Little Princes: One man's promise to bring home the lost children of Nepal

Bookworm Issue 118 Aug, 2011

This book has been described as “Funny, touching, tragic….A remarkable tale of corruption, child trafficking and civil war in a far away land—and one man’s extraordinary quest to reunite lost Nepalese children with their parents.” (from a review by Neil White).

‘Little Princes’ is the epic story of Conor Grennan’s battle to save the lost children of Nepal and how he found himself in the process... Grennan’s remarkable memoir is at once gripping and inspirational... (www.harpercollins.com)

When Conor Grennan set out on a round-the-world trip he began by volunteering to work for a few months in an orphanage called ‘Little Princes Children’s Home’ at Godavari, near Kathmandu. It was a decision that profoundly changed his life, and the lives of the Little Princes he writes about.

Grennan first arrived in Kathmandu in 2004, during Nepal’s insurgency. On day one at the orphanage he got a good idea of what love and affection and pure joy the next few years would show him.

As he opened the compound gate and entered the orphanage yard, “All games ceased immediately...,” he writes. “Soon I was lugging not only my backpack but also several small people hanging off me. Any chance of making a graceful first impression evaporated as I took slow, heavy steps toward the house. One especially small boy of about four years old hung from my neck so that his face was about three inches from my face and kept yelling “Namaste, Brother!” over and over, eyes squeezed shut to generate more decibels...” The children soon learned his name and forever after he was Conor to one and all.

After getting over culture shock, Conor became accustomed to life and the children (mostly boys) at the orphanage. But it wasn’t long until he learned that these were not orphans in the true sense. They had been “trafficked” and had parents in villages a long ways from Kathmandu. They were all the tragic victims of a vile scam perpetrated on their parents out of a fear that the youngsters would be abducted and forced to fight in the insurgency. Their parents had paid dearly to have them taken “to safety” in Kathmandu. Unbeknownst to them, however, the perpetrator of this hoax had no intention of caring for the children; he was in it for the money, all that those poor parents could give him, often by going into debt. In Kathmandu, the children were turned loose, often to become undernourished street waifs until orphanages took them in.

The story Conor Grennan tells so eloquently is about what he and his colleagues have done to reunite many of these unfortunate children with their families. In the process, Conor becomes associated with the Umbrella Foundation which runs other orphanages in Nepal. As he becomes attached to the children and sympathetic (in a constructive way) to their plight, he opens the Next Generation Nepal Children’s Home and mounts a worldwide campaign to support it. He was helped by a French national named Farid Ait-Mansour. Their cause was just, and the results that Conor describes are at once honorable, poignant and sometimes painful, but ultimately successful.

Meet Jagrit, a 14-year old boy wise beyond his age. Conor describes him as exceptionally bright and a smart aleck (but “I have a weakness for smart alecks,” he writes). Jagrit lived in an Umbrella Foundation home, one of 170 such children. He had been taken from his family at age five but unlike most of the others he was a true orphan. His parents’ death certificates were in his file. The Umbrella Foundation had rescued him from an illegal children’s home near one of the trash- and sewage-fouled rivers of Kathmandu.

Jagrit was from a remote village called Jaira, in Humla District. Later, when Conor went to Humla to track down the families of many of the children, he met a postman from Jaira. They talked, and when he heard the name of Jagrit’s father (from the death certificate), “The postman’s eyebrows jumped. He had known him - quite well, it seemed from his reaction. This was good news...” What transpired next is one of the very personal stories in this book that makes it well worth reading.

Many discoveries in Humla brought tears of grief and joy to the faces of the foundlings’ family members, especially their mothers. Each encounter in the villages was a revelation. In time, most of the children either went back to visit home in Humla and other districts, or their parents made their way to Kathmandu to see where and how children were living -- well cared for, eating well, going to school, learning English, and in good health (although some when first rescued off the streets had been emaciated to the point of serious starvation).

In Jaira, a family member recounted the story of Jagrit’s abduction, for that is essentially what each coerced child purchase truly was: trafficked for profit. Conor was told that someone described a “government official” (the abductor, though he was not from the government) “had seen potential in Jagrit as a young boy, who promised to put him in a top school in Kathmandu.” To do so, the “official” asked the father, a poor shepherd, to pay a large sum in advance. Then the five-year old boy was taken away. After that, “Weeks became months, and months became years, until one day there was no hope left...”

Conor describes how he and his translator felt upon hearing Jagrit’s story. “Rinjin and I were riveted. I felt like I had lived the story with him, watching from afar, seeing the father - the shepherd - and his small son, Jagrit, together first, then saying good-bye, not understanding it would be for the last time...”
How many scenes like this were played out in the villages is unknown. What is known is that the abductor made a lot of money at the expense of the parents he duped and the children stolen away and dumped in Kathmandu to fend for themselves.

Fortunately, Jagrit’s story ends on a happy note (there’s more to it in the book). It’s the same for most of the children, like Leena, a small girl who was so traumatized by the time she was rescued that she showed no emotion and spoke no words. Fortunately her new, after a few months, a safe new life in the orphanage brought her out of her shell. She and so many others were brought back to life and, in time, back together with their parents.

This is an outstanding book about a remarkably generous and loving human being working with amazing children rescued from a terrible fate. ‘Little Princes’ is an exceptionally well written story, with a moving conclusion. Highly recommended.

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