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HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS – Bonnie Ellison
Text by: Garima Golchha
From managing an advertising company in San Francisco to looking after 50 orphaned children in Kathmandu, Bonnie Ellison shares her journey with Garima Golchha.
In the hunt for better living standards and higher incomes, many leave Nepal in pursuit of perceived better job opportunities overseas. But, Bonnie Ellison is a remarkable contrast to this dynamic.
Ellison, current Country Director of Ama Ghar, has been working in Nepal for the past 17 years. She is following in the footsteps of her father who always wanted to something give back to the people of Nepal.
Her journey to Nepal as an American expat is no less than ordinary.
Bonnie first came to Kathmandu at the age of eight, when her father, an agricultural engineer, was posted to Nepal. She joined Lincoln School in the fall of 1956, and was one of the first students of the school at the time. “The childhood memories of my life in Nepal are very strong and vivid. Leaving Nepal at the age of 14 was a very emotional transition for me. It was my home. It was all I knew. It may have been an immature decision at the time, but when my family decided to leave Nepal, I made a promise to myself that I would one day return to Nepal permanently and do something of worth,” she recalls.
Ellison’s life took her down various life paths, but she remained unwavering and relentless in her promise to return. Bonnie continued her education in Switzerland and France and went to the United States for college graduation. She moved to San Francisco, where she initially worked as a secretary with an advertising company for many years.
Later, she became one of its top managers. She shares, “My job in San Francisco was very high pressured. I kept coming back to Nepal on a regular basis whenever I could during my holidays. For me personally, it was something I needed to do. It kept me focused. It kept me centred.”
Keeping her promise
Despite her professional success in the US, she was adamant about returning. Then she met Shrawan Nepali at a Dashain festival gathering in San Francisco. They both talked of returning to Nepal. Shrawan grew up at Paropakar Orphanage in Kathmandu and pursued his studies in the US with the help of Peace Corps volunteers. Although living in America, he along with like-minded Nepalis and Americans including Bonnie, came up with the idea of opening Ama Ghar, a place for needy children. “When Ama Ghar Foundation was set up in the US in the spring of 2001, and later established in Nepal as an NGO, I knew that this was my calling,” Ellison says.
A spontaneous decision at the time, but with clear mind and certainty, Bonnie decided to take the leap and leave the life of comfort and ease she had constructed for herself in San Francisco, and move to Nepal. She took early retirement, dissolved her business, sold her house, packed her bags and moved to Kathmandu, never looking back. “There was no part of me that ever questioned this decision. I knew that it would be difficult at first, but it just felt so right. It was no surprise for my friends and family when they heard I was moving. After all, they had heard endless stories about Nepal,” she tells.
Life in Kathmandu
As soon as she landed Ellison realised that a lot had changed in the last 60 years. “The first time I went to Pokhara from Kathmandu was by foot. And then suddenly, there was a road and now there’s a plane,” she exclaims. “I always tell people I have two eyes. One that sees the Kathmandu with the old Hanuman Dhoka, and one that sees the new one,” she adds.
However, it was not an easy transition for Ellison to leave her US lifestyle. “I think that it is difficult for any person globally working in another culture. On one hand, you want to impose your own culture, but at the same, you also have to be very sensitive to the new culture. I think instead of questioning the new culture, the sooner you accept the differences of working here, the sooner you can join the flow and be more effective,” Ellison states.
Life as an Expat
Although an American citizen, due to her childhood in Nepal and her life abroad in Africa and Europe, Ellison struggled to identify herself as American, and always felt a strong, underlying connection to Nepal, where her childhood and fondest memories were based.
Ellison expresses the internal fulfilment she experiences everyday working for children. “Working with the youth is vibrant and challenging. Every day is a joy to see children grow up and meet their potential. My father had six children and all the children around would always come by our house and play. My dad loved kids and I think I got that trait from him,” she shares.
Ama Ghar currently houses 48 underprivileged children and primarily focuses on their education. She informs, “Too many children are being set aside. It’s shameful that children aren’t being cared for. Ama Foundation supports children all the way to bachelors level of education. Many go on to do vocational training and then work. The children at Ama Ghar are the ones that need homes. They don’t have the normal safety net of a family. So, the transition period for them when they leave Ama Ghar and start to live and work independently is very important.”
She does not accept any salary from Ama Ghar and has fully devoted her life to serving underprivileged children. She concludes, “If you can contribute and nurture a child’s life that would go out in the future to become a self-sustaining, productive citizen, for me personally, it is my greatest achievement.”