“To whom can I donate my tent? It’s not completely ruined, but no longer sufficiently reliable for the extreme conditions in which I often camp. I can certainly please some homeless person or perhaps a sherpa or … maybe you know someone?”
That was the question I asked in Pokhara, a city at the foot of the beautiful Annapurna Mountains in Nepal. I received an answer from Garrett, my warmshowershost on the spot.
I quickly became acquainted with Himalayan Life. An NGO committed to street children, the ‘wild animals’ of society. Children from broken families, abused children, abandoned children. Children who run away from traumas that they’d experienced at home. Children who sleep under bridges and try to soften their pain by sniffing glue. Children who are in desperate need of love, food, shelter, recognition, education and acceptance by society.
Children to whom immediately had my heart. Children whom I could not leave, and so, i came back to this charity day after day. Children whom I wanted to help, whom I wanted to give love, and teach and give creative workshops to.
I met Daniel Bürgi, the CEO of Himalayan Life. A positive enthusiast whose big heart is in the right place. A warm and driven man on a mission. An incredibly inspirational person with an inexhaustible passion and drive for change. A man who could turn a banana peel into an entire plastic recycling factory. Somebody who deserves to be placed in the spotlight and who I would really like to introduce to you.
Daniel, why is it important to give the street children a second chance?
These children live under the bridge (in Pokhara) and are regarded as dirt by society. They call them ‘kaathe’, a word full of disgust, full of hatred. It actually means ‘dog shit’. That’s what society thinks of them. We are trying to convince them “no-no-no, you are not dog shit, you are someone!”.
My goal for these boys is to have a life in a way that is acceptable to society. That they can contribute. That’s what life is, right?
I want to give them a leg-up and help to get them out of this incredible cage, because they can’t do it alone. Nobody can do this alone. I’d also like to provide opportunities for young people here to really work in a meaningful way and to find fulfilment in life.
Was there a certain child or story that concerned you and triggered you to take action?
In 1990, two friends and I came to Nepal with our backpacks. We travelled from Nepal by bus into India, into the metropolis Varanasi. It just happened to be the highest of the Hindu festivals, Dev Deepawali. An enormous amount of pilgrims were all around. The train station was completely packed with people. People were sleeping on the floor. Some travellers just walked over them… incredible! This is India, right?
We needed to catch a train. I stood there with my backpack and I had a little plastic bag in my hand. Because we had just eaten some bananas, I kept the peels in the bag.
All of a sudden, twenty street kids showed up. They were begging and pulling at our clothes. It was the first time in my life I had travelled out of Europe. I was completely paralysed. What was this? I had two thousand dollars in my pocket. But what could I do? I could not start to hand out money. But on the other hand, I realised I had so much and they had nothing.
They pulled on the little plastic bag and ran away with it – just rotten and old banana peels. I walked away and looked back. What I saw will never be erased from my mind. I saw these boys fighting over the banana peels and stuffing it in their mouths. I still can’t get rid of that picture. It is ingrained in my brain.
Why did you decide to leave everything behind?
The image of the banana peel followed me. When I ate nice food, it smelt like banana peel.
One day I went skiing, but everywhere I saw banana peels. Everything was banana peels, it was haunting me. And then I realised, this is doing something to me, I need to do something about it. It was a kind of a calling I guess.
So slowly, it took me some years actually, to get something going.
Both, my wife and I, we decided to do something about it. So we came to Nepal. I first did some engineering work here. My wife is a teacher and she started a school in a slum area. I helped a lot in the school. And little by little we learned a lot about what we can actually do and what we can’t do with street children.
FROM OFFERING FOOD TO RECYCLING PLASTIC
How did the idea of helping street children evolve in such a big project?
We felt that food was the essential thing these street children needed. So the first thing that we did was start the street kitchen.
We realised: ‘Now they have food, what’s next? There’s no change: they are hungry today, they come and eat, they go back to the street, they sniff glue and tomorrow they are hungry again and come over to the kitchen and get food. Every kid that is being fed is a kid that is not hungry. That’s great!’ I was happy, but still not content because I dreamt of bigger change.
The kids sleep under ‘the’ bridge (in Pokhara) but deserve a proper bed and roof. So we started the shelter. In the shelter we realised that just a place to eat and sleep is not enough, they also need a bit of education.
That’s why we started with little non-formal education programs. They need to learn life outside the gang because the gang is brutal. Whoever is on top of the gang, he pushes down mercilessly on those below him.
We thought sport would be a good idea, that’s why we started hockey. Hockey you play as a team. And a team is so different from a gang. In a team, you play and win together, or sometimes you lose together. In a gang, nothing is together. It’s just ‘push-push-push’. It’s a big difference. So the kids learn from the hockey game.
One thing after the other got added. We also bring community kids and street kids up to the mountains on mountainbikes. They cycle through beautiful, demanding mountains. They realise ‘I can do something, I am something’. If you always hear that you are the dirt of the street, being someone and being able to do something is a big achievement. But it takes time.
We also figured that the smaller boys (6-8) would benefit best if we could get them back into the regular school stream. So we started a home.
When we meet them under the bridge, we first invite them to come to the kitchen. From the kitchen they come to the shelter and after a very short period of time, if they want to, we give them a place in the home and they go to the regular school. It’s hard because of their past and their whole trauma. But we have achieved great success with it.
We have presently 36 kids in the home who have been street children. They are at school and they are doing well. It’s not easy because their trauma really follows them. We have to be occupied with them to overcome this. They’ve been abandoned by their parents, many of them have been abused and often they have a pattern of addiction (sniffing glue) they tend to fall back into during challenge. But overall the home program is running really well.
Then we realised, “this is great but what about the bigger kids, the teenagers?”. We tried to find them places to learn skills so that they could work because they can not go back to school. We couldn’t find anything that existed that was suitable. So I said ‘Ok, I guess we need to start something’.
That’s why I started the plastic recycling factory, a social enterprise. I didn’t think this would grow into something as big as it has (Himalayan Life Plastics recycles monthly 50-60 tonnes of plastic bottles. It is the first and only recycle factory in Nepal, and counts 60 staff members). That was not the plan!
We also have vocational training workshops for the boys. So far, around 30 boys have gone through the trainings. Not everyone works in our factory, some are employed elsewhere and some are back on the streets. That’s heartbreaking, but still I can see the success. I have to focus on the success. Because if I look at the failure then I go crazy.
There are also a number of other projects you started out of Pokhara. Why?
The children usually come from the villages. We got the idea to build a home for children up in the mountains, north of Pokhara, where we can catch them before they migrate to the city and become street children.
The children are already abandoned, that’s hard enough. We want to spare them the experience of the abandonment becoming compounded with gang issues, with drug issues, with police brutality, with abuse… the things they experience in the city.
It works well. But it’s just one home with 24 kids. You’d have almost to have one home in every village.
Then there was this big disaster, the earthquake in 2015, we felt we should do something. So we travelled to Yangri, a village in the epicentre of the earthquake and the hometown of one of the staff members, Sonam. It was terrible, brutal! The village was badly destroyed. We helped, we rebuild, and we offered food. For two years we did everything we could.
There was no decent regional school and so that brought us back to our core business, caring for children of marginalised and backwards communities. So that’s why we built the school, which will be opened the 19th of April. We start with kindergarten, lower and upper kindergarten and grades one, two, three – we start with five classes. We will add every year more, that’s the plan.
How does your NGO manage to support itself?
We have committed people in the West, in Canada and in Switzerland, who donate to us.
I spend every year a few months in Canada, I spend less time in Switzerland and I’m talking in a lot of places about the project. Which is not my favourite thing to do, honestly. I’m better at working than at talking. I’m better in building than at writing. But it’s something that we have to do, it’s necessary. There are lots of people who chip in, fifty box, a hundred box, and then there’s a few who can write bigger cheques and they come and see what we do. I think donating gives them purpose and meaning too, and that’s good.
Can you tell me a success story of how your charity has helped a street child?
There are dozens of success stories. For example, we had two street boys who really became free of their addiction. One of them is a hockey coach now and the other one is a cycling professional. They’re currently both working for the NGO. These are two role models for the other kids.
But I can also see a real change in at least half of the boys we work with. We have learned the changes happen in very, very small steps. They can’t take big steps because their trust in all goodness is seriously undermined. Their life has been really shitty. Why would they trust anything or anybody? The one thing they have learned is never trust an adult. We are trying to convince them ‘no no no, you are not dog shit, you are someone’.
You started your career as an engineer and evolved into a social worker, a fundraiser, an organiser, entrepreneur and a CEO. Did your engineering skills contribute to doing what you are right now?
The whole street kids problem, and many of the problems we have here are so big. It seems unsolvable.
A very important thing I’ve learned in engineering school is ‘you solve big problems by breaking them down into manageable portions, and then solve it piece by piece’.
I love the last line of the movie ‘The Martian’, where the guy actually makes it back to earth when the big problem is solved. He then teaches a bunch of kids at the college and his last sentence is: “You have to solve one problem, and then solve the next problem, and then solve the next problem, and if you solve enough problems, you get to go home”. I like that, I think that’s what we are doing.
Daniels movie tip
The movie ‘Lion’ about the lost children in India. He adds: 80,000 children are lost every year. It’s a movie that portrays hope in that whole scenario.
‘I don’t have the capacity to help 80,000 children. But I thought about taking care of 250 children here in Pokhara, that’s enough.’
Want to know more about Himalayan Life or into helping the street children by donating? Please feel free to head over to their website.
Many thanks to my friend Aimée Watson who was willing to use her red pencil and go through this text.