where I assisted local outreach staff by writing profiles of families desperately in need of sponsorships and delivering critical care items such as food and clothing to young children and families. I also taught English and French to women and children for a month at Association Koulouna Maane (www.facebook.com/AssociationKoulounaMaane) in Morocco.

In addition, I spent six weeks volunteering for an amazing grassroots organization in Nepal called Samrakshak Samuha Nepal (SASANE) (www.sasane.org.np). SASANE is an organization dedicated to empowering women human trafficking survivors by training them to become certified paralegals. SASANE’s paralegals provide access to justice, completely free of charge,  for other women who are survivors of trafficking and gender based violence in twenty-five police stations across Kathmandu and six police stations in Pokhara.  SASANE’s paralegals also conduct education and awareness training in remote villages and sixty government schools in Nepal to combat human trafficking and gender-based violence at its sources.

While volunteering at SASANE, I received an e-mail newsletter from G Adventures advertising The G Project. It was an online contest soliciting world-changing ideas where the prize was $25,000 in funding to make your idea come true. It was fate. I had been searching for ways to make SASANE’s paralegal training program sustainable without relying on grants and donations. I knew this was it. My idea, entitled the Sisterhood of Survivors, was to empower women human trafficking survivors by training them to become tour guides and hospitality staff. This new program would support women who aren’t qualified to become certified paralegals in Nepal because they don’t have the equivalent of a high school diploma. These survivors are among the most vulnerable to re-trafficking and abuse. The profits from the tourism program would support these survivors by offering them education and job skills and would also be used to provide additional funds for SASANE’s paralegal training program.

Approximately three hundred and fifty world-changing ideas were submitted and over thirty-five thousand votes were cast from one hundred and twenty countries worldwide to narrow the ideas down to sixteen semi-finalists.  SASANE and I were thrilled to make the short list.  Our fate as one of four finalists was determined by a prestigious panel of judges, including Jane Goodall, and we couldn’t have been more ecstatic when we learned my idea made the top four. I flew to Costa Rica to attend the inaugural “Summit in the Jungle”, where one presentation stood between me and my goal, to win $25,000 in funding for SASANE. I’ll admit I was feeling the pressure. I’ve never wanted to win anything more in my entire life.

I desperately wanted to make the judges understand that by supporting survivors through education (English lessons and job skills training), they can finally have employment opportunities. The chance to become economically independent is a chance for these women to take back their lives and stand on their own two feet, many for the first time. They would not only be earning an income to support themselves and their families, but also gaining the confidence and self-esteem that was stolen from them, giving them hope and perhaps healing as well. By investing the profits from the Sisterhood of Survivors program back into SASANE’s paralegal training program, the women would also continue to help other survivors get justice as well. As you might imagine, I was thrilled to tears when the announcement was made that my idea won! I couldn’t be more proud or excited to be part of such a fantastic project. For more details on my idea, please visit The G Project website at: www.thisisyourplanet.com.

So, I’ve finally come full circle. I’m back in Kathmandu working as a consultant for Planeterra Foundation to implement my G Project idea at SASANE. It’s amazing how things work out, isn’t it?! I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else right now. If you’re thinking of making a change in your life or want to give back, I would highly recommend volunteering. Fantastic grassroots organizations all over the world (and perhaps even in your own backyard) desperately need your donations, but they also need you. You might find it’s the most rewarding thing you’ve ever done. 

If you’d like to learn more about SASANE and potential volunteer opportunities, please visit the organization’s website at www.sasane.org.np. If you would like to make a donation, please visit Planeterra Foundation’s website at www.planeterra.org/sisterhood-of-survivors-projects-85.php (as G Adventures also contributes $30,000 per year in matching funds made through individual donations online).