Conor Grennan did not go to Nepal with grand intentions, but an unexpected discovery in a small Nepalese orphanage propelled him to change the lives of thousands of trafficked children.
Grennan’s unique and inspiring story began in 2004 when, at 29, he left his job at the EastWest Institute in Brussels to travel around the world for one year. To convince people that it was more than a self-indulgent jaunt, Grennan spent the first three months of his trip at the Little Princes orphanage in Godawari, Nepal.
“It wasn’t this big noble thing—I felt guilted into volunteering by my friends,” he says. “If I told people that I was volunteering at an orphanage, it would sound impressive; hopefully impressive to girls.”
Grennan was not exactly fond of children, but soon found himself sincerely attached to a group of witty and vivacious orphan boys who lived in the Little Princes home. When his three months were up, Grennan promised the boys he would come back in a year. True to his word, he returned to Nepal in January 2006.
During this second visit, a woman arrived at the orphanage claiming two of the boys there were her sons. Grennan and the Little Princes coordinators established that her claim was valid, but also discovered that the woman was controlled by a child trafficker. This man had left seven other trafficked children with her, but she was unable to feed so many and they were starving.
Grennan knew that the country of Nepal had been embroiled in an ongoing civil war since 1996, with Maoist rebels and an enduring monarchy fighting for political control. But what he discovered was that in remote regions where villagers were poor and unprotected, Maoist rebels were abducting children and forcing them to serve in the army. Nepalese parents had been deceived by child traffickers who promised safety and education for their children in far away Kathmandu Valley. The traffickers would charge large sums for their “services,” but instead of caring for the kids and sending them to school, they would transfer them to orphanages, enslave them as beggars and laborers, or dump them on the streets. Grennan was stunned. Many of Nepal’s orphans were not orphans at all; their families were alive and missing them.
In April of 2006, Nepal’s king was finally overthrown by the Maoist rebels and Grennan’s safety was compromised in the midst of this violent uprising. Before he left, Grennan secured places at a local children’s home for the seven malnourished children he’d found and departed Nepal believing they would be safe.
However, back in the states, Grennan received an email informing him that the man responsible for trafficking the children had sold them; before they were rescued. The children were now essentially lost in Nepal.
Grennan had a weighty decision to make. Stay in the states or go back to Nepal with the nearly impossible mission of locating the seven missing children?
“I decided that there was no one else to help them—I had to go back,” he says. “So in the summer of 2006, I founded the nonprofit organization Next Generation Nepal to locate missing children, care for them and ultimately reunite them with their families.”
With the backing of NGN, Grennan returned to Nepal in September of 2006. After months of fruitless searching, one by one, the seven missing children were found and placed in NGN’s newly established group home. It was miraculous. Now Grennan needed another miracle, he needed to find their families.
Grennan decided that he and a Nepalese guide would hike into the mountains and start searching. To his astonishment, Grennan realized that even with very small amounts of information it was possible to find the families of trafficked children. The operating model for NGN had been born. The organization began hiring native Nepalese men to go into the mountains and search for families. The men travel for a month and return having located around forty families of missing children each time.
“We’ve found this model works very well and that the process is becoming more efficient; we’re finding families much faster,” Grennan says.
Once a family is found by NGN, they’re evaluated by a Nepalese team to verify that children are returning to safe environments. Some children are reunited immediately and some exchange letters and visits before reunification. When a child is placed permanently back with their family, NGN monitors the situation for six months to ensure protection and well-being for all involved.
“We realized we had to find permanent solutions for these kids; children’s homes are not permanent solutions,” Grennan says. “It’s easy to think they are when kids are young. You feed them and educate them. However, children’s homes don’t take into account that kids are kids for a short amount of time.
“In Nepal, children inherit the land of their fathers, get married and start families in their community. Back with their families, children have more opportunities.”
NGN is the only organization with a transit home in the remote region of Humla where many of the children originate—more than 15,000 children have been trafficked in Nepal. There, the kids can acclimate to village life, re-learn the local language and visit their parents, before going home permanently.
Grennan wrote a best-selling memoir entitled Little Princes about his uncommon experiences in Nepal. Published in January 2011, Grennan’s book raises awareness for the plight of Nepalese children and helps fundraise for NGN as they continue in their efforts to rescue kids, care for them, and reunite separated families. Additionally, Grennan hopes that the transparent telling of his story will serve as an inspiration to others.
“My passion is to get people to volunteer. Many people are scared away from volunteering because they believe they don’t have the right motivation or they’re not the right kind of person. I’ve found that you don’t have to be anything in particular, you just have to go out and volunteer. You never know if your heart and other people’s lives will be changed.”
Photo credit: Larry Closs. Copyright Next Generation Nepal