Himalayan News Service
On a bright winter's afternoon in one of the greener and smarter suburbs of Kathmandu, 20 students laugh and chatter happily as they finish lessons for the day and file out the gates of one of Nepal's top private schools.
In their smart green blazers with school crests, these children are among the young elite in a benighted country, blessed with a first-rate education that will put them on course for a place in an overseas university.
Most students at the Gyanodaya Bal Batika Higher Secondary School come from the families of Nepal's wealthy. But the background of these boys and girls couldn't be more different.
Looking up: The Humla children have a future thanks to the education they receive
Born into abject poverty in one of Nepal's remotest provinces – the backward western region of Humla – these children were found seven years ago, filthy and destitute, in a livestock barn on the outskirts of Kathmandu.
As a bloody Maoist insurgency raged through the countryside, they had been put into the hands of friendly traffickers by their parents and relatives and packed off to the capital in the hope that they would somehow find a better life.
Their journey saw them leave a cluster of farming villages with no electricity which scrape a living on barter and black market trade across the Chinese border, to be thrust into the unforgiving cauldron of smog, squalor and corruption that is Kathmandu.
Aged between three and nine, they could have easily ended up like thousands of children from Humla and other poor provinces before them as illegal workers in carpet factories or sweat shops, child sex workers or beggars in the streets.
But in a twist of good fortune, their discovery coincided with the arrival in Nepal of Irish businessman Eugene Lane-Spollen and his wife, Maura.
The couple were both born and brought up in Dublin, and worked together before marrying 40 years ago. They have travelled the world through Eugene's job as an executive for Coca-Cola, starting off at home before moving to Denmark, the US, the Philippines, Hong Kong and Thailand.
Innocents: The Humla children when they were younger, a few years after being found
They have four grown-up children: two living in London, one in Florence and one in Dublin. Eugene and Maura moved to France to start a new business 20 years ago and divide their time between Ireland and France.
It was friends in France who first got the couple interested in the plight of children in Nepal. They had a charity project in the Far East and encouraged Eugene and Maura to go with them to see what they were doing.
'When we got there, they said: "We've heard there are a group of children who have been brought in from Humla and they are somewhere in a barn hoping someone will pick them up." That's how it all began,' says Eugene.
Message: Neasa Ní Chianáin, left, will tell the story of the children in a documentary she will shoot
'I never imagined we would end up doing something like this. We expected to maybe sponsor a child. We had no idea when we went to Nepal we would end up taking on something like this.'
However, when they got there, the couple were so horrified that they felt they had to take some action.
'I had been to all the other countries in the region – Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, China and even Afghanistan – but never Nepal,' says 64-year-old Eugene.
'When we got there we thought, "Oh my God, this is appalling".
'Outside of Kathmandu, it really is beautiful but I was really shocked with the poverty in Kathmandu.'
Their friends pointed them in the direction of the Humla children.
'They were in a barn that was about 30m by 10m over two floors. It was the kind of place where in Ireland you'd park half a dozen tractors. Here, it was a place where animals would be kept. They'd been there for two weeks.
'There was a rickety ladder leading to the barn and when you got there you couldn't see a thing because there were no windows. And then when your eyes got used to it, you realised that all these children were sitting on the ground looking back at you.'
Eugene and Maura quickly decided to take all the children under their wing and set up a charity specifically to guide them through school, although initially they had no idea how far the children – most of whom were illiterate – could hope to progress.
'There was no way you could just take one child and leave the rest,' Eugene recalls. 'It was an all-or-nothing thing.'
They even sent for one girl who had been returned to Humla because the traffickers felt she would struggle at school in the capital and would be better off back home.
The first years were an education not just for the children but for Eugene and Maura, who appointed and reappointed home managers and shuttled between Europe and the Far East, monitoring the children's progress.
Slow progress: Gradually, guided by a developing regime of study and discipline in the home, the children began to catch up with and overtake their classmates
'At first, everything in Kathmandu was strange to them,' says Eugene. 'They were coming from places where they would never have even seen a bar of soap or toothpaste.
'When they went to their first school, it was strange for them. The most exciting thing was having a uniform. They had never looked so smart in all their lives. The fact they all looked the same was a big hoot to them.
'The only problem we had was on Mother's Day or Father's Day. Some would be in tears because they didn't have one.'
Gradually, guided by a developing regime of study and discipline in the home, the children began to catch up with and overtake their classmates.
Eugene says: 'The regime in the home is fun but there is a lot of discipline involved – everything runs to a schedule. We arrange tutorials where necessary to sort it out and move on.'
One of the home's top students is Rita Bhandari, 14, who lost her father in the insurgency and was distraught when she had to leave her mother and younger brother and sister behind. In a break from her studies on a Saturday afternoon, Rita says: 'I used to just cry and cry. I thought about my family all the time and I missed them.
Accepted: Even though they are in a school with middle-class children, they are not picked on by other students
'But life was very difficult in our village – we had to look after all the animals and we had nothing. Now, when I speak to my mother by phone, she tells me, “Just study. We are fine and you mustn't worry about us.”'
Rita has developed into an outstanding student, who is top of her class and dreams of becoming a pilot. Asked what she thinks of Eugene, who visits once a year, Rita proudly shows off a letter he sent congratulating her on her latest academic milestone.
'He has a very big heart,' she says. 'I think he was chosen by God to help us.'
Saran Chatta, also 14, remembers children in floods of tears as they left Humla. 'Some of them were very sad,' he says. 'I was very happy though because I was thinking it will be nice in Kathmandu and we will find lots of good things here.
'When I graduate, I want to be an engineer. I want to go back and build a good road in Humla. If they have a good road it will make a lot of difference. Life will be easier for them, and there are many natural resources in Humla they can take advantage of.'
The desire to one day return to Humla is common. Another student said she wanted to become a teacher and go back there to work.
'They want to return to Humla and they are very emotional about it,' says the home's manager, Chand Rai. 'One of them entered an art competition and designed a futuristic Humla with power lines, roads and high-rise buildings.'
Chand says he feels fortunate to be a surrogate father to them. 'These children succeed because they study so hard,' he says. 'We don't have lavish funds. Many homes funded by NGOs have lots of facilities but we don't have that. Once a year they get new clothes and occasionally when we have the money we take them to see a movie. We tell them the first reason they are here is to be educated.'
Even though they are in a school with middle-class children, they are not picked on by other students. 'They don't have any problems because they are very good at their studies,' says Chand.
Although most have never returned since leaving home, those with parents speak to them by phone every few months and families are kept informed of the children's progress. However, hidden dangers can sometimes lurk in their past. Last year, one 13-year-old boy was asked to return to Humla to visit his sick mother. When he arrived, he found a marriage had been arranged for him with a 10-year-old girl in line with the region's child-bride customs.
He fled, rang the home in Kathmandu for help and with the aid of a village elder, managed to persuade his family to let him return to his schooling.
Charity: Eugene and Maura Lane-Spollen who rescued the children from poverty
It is the powerful focus on education that distinguishes the Humla Children's Home from the hundreds of other foreign-funded orphanages and homes in Nepal.
'Our vision is to take them from the street to university,' says Eugene. 'We realised that with enough attention, discipline, care, food and organisation, you can get any child to improve mentally.'
Filmmaker Neasa Ní Chianáin, the director of the Fairytale Of Kathmandu documentary that exposed poet Cathal Ó Searcaigh's liaisons with young men, visited the Humla children's home in November and has been given a grant by the Irish Film Board towards a film telling the remarkable story of the children.
When they secure the rest of the funding, Ní Chianáin and husband David Rane – who will co-direct – plan to spend a year filming them finish school and as they return home to see their families before going to universities abroad. They expect the film to be screened at international film festivals and then released in cinemas.
'This could be a very difficult for them,' Ní Chianáin says. 'Their memories of Humla have been quite romantic to date: rolling hills, freedom to roam and family.
'But returning to the poverty and deprivation of Humla now, as teenagers who have been urbanised and educated in the best Kathmandu schools, will be like two worlds colliding.
'What Eugene and Maura have done for the children offers a unique and positive solution, and it is one that will make the developed world think and perhaps reassess the lessons and values we pass on to our own children.'
It was a simple act of humanity that turned the lives of the children around.
'The lesson of this is that you can take any 20 children from anywhere and apply the same formula – good, regular food, good discipline, tutorials when they need it and a good school – and there's no reason in the world they can't achieve the same,' Eugene says.
'You could take any group of children and, presuming their brains have not been damaged by malnutrition, you have every chance of doing exactly the same.'
The project in Kathmandu currently costs €30,000 a year to run, with Eugene and Maura paying about 70% from their own savings, while donors, including the Hope Foundation in Cork, make up the rest. All four of their children are also involved with fundraising.
Now, the couple are setting up a fund to pay for the university fees of the children. Remarkably, all of them – with perhaps only one or two exceptions – are expected to score high enough grades to enter good overseas universities.
'Each will choose their own path after that,' Eugene says. 'As far as Maura and myself are concerned, we are just so pleased when we look at the photograph of the children outside the barn and the photographs of how they are now. When you look at their faces, you can see they are intelligent and aware. That is our reward.'