For most of her life, Apekshya Prasai ‘16 harbored the same attitude toward urban street boys shared by many other Kathmandu residents. When she saw the grubby urchins in the streets, she would turn the other way and run, worried they might rob her.
“They’re seen as a problem in society,” Prasai said.
But after she traveled to Maine last fall to start her Bowdoin education, and became active with the McKeen Center’s community-service projects to help the homeless, Prasai began to think differently about the boys in her home country. Instead of viewing them as a scourge on the city, she now sees them as the product of a damaged society that is still recovering from a civil war.
“Kids, mostly in the rural areas, were abandoned, recruited into the guerrilla war or orphaned. A lot of them ended up in the streets. And there they suffer from violence and abuse,” she said. “Socially they’re not accepted. Legally, they don’t have a lot of support. They’re a very vulnerable group, and there’s no social program I know of that focuses on healing these boys who’ve gone through so much trauma.”
“Nepalese society needs to be made aware of the realities of street life for these boys so that there is more help available to them and greater social pressure on the government to change their situation.”
In the absence of such a network, Prasai decided she would fill the void. To support her vision, she has won a $10,000 grant from the Davis Projects for Peace foundation, which she learned about through Bowdoin Career Planning. The foundation supports grassroots projects launched by young people around the world to promote peace by addressing the root causes of conflict.
After the semester ends, Prasai will return to Kathmandu, where her family lives, and use her grant to set up a rehabilitation program for teenage boys. She wants to reach out to boys rather than girls because there are more social support systems in place for poor Nepali girls, she said.
Prasai is planning to work with about 30 teenagers, ages 13 to 19, who live in a children’s shelter. To encourage attendance in her workshops, she will use some of her grant to pay for daily meals. “This will be an attraction for them to participate,” she said.
Earlier this year, Prasai reached out to the Art of Living Foundation, an international nonprofit with an office in Kathmandu, to ask whether its staff would partner with her. They agreed to work with her on a program modeled after one of theirs in Chad that has helped former child soldiers heal from trauma. This rehabilitation will include yoga, meditation and other stress reduction techniques, including art therapy. To learn more about art therapy, Prasai said she is observing the practice of a Brunswick art therapist, Stephanie Cimmet.
Prasai said she also will apply a technique she learned about from her volunteer service at Preble Street, a homeless shelter and advocacy in Portland, Maine. Over winter break, Prasai did an Alternative Winter Break program at Preble Street, and said she was impressed by how homeless people are trained to be their own lobbyists and advocates.
With this in mind, Prasai said she will teach the boys how to use social media. Her plan is to rent a computer lab for them that will have to be outfitted with its own generator. She also must cover Internet costs and possibly purchase laptops. “[The boys] don’t have resources to tell people about their problems,” she said. She’s hoping that arming them with tools such as Twitter and blogs, the boys will find an audience and begin to work up a coalition that can push social and legal reforms. “Art therapy will help them come to terms about what they went through,” she said, “and the social media will raise awareness and give them a chance to seek justice.”
At the end of the summer, Prasai also wants to direct the boys in a public dance or play to call attention to their plight. At that event, she will send a petition around to audience members to sign that will ask the government to change certain policies, such as not recognizing sexual abuse against boys as a crime.
“Nepalese society needs to be made aware of the realities of street life for these boys so that there is more help available to them and greater social pressure on the government to change their situation,” she said.