Schoolchildren in the Bardiya district of western Nepal. Many of their parents are working overseas. Photo: Laura Sheahen/Caritas

By Laura Sheahen

“Where’s your mother?” Usually when you ask small children this question, the answer is predictable: At home. At the market. At work, a few kilometres or a drive away.

In villages of Nepal, a deeply impoverished country on India’s northeast border, children answer differently. “In Kuwait.” “In Saudi.” “She’s in a foreign country.”

Mahesh Upadhaya is older—he’s 17. “My mother went to Saudi Arabia for two years. I was 15 when she left,” says Mahesh, who lives in an area of western Nepal called Bardiya. “When my mother wasn’t here, I couldn’t go to school. I had to do chores and work in the fields.” Mahesh’s father is deaf, and as the oldest of five children, Mahesh had to help the family get by until his mother began sending home the money she earned as a maid for a Saudi Arabian family. About 200,000 Nepali women like his mother have gone abroad, usually to be live-in housemaids in Gulf countries. Some are treated well. Some aren’t.

When his mother left, Mahesh worked all day in other people’s rice and wheat fields, “They’d pay me 120 rupees [one euro] a day, or pay in rice instead,” he says. “It was good if they paid in rice.”

After two years, his mother came back. She’d earned enough to help her family with housing, but at a high price. Many maids have to work up to 20 hours a day, cleaning and scrubbing not just for their employer’s family, but for the family’s relatives and party guests. “She cries now about how hard it was in Saudi,” says a neighbor woman.

“There were a lot of guests at that house in Saudi. Her hands were really chapped from all the dishes she washed,” says Mahesh. “The pots had to be scoured very clean. When she came home, her hands looked cracked. She put Vaseline on them. After a month and a half, they were better.”

Mahesh’s family is still poor, so a Caritas Nepal partner called Geruwa included him in an education project designed to keep young people from dropping out. “Before this programme, I didn’t have money to buy the books. Now I do,” says Mahesh. “Now I don’t have to go to the fields. I can go to school.”

Giving mothers other options

When one parent goes overseas to work, families can break up. A husband left in Nepal may take another wife; a husband who goes abroad to work—for example, in construction jobs in India—may come home with HIV. Their children may drop out of school or not receive proper care from temporary guardians like aunts and uncles, who may favor their own children.
To give women other options, Caritas Nepal offers small loans to mothers so they can start small businesses. Mrs. Yam Kumari Bhat used the loan to run a village café, selling tea, donuts and samosas. Her husband had been working overseas, but had to come home because of jaundice. She decided she needed to go abroad—“my husband didn’t want me to, but I knew we needed money so our sons could go to school”—and began the paperwork.

Then she met Manju Chaudhary, a Caritas-trained staffer for Geruwa. “She told me, ‘’It’s not good to go abroad. It’s better to start your own business here,” recalls Yam.

Thanks to the loan, Yam is now making a good profit on the tea shop and can send her two children to school. She’s slowly expanding—“I had one frying pan and now I have two”—and hopes to offer more snacks for sale soon.

“If I had gone abroad, my kids would have suffered,” she says. “And I don’t know what would have happened to me in another country.”

Her young son Lakshman is relieved she didn’t go. “My mother really loves me,” he says. “If she were gone, I wouldn’t get that love and that care.”

Caritas and its partners have helped many families like Yam’s by paying school expenses and helping mothers start businesses like roadside shops. But many more families remain separated. Throughout the country, huge numbers of children are growing up without a parent. Their mothers are working for them and for their education, but the children don’t always see that. They just know their mothers aren’t there.

Twelve-year-old Pujan lives in a village near Damak in eastern Nepal. Like a third of the children in the village, he has a parent overseas. “I talk to my mother now and then,” he says. “I ask her to come home. She says, ‘Study hard.’”

Laura Sheahen is a Communications Officer for Caritas Internationalis. She and photographer Katie Orlinsky are in Nepal covering stories about unsafe migration.