Interview with Claire Lama

Last week, I offered some thoughts on our obligation as (relatively) wealthy, educated women to those less fortunate. I wanted to make the point that we can effect change no matter our role—mother, accountant, bus driver, and so on—if we obey the Lord’s commandments in our daily work and practice charity with compassion and prudence. I wanted to share an interview with a woman who has done and is doing what she can for causes she cares about.

Claire, could you give me some background about yourself and your work?

I’m a Pittsburgh native, and I lived in Nepal for three years working with Mennonite Central Committee. I worked on an agriculture and nutrition project that had me traveling around the country to meet with farmers.

While in Nepal, I met my husband, Prashant. After returning to Pittsburgh, I worked as a medical case worker for newly arrived Nepali-speaking refugees. This led me to become a doula and now a childbirth educator for the Nepali-speaking refugee population.

Prashant and I live in Point Breeze with our baby son. We enjoy growing vegetables and cooking Nepali food.

You mentioned you worked for the Mennonite Central Committee. Do you belong to the Mennonite faith?

I was raised in a Presbyterian church and was drawn to the values of the Mennonite Church of simplicity and peace in college. We now attend The Open Door, which is a Presbyterian church in Pittsburgh.

Did your faith inspire the positions you took in Nepal and then Pittsburgh?

I found Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) through a friend who has worked in international development for many years. She had told me that MCC does really good quality work, has an excellent reputation with low overhead, and would be a good place for me to start working. It was easy to get behind their mission of “relief, development and peace in the name of Christ,” so it was a good fit for me.

I actually started my time with MCC in India. Shortly after arriving there, though, details of my visa changed with new laws, and I had to leave. I was given the option to go to Bangladesh, Nepal, or back to the US. After much prayer and thought, I ended up in Nepal with a position that I didn’t like. My first few months there were miserable. I was able to change my job to something that would allow me to stay in the country for three years instead of one.

I was a food security advisor, which meant that I was in charge of the reporting, monitoring, and evaluation of an agriculture and nutrition project. The first few weeks of that new position were excruciatingly boring. It was a new project and a new position, so I didn’t have much going on. I realized that if I wanted to survive with my sanity intact, I needed to do something out of the office.

A refugee community center was looking for volunteers, so I spent one day per week teaching English and math to men and women who had left their homes (mostly Myanmar and Somalia), fled to Nepal, and were awaiting their final resettlement.

That was my first experience working with refugees. I ended up loving my primary job but was grateful for the opportunity at the community center. When I returned to the US, I wanted to work with refugees, and I spoke Nepali. I found out that there were about 5,000 Nepali-speaking Bhutanese refugees here in Pittsburgh, so I started working as a medical case worker.

Why did you choose the doula/childbirth direction?

While I was working as a medical caseworker, I often referred the pregnant women to a doula agency called The Birth Circle. They provide free doula services to women on medical assistance. I knew what a doula was, but I had very little knowledge beyond that.

I was looking for a new job, and one day I was interpreting for a doula on a home visit. I thought, “Why am I interpreting when I could just do this myself?” I called up the Birth Circle and told them that they should hire me because I speak Nepali. Six weeks later, I was a trained doula working at the Birth Circle.

All of that’s to say that it wasn’t a single decision that led me to this work. One of my favorite projects I saw in Nepal was a nutrition clinic specifically for pregnant women. The maternal mortality rate there is so high, but the government is working hard to lower it. Women mostly give birth at home and only seek medical care if something becomes complicated. This works well if a health post or hospital is nearby, but is not the case for most women, and by the time they reach help, it’s too late.

The nutrition clinic had women come a month before her due date and stay there until the baby was born. During that month, they do a lot of teaching and training about nutrition. When a women gives birth there, she can get help quickly if needed.

I would love to learn more about public health or midwifery and help to continue to improve the safety of giving birth in Nepal.

I noticed you have a GoFundMe page for rebuilding your husband’s village in Nepal following the massive earthquake in April. How is that going?

The fundraising went well! We hosted three fundraising dinners and raised about $26,000. Nepal sits on a fault line so a massive earthquake was expected. The last one was in the 1930s and they come about every 80 years. When we lived there, we had an earthquake bag packed with food, money, water, passport copies, and so on in case the earthquake happened.

It was surreal when I woke up to the news in April that “the big one” had finally come. I was able to contact some friends in Kathmandu within a day thanks to Facebook and the internet, but it took us days to find out about Prashant’s village. The news was mixed. All of the buildings were destroyed but most people had survived. He lost a brother-in-law and a couple more distant relatives.

We struggled with grieving, feeling helpless because we were trying to take care of our 3-month-old at the time and couldn’t travel. The fundraising was our response to that. It’ll take about $1,000-1,200 to completely rebuild a house, so $26000 will go far. It’s monsoon season in Nepal, which means that it rains all day every day. Many people, including my in-laws, are still sleeping under tarps. Prashant left for Nepal on the 13th to hand over the money and help his family.

Is there anything you wish women of the developed world knew about women in the developing world?

My answer for this is really two-fold. I wish that women here knew how hard life is in the developing world. From arranged child marriages to low education levels to high maternal mortality rates, the world can feel like a pretty grim place for a woman. It’s important to hold those truths and to understand them, to learn about them even if it makes you uncomfortable.

That being said, a woman is a woman and a mother is a mother no matter where she lives. We are all connected and that makes the first part of my answer all the harder to hold. I saw beautiful examples of courage, hope, strength, and joy in the women who I met in Nepal.

Obviously not everyone is in the position to go abroad and lend a hand, although it’s awesome that you did. What are smaller-scale ways women can help?

This is a great question, especially this month as we’re seeing images of refugees flooding into Europe. The image of the baby boy who drowned, Aylan, is on my mind as I wrestle my own baby down for a nap.

I believe that the first step is to be informed. Watching reputable news and learning the deeper story are a great starting point. For example, why are the refugees leaving their countries? What is a refugee? Do my politics and vote have any influence over the situation that led to this? Are there refugees in my area? How can I be involved in helping them? Answering those questions helps me relate to an overwhelming, heartbreaking situation.

Another idea is to consider yourself a global citizen and to think about how the decisions that you make affect people around the world. Follow the idea of living simply so that others may simply live. Where did this apple come from? Were the workers treated well when they picked it? How can we as a family make financial choices that give respect and dignity to others? Learn about a new culture and try out some of their food. Learn to say a few words in a different language.

MCC has some great ideas for involving children in helping. They send comforters and various kits for education, hygiene, or infant care around the world. They have more information about that here: http://mcc.org/get-involved/kits. They also have a “My Coins Count” project that helps give kids the tools to fundraise. More here:http://mcc.org/get-involved/my-coins-count

And of course, giving money is always helpful. Find an organization that has a track record of doing good work with local partners and financial transparency.

Thanks, Claire, for taking time to share your experience.

About Taryn Frazier

Taryn thinks writing in the third person about herself is weird. Her father was military, so she grew up all over the United States. She earned her bachelor's degree in biology at Bryn Athyn College of the New Church, then taught for two years in the Academy high school. She and her young family moved to Kempton for three happy years, where Pearse served as the pastor's assistant. They then moved to Pittsburgh in 2014, where Pearse serves as pastor. Taryn enjoys being wife to Pearse and mother to two small kids. She's particularly interested in knitting local community together, reading, being outdoors, and thinking about education--hers and the kids'.

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