The MentorFriday mornings are fun. In an open field, southwest of the picturesque Pashupatinath Temple, a group of boys and a few young girls
Captaining one of the sides and refereeing at the same time is Bishnu Poudel, a young man in his mid-twenties, whom the kids fondly refer to as “Bishnu Sir”. “There are two rules. You can’t sniff glue or bring another kind of drug, and you can’t fight among each other,” says Poudel, as he wraps up one match and signals for the other group to take the field.
The 30 kids who partake of this Friday activity come from various parts of the city and have one thing in common: they are all homeless, and while they are used to having volunteers come with food and people willing to help them, their relationship with Poudel is a tad different.
A long time ago, he was one of them. That was until he decided to change the course of his life. Today, Poudel is close to completing his Master’s in Rural Development and works as a field officer at Child Workers in Nepal (CWIN).
Life is busy, but on Fridays he puts all of that aside to interact with other young boys and girls. “I hope I can convince them to look at life from a different perspective and encourage them to take a different route, like I did,” he says.
It was around two decades ago, when Poudel, who was barely eight years old, ran away from his village in Sindhupalchok and arrived in Kathmandu. “I was tired of cutting grass in the village and thought to myself—I must leave. And so I did.”
In the Capital, the streets became his home, and the other children, his family. Almost immediately after arriving in the city, he landed a job as a conductor to a tempo driver. A year passed and then one day, in the mid 90s, the police rounded up Poudel, along with a number of other street children.
At the police station, they asked him where his home was, and when they found out that he did not have a place to go, he was sheltered at a transit center.
“Getting ‘arrested’ by the police was the best thing that happened to me. Because I ended up finding people other than street kids who regarded me as their own, and that was the turning point,” says Poudel. “And that is when I came to realise the importance of influence.”
After being sheltered in a transit centre run by CWIN, one of first Nepali organisations to start working against child labour in Nepal, his interaction with volunteers and other children started to shape his new path in life. He started to paint, play musical instruments and he discovered that life could exist beyond the streets if you gave it a try. “The most important realisation was that I was still a part of this society and that I belonged here. Once that sank in, I felt encouraged to do more for myself,” he says.
Then, in 1996, Poudel was chosen as one of five child representatives from Nepal to participate in the six-month-long Global March Against Child Labour, an initiative led by 2014’s Nobel Peace prize winner, Kailash Satyarthi.
They travelled all over the world raising awareness about child labour. “We were so enthusiastic about the whole thing. We were shouting slogans and pushing for the rights of children. We were in the frontline and that encouraged us even more,” says Poudel.
“When they start understanding their own value and potential, things fall into place,” says Sumnima Tuladhar, executive director at CWIN, who has known Poudel for over 20 years now.
For Tuladhar and other child rights activists who have seen Poudel evolve, it has been a fascinating story. What is even more rewarding is that Poudel is not alone. At CWIN alone, 15 former street children are working as volunteers and field officers. “Our role is to facilitate and empower them. In the end, it is up to them to change their lives and become heroes.”
In the past decade or so, a number of organisations that work for the welfare of kids on the streets have emerged. Poudel attends a weekly forum of such organisations and they discuss how they can effectively intervene in the lives of other street kids.
The helping hand they lend plays a huge role in the kids’ lives. “High-end dialogues and policies can turn into substantial and effective implementation only when we involve people who have really been there and done that,” says Tuladhar. “Everybody needs mentors and role models and when people like Bishnu and others, who have managed to come out of such lives, take the lead, it is amazing,” she says.
Statistics suggest that there are around 5,000 street children in Nepal, with almost 800 to 1,000 children in Kathmandu alone. Left to fend for themselves on the streets, street children are often subjected to violence. They are—intentionally or unintentionally—embroiled in a life of unending crimes, and one of the biggest problems is their easily getting addicted to glue-sniffing and other drugs.
“It is so easy to get access to the illegal stuff, and these children are pulled into the mess,” says Poudel.
According to one study, almost 80 percent of street children have tried drugs. A study in 2010 also showed that a number of boys living in streets are sexually abused.
It is a world of its own, says Poudel, about the seedy underbelly the children live in.
“It’s not that they don’t know what is going on around them. It’s just that they don’t feel like they are a part of the larger world, which pushes them further away and ultimately makes them even more vulnerable.”
They are at higly likely to completely waste their lives, and to protect them is not easy. “It is exceedingly difficult to gain their trust because they are so guarded,” says Poudel.
“To make sure you’re doing the right things for them, you need to look at the world from their perspective, listen to their stories and then finally intervene at the right time and encourage them to change direction. Intervene but don’t dictate,” says Poudel, as he points to a group of young girls who have recently joined their weekly after-game breakfast.
“The first step is to show them that they are still a part of this society and that there are people who genuinely care for them,” he says.