nepal: so far, so close
The Rukmini Foundation provides poor uneducated Nepali girls with high school diplomas that can break the cycle of child marriage, too-early childbearing, and even sex trafficking. Lalxmi and Basu Arua, who emigrated from Kathmandu many years ago, are board members and advisors of the foundation, which underwrites school uniforms, textbooks and tutoring and offers some wellness checkups.
Laxmi Acharya and Basu Aryal met in far off Kathmandu, historic capital of Nepal where kings were once crowned and ruled. They were there to prepare for their educational futures: getting into college, taking preparatory exams. Their fathers had been college roommates and Laxmi and Basu met while living in a building where their dads had previously rented rooms. After college, the couple married and had four sons, and then Laxmi set off on an incredible journey to Pittsburgh, leaving her family temporarily behind to take advantage of a unique scholarship opportunity.
Laxmi’s modest smile belies the fact that she often has been a trailblazer. The oldest of five siblings, she was the first girl in her village to complete high school and to graduate from college, a truly unlikely event in Nepal’s’ tradition-bound society.
Fortunately, Laxmi’s gifts were recognized early. Her father, a former teacher, home schooled her. Laxmi’s grandfather, a priest and teacher of Sanskrit, permitted her to sit beside him while he lectured to acolytes. “Ask Laxmi,” her grandfather directed when someone faltered. “She always knows the answer.” Together they prepared Laxmi to enter eighth grade when she was only 10 years old.
Laxmi subsequently graduated from Padma Kanya College, the oldest of all women’s colleges in Nepal. While paralleling the offerings of its “brother” college, Laxmi recalls that its curriculum emphasized applied knowledge geared to a woman’s traditionally expected roles.
Nepal is a beautiful but impoverished country. It is the birthplace of Lord Buddha and home to Mt. Everest. And because of its mountainous terrain, agriculture is difficult.
After marriage, therefore, Laxmi commuted between the family village and Kathmandu. Continuing to break barriers, she was at one time the only female manager employed in the central office of the Nepal Electricity Company. She then broke new ground by applying for a US Agency for International Development graduate scholarship that her male counterparts were not interested in pursuing.
Laxmi left her known world—selecting Pittsburgh, really, because she knew someone here. She carried the immigrant’s dream of the United States as “heaven”: a land of gold and opportunity. She recalls traveling downtown and being overwhelmed by its abundance and commerce. She entered a new world where she had to figure out how to negotiate such bewildering challenges as supermarkets, modern kitchen appliances, and the complexities of an American university education. She would graduate with a Master’s in Public Policy from the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA).
Laxmi’s ability to negotiate her career and life was exceptional. Because there were so few Nepalese in Pittsburgh, contacts with compatriots were limited. She also missed her children tremendously and lacked the everyday advantages of close family support. Ultimately, Laxmi was able to arrange for her husband and sons, 13-year-old Anup and 10-year-old Bibhuti, to join her. Family reunification was completed when Arun, 18, and Nabin, 16, arrived in 1990.
Laxmi’s unconventional educational background limited her work options; however, she took whatever jobs were offered. Basu, who achieved a Master’s in Development Economics from GSPIA still works as a Test Proctor at the University of Pittsburgh Testing Center.
Today the Aryal family can be truly described as high achieving and global. “All we wanted,” says Basu, “was for our sons to achieve their college degrees, and they have achieved so much more.” Arun is a Doctoral Candidate at Georgia State University. Nabin received a PhD from Hitotsubashi University and works with non-governmental organizations in Kenya. Anup and Bibhuti are Robert Morris graduates and involved in entrepreneurial computer ventures.
At their sons’ instigation, the Aryals’ purchased their first home in 2003. Until then, Laxmi had only read about the “suburbs.” Seeing Mt. Lebanon for the first time, she was overwhelmed by its civic resources, lovely residences and tree-lined streets in all their autumn glory. Her home now provides an anchor for her grown-up family.
After her retirement, Laxmi took on other Nepal-related roles: volunteering to help Pittsburgh’s newest immigrants, the Bhutanese: ethnic Nepali forced to flee Bhutan to avoid persecution. She also acts as an advisor to the Rukmini Foundation, her family-initiated nonprofit.
Amazingly, some 3,000 Bhutanese have resettled in our area. Many live in the South Hills, with about 500 in Carrick alone. Laxmi volunteers at the Mt. Lebanon Library as an English as a Second Language (ESL) tutor. Motivated by her own expatriate experience and initial difficulties in grasping both language and culture, she wants to give back by easing others’ transitions.
Laxmi also helps at the Rukmini Foundation, named in honor of Basu’s family matriarch. “Given” in marriage at age 10, widowed at 19, the young mother only survived by working a family field. Rukmini’s fierce determination that her son be educated is a regional legend. Given her own scholastic journey, it is perhaps true that Laxmi is Rukmini’s educational descendent.
The Rukmini Foundation’s approach is easily understood: As in many underdeveloped countries, poor, uneducated Nepali girls often have few options: child marriage, too-early childbearing and, at the worst, sex trafficking. A high school degree can break this unfortunate cycle. The Foundation tries to make a difference by underwriting school uniforms, texts, health care and tutoring. The outcomes have been consistent and inspiring.
The Aryals assist as Rukmini Foundation advisors and board members. Laxmi’s personal contributions include public outreach and occasionally cooking delicious food for adventurous audiences.
And the need is especially urgent. The devastating earthquake that struck in April 2015 prompted the Foundation to extended actions, such as underwriting emergency relief for its scholars’ families and school reconstruction.
It’s a long way from Nepal to Pittsburgh. Laxmi’s story illustrates how one woman and her family have successfully traversed immense geographic and cultural differences, integrated into our community, and provided a compelling call to public action.
How you can help Laxmi and others help Nepali girls escape the cycle of poverty: Contact www.rukminifoundation.org to contribute or to inquire about hosting an outreach event.
Norma Raiff is an adjunct faculty member at Chatham University’s School of Business and Entrepreneurship. She lives on Markham Drive.