KATMANDU – When his only child died in 2001 after a 25-year-long fight against a rare liver disease, Yujiro Ishimaru could have easily been driven to despair and given up on life.
But in Nepal, the 68-year-old former local government employee found a reason to live.
Ishimaru has been building schools for needy Nepalese children for nearly 15 years. After getting 40 built and initiating construction of another 14 in his daughter’s memory, Ishimaru’s hunger to help the youths has only grown. The 40 schools he built in remote areas of Nepal are benefitting nearly 13,000 students. He plans to build a total of 100 schools by 2016.
Since it was his daughter’s disease that brought him to Nepal, Ishimaru believes working to make Nepalese children happy is his destiny.
“What I am doing for Nepalese children is a reflection of my love for my late daughter,” Ishimaru said during an interview in Katmandu.
Ishimaru’s daughter and only child, Nobuko, was born in 1975 with biliary atresia, a condition that blocked the bile ducts between her liver and gall bladder, making survival difficult.
The condition requires surgery within three months of birth but does not guarantee one a normal lifespan. Nobuko was saved with a liver transplant from her mother. She needed a second transplant in 2001, but it was not medically possible for her mother to offer another portion of her liver. Nobuko passed away the same year, leaving the couple childless.
While she was alive, complications would arise time and again. This prompted Ishimaru to join the Biliary Atresia Child Help Society in Japan. He was president of the society in 1994 when he learned that an 8-month-old girl in Nepal suffering from the same disease had been brought to Japan for treatment.
Knowing well enough that the Nepali girl was beyond medical aid due to her age, he wondered about the status of health services in the poor Himalayan nation. After learning later that the girl had died, Ishimaru flew to Nepal in 1996.
What he saw in Nepal shocked him. He learned that many remote districts didn’t even have a single functioning hospital. Many mothers and infants were dying in childbirth for the simple reason there were no birth centers available to them. Children were malnourished, and hundreds were dying of conditions as preventable as diarrhea.
Ishimaru wanted to help. But as he wasn’t from the medical profession, he couldn’t figure out how he could provide direct assistance. As he had been chief of the education and child welfare department for the Nishinomiya Municipal Government in Hyogo Prefecture, he eventually decided to help increase education opportunities in Nepal, hoping it would ultimately translate into better awareness and better health.
In 1998, the first school building constructed with Ishimaru’s personal savings — a six-room facility — was inaugurated in the town of Banepa about 40 km east of Katmandu.
“I was amazed that a school building could be built in Nepal for just around 400,000 Nepalese rupees (a little less than ¥380,000). Also a crowd of around 500 people gathered during the building’s inauguration ceremony,” he said.
But it was his second project that cemented Ishimaru’s lasting bond with Nepal.
He built the Janauddar Primary School, also from personal savings, in the village of Sarsuinkhola in the Kavre district, about 50 km east of Katmandu. Since there had never been a school there, the residents were extremely grateful.
In 2001, upon hearing about the death of Ishimaru’s daughter, the villagers of Sarsuinkhola built a temple in her memory and invited him to visit.
To date, Ishimaru’s Asia Friendship Network has built 40 school buildings, some of them for schools already in place and others where there was none.
Starting last year, the network decided to rev up the pace by building 10 schools, and 14 are under construction this year. They are in 14 districts spread across Nepal.
During his years helping Nepal, Ishimaru began to observe that students in rural areas were undernourished and grew listless in the afternoon. “They weren’t eating enough,” he said.
Ishimaru’s organization is now addressing this problem by providing free midday snacks to students in 19 of the schools he is involved in. The free food has ensured that absenteeism in these schools is almost completely a thing of the past, he said.
To ensure that local forests are not ravaged to collect firewood for cooking food at the schools, the organization has also installed biofuel plants at the schools.
Apart from aiming to build 100 school buildings by 2016, the network is focusing on enabling children to learn skills to increase their livelihood. This plan took shape after the success of an experiment with a child named Ananda who has no arms and just one leg.
Ishimaru first spotted Ananda begging near the famous tourist destination of Hanumandhoka Durbar Square in Katmandu six years ago. He financed training for Ananda so that he could learn to use his only leg to make drawings.
Today, Ananda, 16, no longer begs. He can still be spotted around Hanumandhoka making drawings while onlookers drop money in appreciation of his skills.
Another segment of children in Nepal are also set to benefit from the network. Fifty orphans are being offered free accommodations, food, care and education at an orphanage the network has built in Bhaktapur, neighboring Katmandu.
“When my daughter was alive, I was too busy with work. I sometimes feel like taking her out, talking to her. But I can’t,” Ishimaru said. “I don’t have children. My sole aim is to make Nepalese children happy.”