TRAVERSE CITY — Sharon and David Lund opened their door when a Nepali stranger came knocking in 2005.
Bishow Bhatta, a Hindu, had heard about the Traverse City Baha’i couple through a mutual Michigan friend. He wanted to convert and learn more about the Baha’i faith. The Lunds handed him some books and told him to return if the words piqued his interest.
The Lunds, both 70, are part of a small Local Baha’i Group of Elmwood Township. Sharon is a former Headstart teacher and retired Traverse Area Public Schools social worker, while David is a retired state vocational rehabilitation worker.
Baha’i is a world religion with an estimated 5 million followers worldwide who believe that all humanity is one single race and that the day has come for its unification into one global society.
Bhatta visited the Lunds again a few months later. He still wanted to convert. He also wanted to start an orphanage based on Baha’i principles in a rent-free facility that he and business partner John Snyder, a Vietnam veteran originally from Lake City, built in Kathmandu.
In 2006, Bhatta established the Nepal Children Orphans Home in Kathmandu, the nation’s capital and largest city with a population of about 1 million. The Lunds became co-founders and help sponsor the 32 children living there.
Sharon spent five months in Nepal in 2011 and helped set up the orphanage. They also taught and visited rural schools along the India border, many led by Baha’is.
On Feb. 28, the Lunds left for a nine-week visit at the orphanage to spend time with the children and to work with and help train teachers.
“Corporal punishment is often used in Nepalese schools,” Sharon said. “The typical way is harsh. Children can be hit, whipped or humiliated.”
The mission of the faith-based Nepal Children Orphan Homes is to provide food, shelter, clothing, medical and dental care to orphans who were between the ages of 5-12 when they first arrived. Another major goal is providing an education with a strong emphasis on English, computer skills, as well as the moral and spiritual virtues of love, kindness, justice and integrity, she said.
Nepal pays lip service to free and compulsory education for children ages 5 to 17, but doesn’t mandate public education, Lund said. In practice, primary and secondary schools are mostly private.
Bhatta purchased a private English school in Kathmandu in 2011 to ensure that the NECO orphans and other students would not be abused in school.
Bhatta and Snyder wrote in a recent email to Lund and other supporters that they believe teaching and graduating students from a character-based school is one of the most effect ways to transform Nepal’s character.
“Unlike most orphanages in the world, we are not devoted to simple childhood survival,” they wrote. “Through education, our ultimate goal is to break the cycle of poverty and thus allow our NECO children to become good parents, productive citizens and leaders of their community. “
Nepal is a tiny nation of 28 million tucked in the Himalaya mountains between China and India. It is also one of the poorest nations in the world.
“That much poverty is so hard to explain to someone here in the United States,” Sharon said. “We don’t have the framework to understand it, and most people don’t want to hear about it.”
Nepal has many social problems, she said. Political corruption and unemployment are rampant. In fact, the government banned adoptions of any more Nepali children because so many orphanages were fraudulent. She said one reason she went to Nepal in 2011 was to see the NECO home for herself and make sure it was legitimate.
Nepal has many orphans and “street children,” for several reasons, including a 1996-2006 civil war between government forces and Maoist rebels. Some children have been abandoned or neglected by their parents and others kidnapped by human traffickers and sold into labor, prostitution, slavery and adoption fraud.
In 2009, UNICEF estimated that 650,000 Nepali children had lost one or both parents. In 2011, child rights organizations estimated 15,000 children lived in orphanages, though the number is difficult to track because disreputable owners move children around to avoid scrutiny. Many have been lured away from poor families, especially in remote districts, with promises of education in Kathmandu.