California-based photographer Joshua Olley recently went to Nepal to volunteer at an orphanage. But instead of arriving at a place filled with empathy and love, he quickly found the orphanage to be pretty sketchy. That might not come as a surprise considering that Nepal is a country with constant government instability and high rates of human trafficking. During his time there Joshua managed to capture a beautiful and close depiction of the children who are affected most by the country's social and political insecurities.
I caught up with him to talk about his work and what happened during his time there.
VICE: How did you hear about the orphanage and the program you volunteered at?
Josh Olley: I initially heard about the orphanage through a good friend of mine back home.
Did your friend work at that specific orphanage in Nepal as well?
He did, and then was moved to another orphanage in Chitwan, which is in the southern region of Nepal.
Joshua (to the right) and another volunteer with the children at the orphanage.
What did the orphanage ask from you before you got there as far as money and other exchanges are concerned? What were the requirements at that specific orphanage?
It was pretty straightforward actually. They only asked for a brief personal statement and then a charge based on how long you were planning on staying, which in turn, was supposed to go directly to the children. The daily routine varied from anything like fetching water for the house, walking the kids to school, helping with homework, or even just playing with the kids.
Do you know how much money was actually going to the children?
Not very much money was going to the children at all. Every volunteer pays a decent amount of money for his or her time at the orphanage and I didn't see any real sign of that money reaching the children directly. Even simple things like having vegetables or meat with meals wasn't apparent. Many of the children had skin rashes from the lack of nutrients or protein. A little goes a long way in in Nepal and I didn't see any of that happening. Also the manager who ran a few different orphanages in the area was covered in gold rings and had an iPhone. I believe that even if a slight bit of the money went towards the children the conditions could of improved a lot considering the cheap cost of a lot of things in Nepal.
What were the living conditions for the children?
The kids slept in either a girl or boys room with not much room where they each had their own bed and a small chest for their belongings. For breakfast and dinner a slight blander version of dal that was served up solely of rice and potatoes. You could tell the children were malnourished. There was also a giant lice problem within the orphanage and the children weren’t being treated for either.
Did the headmasters seem to be in on how much money was being taken away from the orphanage for personal gain?
I would definitely say so, like I said before the kids ate the same thing twice a day with no meat or vegetables. While our headmaster had a lot of gold jewelry (which in their culture is a sign of status), a brand new iPhone, and a newer car. If a tiny portion of the money went to the kids, their meals would have the proper nutrients and protein needed in a healthy diet.
The orphanages seem way illegitimate; do you know if this is a huge problem within nepal? Is it a big racket?
Yes, apparently it's a huge problem in Nepal. I befriended these brothers who helped me out while I was over there and both of them brought up this specific problem of corrupt orphanages quite a bit. I guess because of what the Chinese are doing in Tibet, there are a lot of children refugees who's parents send them over the border for a safer life, therefore there is an abundance of orphans (because Nepal already has a lot of orphanages). Through this they target mostly Westerners who want to help. The brothers told me not all of them were corrupt, but it has become a popular, illegitimate way of business.
Do they all tend to draw in a lot of Westerners? How many more volunteers were there other than you?
I believe it's heavily targeted towards Westerners. There were about thirty volunteers that were working with this specific organisation and all but one were westerners
Well you said earlier you friend had moved to another orphanage down south, was the same thing happening there?
He had been transferred to a village out in the country, and from what he as well as others told me, it’s not as severe of a problem as it is in the cities.
Do you know if the orphanage was getting any sort of help from the nepalese government or were they only running solely on donations from outsiders/people?
I am not sure what other sources they collected money from. But there are programs such as Umbrella established to help fight these issues within Nepal.
See more of Josh’s work here.
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