I knew I wanted to be a teacher from a very young age. When I was two years old and saw my sister go to school I cried because I wanted to go, too. I was born and raised in Nantes, in Brittany (in France). My parents worked as printers and I have two sisters and one brother. After school I went to Toulouse and did a degree in biology and then a diploma of research – the equivalent of a PhD – in plants.

In Toulouse, I met a sister at the Foreign Missions of Paris, a Catholic missionary organisation. I told them I wanted to dedicate my life to education and teach Chinese people and they accepted me. I came to Hong Kong in 1964 – I didn’t come as a missionary, I was independent, but I stayed with the mission at first.

As soon as I arrived in Hong Kong I felt at home. I couldn’t speak English or Chinese so I joined a local kindergarten class to learn Chinese. There are nine tones in Chinese and the children were not shy about correcting me if I got it wrong. I was 29 years old and the other students were only four or five, but they liked me and I’m still in touch with some of them. I also learned how to write Chinese.

After about 18 months I left the class and continued studying by myself. I got a job teaching biology at St Clare’s Girls’ School, on Mount Davis Road.

The riots in 1967 were terrible. When we walked past the leftists on the street they looked at us with hatred in their eyes. Later, the bodies of people who were killed during the Cultural Revolution floated down the Pearl River and into Hong Kong harbour. When Hong Kong people saw that, things started to calm down here.

I like to be busy helping people, that’s when I’m happiest
Nicole Sicard

A lot of refugees came from China. The students at St Clare’s wanted to do something meaningful. I’d heard there were people who had fled China and were living on boats and working in factories. They were illiterate. So, in 1968, we started a free school called Shek Pai Wan for the factory workers and the students taught them from 7pm to 9pm. That school ran for 22 years.

In 1971, I went to Paxi, in Laos, in the summer holiday, to help the refugees from the Vietnam war. The situation was very bad – they didn’t have any food and would go into the forest to find snails and leaves to eat. With my biology background I was able to help on the medical side, giving injections and helping deliver babies. I helped there for two summers.

I like to be busy helping people, that’s when I’m happiest. After teaching at St Clare’s for nine years I taught biology and integrated sciences at a boy’s school, Yu Chun Keung Memorial College No 2 (in Pok Fu Lam), and then moved to St Paul’s Secondary School (in Happy Valley), where I taught English for 10 years.

In 1978, during the holidays, I went to Palawan, in the Philippines, to help the refugees from Vietnam. They couldn’t speak English but many could speak French so I listened to their problems and translated for them. They arrived in boats – many had been [attacked] or raped by the Thai people. I remember one boy, he was just skin and bones, and he survived by eating his mother. When he recovered he said, “I want to dedicate my life to helping others.”

[The Dalai Lama] impressed me with his knowledge, he can talk about anything
Nicole Sicard

I went to Bataan in the north and one night, after a long day of travelling, I drank some water that I was told had been boiled, but it couldn’t have been because I was so ill in the night I thought I’d die. It took four years to get rid of the bug and I weighed just 38kg, but I never stopped work­ing. Now I’m very careful about water when I’m travelling.

In 1993, I visited Tibet with my grandnephew who was only 15 at the time. I was so impressed with the people and the country that on my return I contacted the secretary of the Dalai Lama and said I wanted to come to Dharamsala. I met the Dalai Lama at his monastery in McLeod Ganj and we spoke for about 20 minutes.

We are the same age – I was born at end of May, in 1935, and he was born at the beginning of July. He has an explosive laugh – it was a fantastic encounter. We talked about the situation in Tibet, what I’m doing in Hong Kong. He impressed me with his knowledge, he can talk about anything – I told him I am Catholic and he said he’d read the Gospel and knew it well; that impressed me.

In Dharamsala, I met a group called Friends of Tibet and started supporting a refugee school there. I’m still helping the school.

In 1996, when I was at St Paul’s, I got a phone call telling me that I’d got Hong Kong’s Best Teacher of the Year award – I didn’t even know I’d been nominated. It was the first time it had been given to a foreign­er. They said I got it for being the most dedicated teacher.

I retired in 1998 and one rainy day that year I decided to go to Nepal. I visited a slum area near Balaju, in Kathmandu. The people didn’t have anything – no toilet, an outside kitchen. I met up with a group called Concern that was helping the locals and gave seminars to the teachers to show them how to teach in a way that the children would be more engaged.

Since I retired I have been giving lessons at my home in Sai Ying Pun to children who have problems such as dyslexia but whose parents are too poor to pay for private tutors. I tell them, just pay what you can
Nicole Sicard

The man who ran the organisation got into politics and lost interest in the group, so I took it over. Mayaa Nepal was set up as a charity in 2011 and we sponsor children, giving them books, stationery and uniforms so they can go to the free local schools. We sponsor more than 180 children. We make an agreement with their mothers that the children must commit to finishing their education and when they have we help them get a job. We raise money in Hong Kong – my past students donate and the Rotary Club is also very generous.

Since I retired I have been giving lessons at my home in Sai Ying Pun to children who have problems such as dyslexia but whose parents are too poor to pay for private tutors. I tell them, just pay what you can. I have 18 students. I don’t see myself ever going back to France – Hong Kong is my home.