A School for Kathmandu

Xeno Acharya ’09 left Nepal to get away from the civil war. His conscience made him go back to do something about it.

By Juliette Guilbert ’89
Photos by Erica Boulay ’11

Growing up in Kathmandu, Xeno Acharya tried not to think about the war.

His parents urged him to focus on his schoolwork—not on the armed conflict between the government and Maoist rebels, which was killing and dispossessing tens of thousands of Nepalese. “My dad kept us shielded from all that,” he says.

Easier said than done. On one occasion, the police raided his family’s house, simply because his parents belonged to the teachers’ union (which was affiliated with the Communist Party). “We had to hide the underground magazines under the mattress,” he says.

Nonetheless, for the most part Xeno was able to screen out the ugly headlines and concentrate on his studies. He applied to Reed “almost by accident” after seeing a college brochure at a friend’s house (“The physics program was good, and I liked the hippie vibe,” he says).

Xeno Acharya and village elders stand outside newly built Mechi Mahakali School.

Xeno Acharya and village elders stand outside newly built Mechi Mahakali School.

By his junior year, he had overcome homesickness and the language barrier, switched his allegiance from physics to bio, and started overachieving in precisely the manner his father must have had in mind. That summer, he took organic chemistry, worked full-time in a lab, and volunteered at Oregon Health & Science University—a 70-hour-a-week load.

Still, it was getting harder to ignore the news from home. By 2006, the trouble was coming closer to his family, with mass protests and violence in the Kathmandu Valley and refugees pouring into the city. Every new report sparked a kind of survivor’s guilt about being comfortably ensconced in the ivory tower, while his friends and family faced real peril. “I felt like I’d somehow betrayed everybody that was there—I’d basically just escaped,” he says.

By the end of that hectic summer, Xeno found that he couldn’t stay away any longer; he took a leave from Reed to make his first trip home in three years. His parents weren’t thrilled with his decision, and not just because he was interrupting his studies. Kathmandu had become a dangerous place.

“Going back home after three years was almost a culture shock,” he says. “So much had changed. There was a lot more pollution in the city, it was very overcrowded, and the crime rate had really gone up.” Restless in this restrictive environment, Xeno found himself walking along the Bagmati River in the evenings, wandering through the refugee camps that had sprung up on its banks. What he saw distressed him.

“There’s no infrastructure,” he says. “The people moved in over the months, and their houses are made up of tarps that they collect from the garbage cans and other places in the street, from sticks and twigs they put together with ropes. They pile this together and they make some kind of structure that will protect them from the rain. That’s all they have. No sewage system, no healthcare, no education.”

Wanting to help, he volunteered at a local NGO that ran a school for the refugee children. It didn’t take long to figure out that the school was a sham, aimed at relieving foreign donors of their money: “When the donors came and visited, they would flood the school with numerous kids collected randomly from the village,” he says. He quit, disenchanted. But his walks by the river—and his talks with the refugees—continued.

Peeling back layers of mistrust, he sat in smoky, windowless shacks and listened to the stories of families who had lost everything and now placed all their hope for the future in their kids. Though these people needed absolutely everything—food, water, shelter, medicine, clothing—what they wanted was a school.

Fat chance. The refugees had no real claim to this squalid patch of riverbank—in fact, the entire shantytown, with its 500 households, was illegal. The police blew through every few months, burning down their flimsy shacks. Why would the city bosses grant a building permit to a tent city they were bent on eradicating? Then there was the nearby maternity hospital, which suspected the refugees of pilfering supplies—it was sure to protest any attempt to make the camp more permanent. Not to mention the United Nations, which was planning to build a park on the site. All the while, of course, Xeno’s parents were pressing him to give up his crazy scheme and go back to college.

What he needed was an ally with some political juice. The guy who fit that description was Indra, a village leader with Maoist connections. The only problem was that Indra wanted nothing to do with a wide-eyed college kid. He’d seen outsiders raise hopes before, making promises of money or help to get what they wanted—data for their MA thesis, atmospheric photos of ragged children—and then disappearing.

So Xeno went to visit Indra every day for weeks. He drew up plans for a school building to show that he was serious. And, eventually, Indra gave in. “He got in touch with the Young Communist League,” Xeno says—a Maoist paramilitary group that doles out rough justice in the refugee encampments. “Once he told the YCL we needed the permits, we got them.”

By the time Xeno returned to Reed for his senior year in August 2007, the project was more or less shovel-ready. All he needed was the shovels—and the bricks, and the mortar—which would cost several thousand dollars he didn’t have.

Enter Julie Kern-Smith, Reed’s assistant director of career services. She told him about the McGill-Lawrence Internship, which helps students pursue summer projects that place them in contact with diverse populations. Xeno applied and won $3,700 to provide education for refugee children. The catch: the money was not technically supposed to be used for construction. “So I just violated the rules,” he says cheerfully.

After he graduated in May 2008, Xeno went back to Kathmandu, grant money in hand (plus another couple thousand he’d raised on his own), to build a school. “I was skeptical about whether all this could be done,” he says. “I worked laying the bricks myself, with the people.”

By the end of the summer, the school was finished. And—for the simple reason that it couldn’t be burned down—it became the anchor of the community, the first step toward turning an ephemeral, vulnerable camp into a permanent settlement.

The school now provides education to more than 50 students from kindergarten through fifth grade, thanks to the help of several Reedies: Erica Boulay ’11 and Kritish Rajbahandari ’12 were awarded McGillLawrence grants to teach there last summer (see sidebar). Jennifer Rupert ’90 and Jenny Gadda (who works in Reed’s admission office) and her husband, Dean, help run Namaste Kathmandu, the Portland-based nonprofit that handles administration and fundraising for the project.

Xeno himself is now pursuing a master’s degree in public health at the University of Washington in Seattle. Meanwhile, the school has become a sort of catalyst for change. Plans are afoot for a health clinic, playground, and garden. Once an anonymous slum, the community has gained a postal address and even a name—Paurakhi Gaun, or Diligent Village.

“These people had no homes to go back to,” Xeno says. “They said, ‘We need a name, and we need to make this place look beautiful, like our homes were.’

view slideshow

Career goals
acrostic poems Alisa

TOP LEFT: What do you want to be? Popular career goals at Mechi Mahakali include bus driver, pilot, scuba diver, and doctor.  TOP RIGHT: Lunch is served.  BOTTOM LEFT: Second-grade students write acrostic poems using the letters of their names.  BOTTOM RIGHT: Alisa. 10, brings a bouquet of flowers she gathered for her teachers.

More in this edition of Reed magazine

Puja's Lesson: Amid dogs and dust, a Reed senior teaches English to children in the slums of Kathmandu.

Further Reading

For more about Namaste Kathmandu, see namastekatmandu.blogspot.com.

—Author info: Writer Juliette Guilbert ’89 lives near Seattle with her husband and two daughters