Barry Bialek still considers himself a Nepali at heart
ROSHAN SAWA in ILAM
The 61-year-old surgeon from Colorado, has visited Nepal more than 30 times. He is fluent in Nepali, familiar with Nepal's social, cultural and political affairs, wears the traditional Nepali 'dhaka topi' regularly and prefers to be called Bir Bahadur Subba.
After completing his BA 40 years ago, he had two alternatives: work in the mountain states of the US or volunteer in a developing country half way across the world. After serious deliberation he chose the latter, joining the Peace Corps where he was assigned to teach science at a school here in Namsaling of Ilam district.
Bialek recalls the initial difficulties he had while learning Nepali, his frustration at not being able to speak the language for the first six months and the inaccuracies he found in translated texts used in science modules such as: the 'Sun revolves around the Earth'.
When Bialek realised his students had no textbooks, he taught science classes using examples from daily life and put together a science laboratory in the school.
Fellow teacher Homnath Adhikari recalls Bialek was well-liked by Namsaling residents. Adhikari himself was inspired when Bialek once asked his class to write an essay on where they wanted Ilam and Nepal to be in 100 years.
"That essay completely opened my mind," says Adhikari, who went to set up the Namsaling Comminuty Development Center (NCDC).
Bialek went home after two years to become a teacher in America. He frequently met classmates from George Washington University to discuss ways to implement long-term development projects. Eventually, Bialek decided to dedicate his life to sustainable development in Nepal and returned in 1983 to help launch NCDC with Adhikari. Bialek is now involved with the organisation, Engineers Without Borders which helps projects in developing countries.
NCDC works with VDCs throughout Ilam and across Nepal in environment, agriculture, hydroelectricity, and biodiversity projects. Bialek has set up the Nepal Community Development Foundation in North America to raise money for his work in Nepal. During this recent visit to Nepal Bialek was advising Ilam Municipality on how to turn itself into a 'green town'.
In September 1962, Nepal welcomed the inaugral batch 68 Peace Corps volunteers, becoming one of the first countries in the world to host a program pioneered by president John F Kennedy.
The next 40 years saw at least 4,000 American graduates and professionals serve in Nepal. It was a different, roadless, tvless, phoneless and internetless Nepal in those days, yet the volunteers taught in schools and colleges, trained teachers, assisted at health posts and helped out with agricultural programs. In return they gained valuable experiences living and working in a developing county and forged lifelong friendships. Many volunteers continued working in Nepal as diplomats or in the development and education sector.
The Peace Corps was closed down in September 2004 after the Maoists set off a minor explosion at the American Information Centre in Gyaneswor. Initially the withdrawal was meant to last six months, but as the security condition worsened, the Peace Corps suspended its Nepal program indefinitely.
The move to return the Peace Corps was initiated by Finance Minister Bharat Mohan Adhikari during his visit to Washington last year. He made a written request to the US government, and an exploratory American mission visited Kathmandu earlier this year. Sandra Wagner, who once headed the Peace Corps Asian department, has been appointed director of Peace Corps Nepal. the budget for the revived Peace Corps comes from the USAID's health outlay, sources say. Wagner is expected in Kathmandu in January to prepare the logistics for opening the new office.
The news of resumption of the Peace Corps program has delighted alumnae and friends of Nepal around the world.
Barry Bialek, a volunteer stationed in Ilam in the early 1970s says: "My Peace Corps experience in Nepal opened my heart and mind in ways I had never imagined. I'm very glad the Peace Corps are coming back to Nepal, both for the new volunteers and for Nepal." (See profile, above.)
(Published in Nepali Times 23 Dec. 2011)