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Alum activist speaks about education in Nepal

By: Steve Yang ’17

Human rights and Nepalese education activist Dorje Gurung ’94 gave a speech titled “Human Rights and Education of Marginalized People of Nepal” on Wednesday, April 23 in JRC 101. The Rosenfield Program in Public Affairs, International Relations, and Human Rights sponsored the talk and welcomed Gurung back onto campus to discuss his work in providing upward mobility for marginalized Nepalese youth through education. Gurung will also receive an honorary doctorate degree during Grinnell’s Commencement Ceremony on Monday, May 19 for his social justice work.

Gurung is currently the education program director at Community Members Interested or COMMITTED, a Nepalese and American organization headquartered in Kathmandu, Nepal and Washington D.C. COMMITTED focuses on providing free and quality education for Nepalese youth of disadvantaged backgrounds.

Notably, Gurung is one of Grinnell’s success stories of social justice in action. Gurung had spent nearly two years in Qatar teaching chemistry at the Qatar Academy when, according to his website, he was racially profiled by his students and accused of insinuating that all Muslims are terrorists. Gurung was arrested and charged with allegedly insulting Islam, for which he received a five to seven year sentence in May 2013.

With the organized assistance of an international group, including many Grinnellians, who worked together to free him, Gurung only spent 12 days and 11 nights in a Qatar jail, and he is profoundly grateful to have had a group of well-educated friends who were able to get him safely to Nepal.

“Education freed me twice,” Gurung said. “First from a low birth status in Nepal, second from a potential seven-year jail sentence in Qatar.”

Set against high odds from the beginning, Gurung was born into a lower social class and witnessed the suffering of marginalized groups, such as farmers subservient to feudal landlords and the enslavement of Nepalese girls. He recalled the shackles of poverty that weigh down marginalized Nepalese groups, including a lack of proper medical care, corruption in the public schooling system and a wide gap in literacy rates between urban and rural youth. 

Gurung broke through the limitations of his birth status through a global education, and he is eager to give back in the same way.

“I was born into a life of limited opportunity, and I was never meant to have made it to school,” Gurung said. “Had it not been for the education that I’ve received, I probably would not have been able to live the kind of life I’ve lived, to be able to express myself, to be able to travel as much … The work that I do now, whether it’s education related or whether it’s a little bit of activism … I do through my education.”

In his presentation, Gurung spoke of the disparagement of huge swaths of Nepal’s population, due to an antiquated caste system and the abuse of human rights in the country that perpetuates a cycle of poverty and helplessness. 

For example, the group of dalits, or “untouchables,” who perform basic manual labor and live in abject poverty have historically had minimal access to schooling of any kind. The caste system determines a strict class hierarchy that is rarely permeated in Nepal, bringing social mobility to a halt.

Gurung hopes that, in spite of the challenges that he and many other Nepalese will face in the gradual struggle against educational and social inequality, his work will contribute to a more just life for his students. Gurung also hopes to have the chance to come full circle in providing the benefits of a good education for his students, as he had experienced throughout his own life.  

“I got paid back in a way for my work when I was incarcerated in Qatar. That was justice done, proper justice done for me,” Gurung said. “Now the reason I live my life the way I have is because all my life I’ve had people be charitable to me … and I’ve gone back now to do precisely that, to give back that generosity that I’ve received throughout my life.”

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