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Australian students receive heroes' welcome in Nepal as they help rebuild classrooms damaged in earthquake

Australian students receive heroes' welcome in Nepal as they help rebuild classrooms damaged in earthquake

Perched precariously on a steep hillside in the Himalayas, Shree Kalika School is proudly painted in a sunflower yellow.

But its cheery colour scheme belies the poverty within its walls.

The school of 143 students sits in the tiny village of Banethok, three hours bumpy drive from the nearest city, Pokhara, in western Nepal.

Banethok's low-caste population is poor — even by Nepalese standards. So when 17 Australian school children and teachers arrived by 4WD to undertake a massive working-bee, they were welcomed like local heroes.

The high school students from Canberra Grammar School gave up their holidays to fly 10,000 kilometres to embark on a 'humanitourism' project, under the auspices of Australian charity REACH for Nepal.

Over four days they received a crash course in bricklaying and masonry, as they built extra rooms at the school, constructed stone steps, and repaired damage from Nepal's 2015 earthquake.

School principal Lalu Maya Rana said four years on the memories of the earthquake still haunted her village.

"Our school with old classrooms suffered a lot of damage," Ms Rana said.

"Unfortunately, we didn't have enough rooms so we had to continue teaching in the classrooms.

"During the rain, the roof would leak. We were always afraid that rain would wash away the rooms, or if the next earthquake happened, it might crush the children."

She said when REACH for Nepal arrived each year with its working party of Australian schoolkids, the village was overjoyed.

"To see all students and staff work — and work really hard — has been sensational," she said.

"The hard work put in by the students over the four days has been very inspirational to the students here."

Australian students receive heroes' welcome in Nepal as they help rebuild classrooms damaged in earthquake

Satisfaction from helping the community

The Canberra students lived under tents during their stay, eating meals like the national dish, dal bhat (rice and curried vegetables), and marvelling at the snow-capped mountains of the Himalayas in the distance.

During work breaks, they bonded with their Nepalese school hosts, joining them in games of cricket and volleyball.

And, while they had come to donate their time and muscle, the Australian kids said they had gained something quite unexpected in return.

"It's been really fun, being able to help out the community. But it's not just having fun on this trip, it's also about the greater satisfaction we're getting from helping out this community," 14-year-old Calvin Pickering said.

"In Australia, we take all this stuff for granted. We have classrooms, we have steps, we have roads, infrastructure, it's all built for us.

"But here, they don't have any of that, so they really appreciate what we're doing, and I think that's what really gets us going."

Australian students receive heroes' welcome in Nepal as they help rebuild classrooms damaged in earthquake

Close relationships and deep insights

Nepal is a popular tourist destination for young Australians, who flock to the Himalayas on adventurous trekking holidays.

Most of them spend their time and money in the popular trekking regions around Mt Everest and the Annapurna Ranges.

But increasingly, not-for-profit organisations like REACH for Nepal are taking tourists well off the regular trekking routes, and spreading wealth through remote regions — giving back to impoverished villages that they visit.

And it is desperately needed.

Nepal's average per capita income only recently passed the meagre benchmark of US $1,000 (AUD $1,433), and most of the country's wealth is concentrated around the Kathmandu Valley.

So many isolated villages, like Banethok, struggle with the provision of basic services like sanitation, healthcare and education, and are often overlooked by government aid programs.

Canberra Grammar student Neve Hawkins, 17, said while she had come to Nepal to help out, she underestimated the benefits of the cultural exchange.

"Originally I think we all anticipated the project to be solely focussed on just the construction," she said.

"Although after our first day here we formed close relationships with the local villagers, and that allowed us to gain deeper insight into their personal lives and how they differed from ours in Australia.

"Most of the girls will only go to grade eight, and even in the last year, they had one girl unable to finish their final exams because she was already pregnant."

Students walk up to 90 minutes each way to school

REACH for Nepal co-founder Lachhu Thapa said his charity came to Banethok because he knew better education would provide a much-needed path out of poverty.

"Some of the students walk an hour and a half from home to get to school," Mr Thapa said.

Looking at the mountainous terrain you realise just what an achievement that is. There simply is no flat land in the Himalayas.

"The kids are poor, so they won't bring lunch to school. We estimate you can provide lunch for one student for around $4.00 a month, but they can't afford that," he said.

Mr Thapa, a successful Nepalese-Australian businessman, returned to his homeland in 2018 to be closer to his charity projects.

"You always have a soft-spot for where you're born," he said.

"And having businesses and being successful at them in Australia has given me strength so now I can volunteer my time for REACH for Nepal."


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