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Not a million miles away

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What does an old lady living in a hole in a riverbank nearly 5,000 miles away have in common with an Irish teenager? What challenges or feelings could they possibly share?

You’d be amazed. When secondary school pupils in Dublin hear about Bal Kumari, the grandmother who was thrown out of her home in rural Nepal on diagnosis with leprosy, their first reaction is shock if not disbelief. But when they hear that her rejection was born of fear and misunderstanding, the miles begin to drop away. And when the words prejudice and bullying slip in, people in the class begin to share experiences of feeling left out, not being invited, bullying on Facebook and the rest.

One of the most powerful exercises in the school workshops I facilitate for NLT and Poetry Ireland’s Worldwise Global Schools programme (http://worldwiseschools.ie) is to walk into the classroom with bright red stickers on my face and hands. Sitting next to a pupil, I draw my chair close and lean towards them. I ask if I can join their team, share their lunch, partner them for project work etc. Everyone laughs but, amazingly, they still move their chairs away.

By now the point’s clear. Whether it’s stigma around leprosy, racism in schools, sexism in the office or the wrong kind of voice/clothes/car/nostrils, everyone faces some form of prejudice at some time. The teenage years are a notorious focal point for feelings of loneliness and rejection, which makes secondary school pupils wonderfully empathetic to those facing stigma from leprosy. And by understanding their feelings, the young people show time and again a kind of empowerment and appreciation as they lift their eyes beyond their own struggles to care about people all those miles away like Bal Kumari … who now lives, loved and valued, in NLT’s care haven at Lalgadh.

Bal Kumari

Bal Kumari, safe and sound at the care haven

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