A social responsibility programme at Etihad Airways provides old blankets, once used to ward off the chill of in-flight air conditioning, to the needy in Nepal, Hugo Berger reports
Etihad Airways sending blankets to Nepal
After a destructive civil war, and with more than 40 per cent of its population living below the poverty line, Nepal is one of the most deprived nations on earth.
Nevertheless, with the monumental beauty of the Himalayas within its borders, it is also a magnet for tourists.
But what of the airlines who fly those visitors to this heritage-rich country? Should they have to do their part to help Nepal recover its footing?
The corporate social responsibility programme at Etihad Airways adheres to such a model and backs charitable causes around the globe.
In Nepal, this means the airline donates old blankets to some of the country's most impoverished citizens.
Once, these blankets provided respite to passengers against the ever-present chill of the in-flight air conditioning. Now, rather than just being binned, they're laundered and stored in a warehouse before being redistributed to worthy causes.
The Review accompanied Etihad staff members Reem Al Midwahi, a corporate communications manager, and Luzelle Boado, an international affairs analyst - as well as school student Molly Maddocks, who attended as part of a school project - on a recent mission to haul 140 kilograms of used blankets to Nepal.
After struggling to check in five cumbersome suitcases packed with blankets at Abu Dhabi airport, then reclaiming them from the baggage carousel at Kathmandu International, we were poised to deliver the goods.
Day one in the Nepali capital involved visiting the Prayas Nepal orphanage, close to central Kathmandu, which 51 children currently call home.
With the winter setting in - temperatures can dip as low as 1C at night - these offerings are gratefully appreciated, says Mani Joshi, the president and founder of the charity.
"These are nice thick blankets," says Joshi. "Funding is very tight, and so it's not possible for us to use heaters in all the rooms."
Joshi started the orphanage in 2003, fresh from completing a social care course in college.
"At the time the civil war meant many families were displaced and there were many refugees from the countryside in Kathmandu," she recalls. "Some of the children's parents had died, while some of them had just been abandoned because their parents couldn't cope."
One of the children, who is now a healthy three-year-old, was found abandoned on the streets weighing just 0.5kg, she says.
However, the tough economic climate is putting pressure on the organisation. For example, one of its major benefactors was a company in Italy. But that nation's well-documented financial woes has meant donations could soon dry up.
"This Italian company is providing food for the children, but obviously there are other costs, such as schooling and medical care," says Joshi.
"That is why the extras we can get from private companies, such as the blankets from Etihad, make a real difference."
The next day we are taken to the Aama Ko Gar care home.
After lugging the blankets down a litter-strewn back alley, we ascend the rickety iron stairwell of a five-storey house to meet Dil Shobha Shresta, the founder of the charity.
Currently she has 93 residents living in her facility, 39 of whom are old people. The rest are children.
In a more muted atmosphere than at the orphanage, we disburse the blankets. Some are clearly delighted at our gift, others are more apathetic. One elderly lady, who we are told suffers from dementia, says she does not want a blanket and asks for a sari instead.
Staff member Shobha Bimali also tells us not to speak to another resident. "She was raped when she was younger and is afraid of men," she warns us.
Afterwards, we meet Shresta in her office, where a framed poster of Mother Teresa of Calcutta takes pride of place.
"When I read about Mother Teresa and what she did for the poor people of Kolkata, it inspired me to do the same," recalls Shresta.
But it was also Shresta's own misfortune that galvanised her decision to found the home 18 years ago. Abandoned by her husband because she bore him a daughter instead of a son, she contemplated suicide. But one day she noticed a frail elderly person begging on the streets.
"I saw them and took pity on them. I cannot leave an old person lying in the road, waiting to die. I have to help them. I thought, 'What if it was my own father or mother lying there?'. I would want someone to help them and that's what I did," she tells us through a translator.
Using money given to her by her daughter, she rented a room with five beds to care for the homeless.
"It has been a struggle for years, but now the Nepalese community is beginning to help me," she says.
Recently she has become something of a cause célèbre in her home country. Some in the press have even dubbed her the Mother Teresa of Kathmandu.
During our interview, an elderly lady wanders in, sits on the floor and, sobbing heavily as she speaks, begins to tell us her story.
We learn that this woman, who is in her 90s, lived in a village in the foothills of the Himalayas with her son and daughter-in-law. Wanting rid of her from their house, her family accused her of witchcraft and thievery, then forced her to leave. Abandoned, she made her way to Kathmandu, where she was found begging in one of the temples.
"She has just been here for three days," explains Shresta. "Usually when they come here, they cry for a month and then they begin to adjust and stop crying."
Helping such people find some comfort in these traumatic circumstances is what motivates Shresta to continue her charity work.
"This is how I find happiness now. The old people call me 'aama' [mother]. Even though they are older than me, to them I am like their mother," says the 59-year-old.
"I will do it as long as God wants me to. Even if I am as old as them I will keep going and when I die, my nieces and nephews will take over."
And like Joshi on the previous day, the contribution from Etihad was warmly received.
"We are grateful to Etihad for these blankets. Old people feel the cold so much in the winter. Any gifts like this do make them feel loved and cared for."
One of the organisers of this project was Pawana Shresta, the general manager of Etihad's Nepal office.
"We do believe that Etihad has a responsibility to the countries it flies to. We aim to show that we don't just have commercial values but a social responsibility as well," she explains.
"Of course, it is hard to decide to choose which charity to help as there are so many worthy causes in our country, but we all have to do our bit wherever we can."
Hugo Berger is a features writer for The National