Gala speaker at Surrey awards travelled far to spread message

SURREY — Darpan magazine’s Extraordinary Achievement Awards gala was all glitz and glamour Friday, as the South Asian community came out to celebrate and recognize some extraordinary individuals.

But the red carpet and sparkly attire did not faze Anuradha Koirala, the evening’s keynote speaker. The 65-year-old woman was draped in a modest ivory gown, accessorized by red bangles and a red bindi.

However, there’s nothing simple about the type of work Koirala does back home in Nepal.

For the last two decades, the Kathmandu native has been trying to eradicate the sex trade through the establishment of Maiti Nepal. The nonprofit organization offers numerous services, including legal advice, anti-retroviral therapy for HIV patients and shelter for those seeking refuge. It also patrols the India-Nepal border for any out-of-character activity.

"Sixteen-thousand people are trafficked from Nepal each year in different forms, whether that’s labour or entertainment. Since 1993, we have managed to help 25,000 women," Koirala said in an interview with the Now Monday.

The idea to create Maiti Nepal came after Koirala escaped a violent marriage that resulted in three miscarriages. The deciding moment was when Koirala took in Geeta, an HIV-positive woman, 20, who had nowhere to turn.

"There was a non-profit next to my house dealing with trafficking victims, but they didn’t have a shelter, so they asked me if I would take her."

Despite having only a two-bedroom home (Koirala also has a son), Geeta fit right in. It wasn’t until a few nights into her stay that Koirala was woken up by her new guest.

"She would say, ‘Listen to me, this is what happens there. This is how I was forced into the brothel, and how I had to entertain five to 25 men a day.’ It was very sad, but then I knew I had to do something," she said.

Having little financial support from her family, Koirala sold everything she owned and quit her job as an English teacher.

"People thought I was crazy, asking ‘Why is this woman switching from a teaching career to this?’ It was definitely one of the challenges I had to overcome."

The first shelter had only two rooms but housed nearly 70 children.

"Basically I would sleep in the corridor and they would be on mats. I cooked and did everything," Koirala added.

She said other challenges have included breaking the mindset of Nepali culture, which views women as "second-class citizens."

"Convincing a mostly male-dominated government that sex trafficking is a problem has been difficult. Back then, it was very hard letting politicians know this was a crime. Judiciary police and enforcement was very corrupt."

Koirala said no questions are asked of the girls who arrive on her doorstep – roughly 20 a day.

"We let them be, do what they have to do, walk, dance, talk. They’re scared but they eventually come to us."

Having 500 beds, the facility has never had to turn anyone away. When asked if being dubbed the 2010 CNN Hero of the Year, or being invited to events like the Darpan gala ever gets old, the old soul was quick to respond.

"I’m not proud of it, but it reminds me I still have work to do. My dream is that places like Maiti Nepal never have to exist," she said.

To donate to the organization, which means "Mother’s Home," visit Maitinepal.org.

Winners of the 2014 Darpan awards are: Anoop Virk for Young Wonder; Sirish Rao for Artistic Visionary; Anita Huberman for Industry Marvel; Gunwant Bains for Advancing Philanthropy; Dr. Raghbir Singh Bains for Community Crusader; Peter Dhillon for Corporate Engagement; Dr. Gurdev Singh Gill for Breaking Barriers; Amarjeet Singh for Heritage Defender; Arjun Gill for Spirit of Sport and Anuradha Koirala for International Sensation.

tverenca@gmail.com

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