Reaping what was ‘sewn’

For a Maryknoll priest in Nepal, years of working
to better people’s lives continues in COVID-19 lockdown

As Father Joseph Thaler goes about his days under the COVID-19 lockdown in his small apartment in Nepal’s capital of Kathmandu, the Maryknoll missioner continues to work to help the disadvantaged people he has served for the last 43 years.

High on the list of the many people Father Thaler assists in partnership with Nepali non-profit organizations are the young people in a sewing training program for people with disabilities and families of the brick factory workers, whose backbreaking labor contributes to the city’s iconic red-brick architecture.

Graduates of the sewing program, which Father Thaler helped establish and fund, are scattered across the highland villages of this Himalayan Mountain country in southern Asia. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the program’s more than 400 graduates began using their stitchery skills to turn out face masks.

“They took up this initiative on their own to provide the needed masks in areas where they never would have been provided so quickly,” the missioner from Covington, Ky., says. “If the village people had to wait for these to be brought into village settings, they would still be waiting.”

A young woman who graduated from the Sewing and Cutting Training Program for Persons with Disabilities in Nepal works at her sewing machine. The graduates are using their skills to make face masks in their villages during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Courtesy of Joseph Thaler/Nepal)

A young woman who graduated from the Sewing and Cutting Training Program for Persons with Disabilities in Nepal works at her sewing machine. The graduates are using their skills to make face masks in their villages during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Courtesy of Joseph Thaler/Nepal)

Also making masks are 60 students whose studies were cut short because of the health crisis. “We sent them home just two days before the actual lockdown,” Father Thaler says, noting that many of the sewing students cannot walk or do so with great difficulty, so the traveling was challenging for them.

“Once they got home, the directive was coming from the Nepal government to wear masks, but many village folks did not have a mask, and since the lockdown was there, (they) had no way to get one,” he says. “So the students started making and distributing them locally.”

Students completing the yearlong course at the Sewing and Cutting Training Program for Persons with Disabilities, who study in one of two locations—one 36 miles outside of Kathmandu and the other in western Nepal—not only learn how to sew, but they receive a manually operated sewing machine to take back to their villages so they can support themselves and their families as clothiers.

Nepal, a landlocked country of 26 million people between India and China, reported its first coronavirus case in January and by early February The Kathmandu Post, an English-language newspaper, was reporting that a rush on face masks had led to a shortage, even as the death toll from COVID-19 was climbing in neighboring China.

Maryknoll Father Joseph Thaler visits with Reena Tharu, a graduate of the yearlong residential Sewing and Cutting Training Program for Persons with Disabilities in Bardiya District, Nepal, outside her home in Khairapur prior to the coronavirus outbreak. Such graduates are now sewing face masks for people in their villages during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Gregg Brekke/Nepal)

Maryknoll Father Joseph Thaler visits with Reena Tharu, a graduate of the yearlong residential Sewing and Cutting Training Program for Persons with Disabilities in Bardiya District, Nepal, outside her home in Khairapur prior to the coronavirus outbreak. Such graduates are now sewing face masks for people in their villages during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Gregg Brekke/Nepal)

The government’s isolation and distancing order went into effect March 24 and has been extended to April 27, and Father Thaler says it may be extended even further.

As of mid-April, Nepal had reported only 16 cases of the highly contagious virus, and no deaths, according to The Himalayan Times, another Nepali newspaper. Yet, Nepal is sandwiched between China to the north, where the pandemic started, and to the east, south and west by India, which has reported more than 10,000 cases and over 330 deaths. Nepal has closed its borders and suspended international flights until May 1.

“The Nepal government made this reality very clear to the Nepalese people, the fact that the country is very limited in medical supplies, facilities and medical personnel,” Father Thaler says. “So because of this, I feel many have taken the lockdown very seriously, and it is physically being enforced by the police in parts of the country.”

A young villager who graduated from the Maryknoll-sponsored Sewing and Cutting Training Program for Persons with Disabilities in Nepal wears a homemade face mask while working on another garment during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Courtesy of Joseph Thaler/Nepal)

A young villager who graduated from the Maryknoll-sponsored Sewing and Cutting Training Program for Persons with Disabilities in Nepal wears a homemade face mask while working on another garment during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Courtesy of Joseph Thaler/Nepal)

Meanwhile, Father Thaler is also helping to feed the families of brick factory workers living on the outskirts of the capital, one of the missioner’s key ministries in Nepal. In coordination with a local non-profit organization, Care and Development, Nepal (CDO-Nepal), Father Thaler arranged to provide food for these families, now idled by the economic shutdown.

“Due to the lockdown, many of the brick factory workers and their families are not able to secure the daily wages needed to live each day,” he says. “And not being able to buy food is a major issue at present.”

He said the situation is especially critical for the children, many of whom participate in the CDO-Nepal’s Child Development Program that not only teaches and cares for the children while their parents are making bricks but also provides the pupils with two nutritious meals a day.

“Since Maryknoll/CDO-Nepal has a long history of supporting the brick factory workers, it was only right that again we should be attentive to their needs,” Father Thaler says.

Brick factory workers living on the outskirts of Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, collect food supplies donated by the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Courtesy of Joseph Thaler/Nepal)

Brick factory workers living on the outskirts of Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, collect food supplies donated by the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Courtesy of Joseph Thaler/Nepal)

The food distribution was coordinated with CDO-Nepal staff, the supervisors in the brick factory and the local police, Father Thaler says, and an agreement was reached so Maryknoll could provide food to the brick factory families under supervision and following government directives concerning COVID-19.

Maryknoll provided funding for the food and CDO-Nepal provided the logistical support to distribute the assistance, he says.

“This is happening right now and as time and circumstances permit, we will be expanding this outreach,” he says.

Featured Image: A graduating class of the Sewing and Cutting Training Program for Persons with Disabilities in Nepal work at their sewing machines.

 

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About the author

Lynn F. Monahan

Lynn F. Monahan is editor-in-chief of Maryknoll magazine and served as a Maryknoll lay missioner in Peru in the 1990s. A graduate of Syracuse University, he has worked for newspapers and newswires, including The Associated Press and Bloomberg News. He holds a master’s degree in writing from Manhattanville College, and is the author of the award-winning novel Pistaco: A Tale of Love in the Andes. Twitter: @LFMonahan