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My life: Olga Murray

The American lawyer eschewed retirement to devote herself to children in a faraway land. Olivia Rosenman meets the 88-year-old behind the Nepal Youth Foundation

 

RARE BIRD When I went to law school, in 1951, there were very few women in my class and when I passed the bar exam, in 1954, in northern California, (only) six women were sworn into the bar. Six women out of thousands who had taken the exam; it was in the newspapers! I didn't find it difficult (to find a job as a woman), but everybody else did. I actually got the first job I interviewed for (as an attorney at the Californian Supreme Court). I went for one year but ended up staying for 37. I loved my work. It was very important and it was honest. Later on, when jobs for women did start to open up, I realised I had the best job in law. But it was very difficult at that time. If you went to a law firm to look for a job, the law firm would say, "A woman lawyer? The judges wouldn't stand for it! And our clients wouldn't pay us if they knew it was a woman working on the case." The Supreme Court was one of the few places where a woman could get a job.

LEARNING VERVE I first went to Nepal in 1984. I had barely heard of the place, but I liked to hike. Immediately, I was in love with the country and the people. They were laughing and holding hands and I just felt comfortable there right away. I went trekking in the mountains and I met these extremely poor children; poorer than I'd ever seen in my life. They were dressed in rags, they were malnourished and they were the happiest kids I'd ever seen. Much happier than the children in the West. And they all wanted to go to school. In 1984, most Nepali children didn't go to school. And, I think, subconsciously, I was thinking of something to do when I retired. I was almost 60 years old and I visited a little hut on top of a mountain one evening when we were camping. There were three little kids sitting on the dirt floor with a board across them doing their homework. Each one had a candle. They were just so happy to be going to school at all. I went back to my sleeping bag and I said to myself, "OK Olga, that's what you're going to do with the rest of your life. You're going to educate Nepali children." And so that's what happened.

CLASS ACT Education is the key to everything. It's the key to social prog-ress, economic progress, and it's the key to a fulfilling life. Nepalis, unlike some other cultures, appreciate educa-tion. It's startling because so many American kids say, "Why do I have to go to school?" You never hear a Nepali child say that, and you never hear a Nepali parent say, "I don't want to send my child to school" - except for once in a while, if it's a daughter.

CREATING FUTURES NGOs like us (the Nepal Youth Foundation) are doing programmes that the Nepalese government should be doing - and I think, eventually, they will. We have two principles. One is, what we start, we finish. We take a kid in kindergarten and (see them) through high school, graduate school, college, whatever education they can afford. If they don't go to college, we send them to vocational training and help them find a job. The other thing is we try to start programmes that are really important, that the government considers priorities. Start them, run them successfully and then convince the government to take them over. It's been very successful.

STAR STRUCK I got to meet the Dalai Lama; it was amazing. It was at a big dinner and he gave me a blessing and a silk scarf, the way the Tibetans do. He's a very approachable, funny, genial person. And Oprah Winfrey. I had barely heard of her - I never watch television. I got a call one day from one of the producers saying, "Somebody told me about you and I understand that you're working in Nepal, tell me about it." So I just sent her the newsletters and the following spring, when I got back to the United States, I got a call saying United Nations Children's Day is coming up and Oprah Winfrey is going to interview Nelson Mandela for that and they were going to pick three people who had programmes for people all over the world and I was one of them.

I brought with me a child from our boys' home who had one arm. He came with me to Chicago and was on the programme with me. It was wonderful. What you see is what you get with Oprah. She is so approachable. It was a very small audience and when there were commercial breaks, she spoke to the audience like they were friends.

ALL CHANGE I came to Hong Kong first in 1985 and it's like a different city now. The changes are astounding. Lots of people were living on boats, on junks in the harbour; there were not many tall buildings. It was not the financial centre of anything, as far as I could tell. But when I came back here for the first time four years ago, I didn't recognise the city at all. I love Hong Kong. It's very exciting and interesting and, in some ways, it reminds me of San Francisco, the variety of people and the energy, and the hills.

 

Olga Murray was in Hong Kong recently to help raise funds for her foundation. For more information, go to www.nepalyouthfoundation.org.hk.

 

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