Sonam Sherpa, Co-Founder of The Small World

In her own words, Sonam describes the hardships she faced early in life and how an education
changed her life so dramatically. Today, she is passionate about helping other at risk girls receive an education and avoid forced labor, abuse, and the very real threat of international trafficking.

 

I was born in the Everest region, which was the classic road to Mt. Everest, in the district of Solukhumbu. My parents had never been to school and my dad worked as a seasonal porter for trekkers. In a good season, he made $50 a month, which was a lot of money for us to buy food and supplies. My mother worked for others on their farms so she could make some money. If people couldn’t pay her, they would give her food like grains or potatoes – whatever was in season.

 

In my family, I am the eldest with two younger sisters. In our village, we were poor compared to other people because we didn’t have enough land of our own and we never got a chance to go to school. Our home was made with wood, like a small hut, with a dirt floor. The roof was made of wood planks and required replacement every few years, which was difficult for us, so it leaked when it rained. In the winter, it was very cold and we were too poor to afford shoes, so sometimes if we could find paper to wrap our feet in, we were happier. Anywhere we could find some heat always made us happy.

 

It was lucky that we were on the trail to Everest because many foreigners would go by and they would interact with us. My dad would tell us stories about these people and his experiences with them on the treks.

 

One day, some trekkers were passing by with a guide from our village and we were playing on the road. They were interested in us and took pictures as well as asked us if we were in school. My dad told them we were not and they were curious as to why not, and he said he didn’t have enough money for that and, besides, we were all girls, and he explained, “None of the girls go to school here, so it’s not important to us.”

 

The conversations continued and, at some point, one lady among them said that if she contributed money for the eldest girl’s education, would he then send her to school? He said “yes.” She saw many children in this kind of situation and when she went back to Texas, she shared this information with her friends; as a result, one woman decided to sponsor me.

 

Every year, she would send money for my school to the guide who introduced us and he would bring it to my dad.

 

That’s how I got into school and I loved going to school. For school, they charge for some extra necessary expenses, so even if it’s free to grade 5, you still have to have some money.

 

My school was 1-1/2 hours downhill from my home. I had breakfast in the morning but my family couldn’t give me food for lunch, so I had to wait until 8:00 at night for the dinner. This is common, since village people have only two meals a day. If you have more, you are very lucky. But I enjoyed school very much, learning to write, having friends, knowing the teachers, and it was a very beautiful time.

 

Life was beautiful until my dad decided he wanted to go away for a job in Dubai. We had to take loans from some people in the village so he could travel to Kathmandu. He managed to get there and applied for a job in Dubai. Unfortunately, he got to know some unsavory people and his money was stolen and he also found there was no job and no chance to go to Dubai. He couldn’t come back to our village, either, because of the money he had to repay, so he spent many years in Kathmandu.

 

My mom was all by herself and people came every day to ask for money that we owed, and it was very stressful with three children and no work. She started drinking alcohol, and I really don’t know how she managed to afford this, but many times people run up a tab and promise future payment.

 

When I was about 11, my mom got sick and would shake all the time and not have the strength to get up. This went on for two years. People who came by would get the news and managed to have it passed on to my dad, but he never came back until a few weeks before my mother died when I was 13.

 

Then we lived with my dad for a few months, and nine months after my mother’s death, my father suffered from sweating and was becoming very weak, and it was then that he finally passed away within a month.

 

I didn’t have any help at all and I had two younger sisters to look after. At that time, my only support was my sponsor in Texas. At this time, I was in 4th grade, and with the help of my teacher, I wrote to her to tell her what had happened. I sent the letter and it took six or seven months to get a reply because of very slow service. She said you have to go to school no matter what and I’m there to support you.

 

It was very hard to live in a house where both of your parents have died. We were all very young and it was very scary for us. At this time, as well as others when I was very vulnerable and desperate, I was very fortunate to have a sponsor for my education and wasn’t forced into an early marriage or lured by traffickers into the “good life” they promise; it still scares me when I think about what could have been!

 

Instead, I went to someone in the village who was rich and asked him for a place to stay for all of us. He said okay, all we have to do is work for him. Since my sponsor was sending money, I told him I had to go to school and report back to her. She used to send me $200 a year, and that covered all three of us for our school fees. For food, we all worked for him before and after school and weekends. We looked after his cattle, washed the clothes and dishes, cooked, and did whatever needed to be done. Thankfully, he had running water.

 

Slowly, it began to happen in the village that people did not want to talk to us or see us. This was because of tradition, that is, we were judged to have bad karma because we weren’t good people and my parents died because of what I did in my previous life, so it was all my fault. Everywhere I went, people would see me and say, “Oh my god, I’m going to have a bad day now,” just because they came into contact with me.

 

I always thought a lot about those things and wondered if we were really that bad and did we really kill my parents and will people always say this about me all my life? We couldn’t go to weddings or celebrations because we were ostracized and people would turn away from us. All these questions stuck in my mind all the time, every day, and I shared this with my sponsor and asked her what she thought.

 

My sponsor replied that we should leave and go somewhere else where no one knew us.

When I was in 7th grade, we all left for Kathmandu. The guide that introduced us to my sponsor was still helping us and took us there. I stayed near Boudhanath with my sisters and rented a room for 500 rupees a month (less than $5 USD today) and we bought vegetables and cooked for ourselves. We stayed there a long time. My sisters and I registered at a school there and we started going to school but we had to work a lot more when we weren’t in school. My sisters were responsible for doing all the cooking and cleaning and everything, and I went outside to work. I worked outside of the supermarket where I roasted corn to make popcorn and I made some money from this. Slowly, I got to know more people, and since I was in school, I could speak a little English. Many people told me if I had very good English I could get a much better job.

 

I bought a Nepali/English translation dictionary and studied it over and over again. I passed my grade 10 and then wanted to go to college and study more, but the college fees were very expensive, about 50 times more expensive than the school.

 

At that time, I researched different colleges since there were several gap months before classes started again. That’s when I met Karma, who is now my husband. At that time, he was in Business School and wanted to be a Sherpa student leader, which is where a group of students get together to help a child from the mountain regions to get an education.

 

A group of students told me to vote for him as leader, since I had the opportunity to do so, because he had many contacts and would likely be able to help me get a college education. I did vote for him, and he did become the leader. I told these students that I was also looking for work and to let me know if they knew of anything.

 

I later received a call from Karma to see if I was interested in working for a Danish organization that was looking for a translator. By this time, my English was pretty good and I had a gap month so I was free to do this. I was very happy, because I made 500 rupees a day, which was more than I could have ever expected to earn. I shared my story with the person leading the whole Danish project and he told me to put in an application for a sponsor for my college education. I applied for the scholarship and added my story on the application. As a result, all three of us got scholarships – my sisters for grade school, and me for college.

 

I already knew I wanted to be a nurse.

After I returned from the Danish group, I wanted to say thank you to Karma, who I hadn’t met yet. I called him and expressed my deepest thanks for all these opportunities. Later, when I was applying to the college and passed the entrance exam, I applied for admission. The college needed some sort of guarantee, however, that I could afford the tuition. The Danish organization said they’d pay for everything, but they couldn’t make a guarantee because they hadn’t raised the money yet.

 

I called Karma again to ask him what to do and he said he would provide a letter from the Sherpa student organization as a guarantee for my college expenses.

 

When I picked up this letter from him, I met him in person for the first time and we talked briefly. He called me a couple of times to see how I was doing. I finally finished nursing college after three years of study.

 

Meanwhile, Karma finished his business degree and started The Small World organization. When we met by chance around that time, he told me what he was doing and would I be interested in joining this effort. I didn’t really understand what he was actually doing, because at the time I was more interested in working in a hospital and making some money and advancing my career.

 

After that meeting, I got a job at the Army Hospital in Kathmandu for military families as a registered maternal and childcare nurse.

 

Still, the memories of how I was treated at my village remained and I wanted to go back and help people and also show them I was not bad, for it didn’t seem rational that people should be blamed for being bad just because they were orphans.

 

Soon, I left my job and went back to work at the district hospital in Solukhumbu, where I got a chance to go to smaller health clinics around the district. I trained the women about pregnancy, the complications, what to expect, what to do, and medical awareness about pregnancy and birth. All births were at home, so any advice was very valuable for them. Most women didn’t know they were pregnant until their midriff expanded and had no real clinical information or understanding about their condition or any difficulties that could arise.

 

I worked for two years at these clinics in Solukhumbu. By chance, Karma was also working in the district and was already building a primary school in his village. So we met again, and this time we talked a great deal about many things. We both agreed that helping others in our villages was very important in our effort to give back to our communities. When I told him how I felt about how I had been treated when I was there as an orphan, he said these cultural attitudes don’t mean they are bad, it’s just all they know. We both agreed this could be changed.

 

We found we both had a similar mission, to go back, educate people, and invest our education back to our communities.

 

I wanted to expand my work, I told him, to larger areas, and I wanted to help people more. He said that was exactly what he wanted. He explained to me that to do this, you have to have an organization to spread this information in order to raise funds because by raising funds you are able to complete your mission. He told me I had a very good vision. He had already registered his organization and made sure everything was in proper order, and he asked me to join him. I agreed because I didn’t need to register another one since we had the same vision.

 

That’s how I became co-founder of The Small World in 2006. Karma became my husband in 2008 and we now have three children. We have been working since then for the education of women and girls. I don’t feel like I’m working, though, because this is my passion. It’s a beautiful life seeing change happen in communities, meeting many people, and contributing to a better life for women.

 

Now we are training women to be weavers at the Hope Home facility; they are very creative and artistic and their weavings are quite beautiful. From the weaving products, they are making money for themselves and their children and also are able to train others to weave, which is a valuable skill. We are making plans to have them sell their work through the internet. From the proceeds, 95% always goes to them and 5% goes to train other women. The Small World provides the training and provides the raw materials for their work.

 

Today, The Small World continues its mission to empower women and educate girls throughout Nepal. I am also working for global citizenship through the Students’ Shoulder-to-Shoulder organization and welcome American high school students to volunteer with the Small World in Nepal every summer. With this organization’s support, I travel to the United States once a year to participate in a program they sponsor called Global Solution Forum. In this program, The Small World has the opportunity to share the positive impact the students have made during their summer trips to Nepal, the progress of our other projects, such as construction of schools and homes in remote areas, and our efforts to assure access to education for women and girls and how that is affecting gender equality in Nepal.

 

It has been incredibly satisfying to do this work and I feel very fortunate to be able to help others so much through The Small World. It would not have been possible without an education and the generous woman who sponsored me, and for that I am eternally grateful. She is much older now and cannot come to Nepal, but she has told me how pleased she is that what she did for me is now being given to other girls many times over through our work at The Small World.

 

Most importantly, I feel that my community has accepted me, and now, when I am in Solukhumbu, they see me as a role model and ask how their daughters can be like me! They watch me when I spend time with people they have rejected in the village, and are surprised that bad things aren’t happening to me. It was at first hard for them to understand, but they are slowly beginning to change their minds about such attitudes, just as we’d hoped!

 

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