Santosh Nepali grew up in Western Nepal in a community marked by disadvantage.
“I did not have a childhood that parents would dream of for their children. My father left our family – my seven sisters and I, along with our mother – when I was four years old,” he says.
“Being raised by my mother and elder sister in a typical patriarchal Nepalese society, we faced plenty of challenges and hardship. Our family belonged to the so-called ‘lower caste’, and this made life even more difficult. I never understood how the stigma attached to one’s surname – a name that was passed down from your parents – could make such a difference to how you were viewed by others.”
Puzzled by the level of discrimination he and his family faced, Santosh knew that the social structures ingrained in his society were unjust, but says he didn’t have the courage to voice his conviction.
“I learned this at school, and I wanted to explore these ideas more, but even an education up to Year 10 was a luxury,” he says.
“My mother and sisters saved and borrowed to keep me in school, and I was a good student. But at 16, my brother-in-law took me aside and told me it was time to start earning money to support my family.”
It was a pivotal moment in Santosh’s life.
Like many people from his community, Santosh’s brother-in-law had left Nepal to find work in India where he worked as a gate-keeper (security), sending money home to support his wife and wider family. It’s a common way for families to survive; Santosh’s brother-in-law suggested Santosh join him as soon as possible.
“I wanted to try to study more, but at the same time I felt like he was right and it was my turn to step up and support my mother and sisters,” Santosh says.
“I was trying to make that decision when a small NGO who worked in our area – incredibly, because it was very remote – contacted me. They were tiny and struggling, but they told me about a scholarship I might be able to get to continue my study in Kathmandu.”
The fork in the road
The investment of that ‘small NGO’ turned out to be life changing, marking a fork in the road that still makes Santosh shake his head in wonder.
“It really was the biggest turning point in my life,” he says. “I was the first in my family to even finish Year 10, and studying in Kathmandu at a university was unheard of.
My family had no money to help me study, and there were many days I was very hungry. But I had excellent support from mentors and people who guided me through that hard time. That tiny NGO stuck with me and helped me so much. I was studying Natural Science and for a time after I finished, I worked in a school in Kathmandu trying to support other students.”
In 2009, Santosh was selected from among hundreds of applicants to take part in a prestigious education program in the US. He remembers the day he landed in New York state, completely overwhelmed by the opportunity and head full of images from movies about the city. He had no experience, he remembers, with computers or the online world.
“I had so much to learn but it was such a big opportunity and those were some of the best times in my life,” Santosh says. “I studied Social Science and Community development, because I really wanted to learn how to create change.”
The same NGO that helped Santosh pursue his education dreams was hard at work in the lives of others too – among them the woman who would become Santosh’s wife. Rebika, a student in Public Health, was also part of the program. The pair were married in 2013.
“In 2020 we were able to come together to Sydney so that Rebika could complete her Masters at Central Queensland University, Town Hall Campus,” Santosh says. “It was just before COVID lockdowns closed the border, and I looked around for ways to make my skills useful to Nepal from Australia.”
While Rebika studied, Santosh volunteered with International Nepal Fellowship Australia and then took on a role as Nepal Programs Officer. He now helps to oversee projects run by International Nepal Fellowship and other partners in Nepal.
“Because of my own experience, my favourite program is one that mentors children and young people from remote and disadvantaged communities,” he says. “I know what a difference it can make when someone takes an interest and helps you to find your voice. Everything can change, everything.”
Santosh has plans for further study and wants to work in policy development, potentially returning to Nepal in a few years to invest his skills back into his country of birth.
“Wherever I end up, I want to have the skills to make change possible,” he says. “Sometimes I think about how I might have been a security worker in India. Instead, one small NGO took an interest and everything changed for me. Now I have the chance to help change things with others.”
If you’re keen to find out more about programs that change the lives of young people in Nepal, read more here.