Finding a Calling in the Heights of the Himalayas

Posted on August 16, 2013, by Marissa Kokkoros, Aura Freedom

When Marissa Kokkoros began reading Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide she had no idea of the journey she was embarking on – a journey that would send her from Italy to India and Nepal, through the Himalayas, and finally back to her home in Canada to start her own nonprofit aimed at fighting slavery and oppression worldwide.  In her own words, here’s how the book by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn sent Marissa, 34, on the journey of a lifetime:

I am a former English teacher and volunteer humanitarian clown with the Patch Adams organization, which is where I met my husband, Marco. Together, we have travelled the world with the Patch Adams group, offering love, laughter and hope to the poor, the sick and the oppressed.  But from a very young age, the plight of women and girls struck a cord deep within me and I knew there was something more I wanted to do, I just didn’t know what… until a good friend of mine put Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide in my hands.

I read the book in chunks, having to put it down from time to time, unable to digest the atrocities faced by these women… these GIRLS. I trekked through the pages, horrified and inspired at the same time.  All the while, Marco comforted me as my tears soaked the pages and my dreams filled with the faces of these ‘faceless’ women and girls.  Then it was Marco’s turn to read and it was me who comforted him when his disbelief turned to shock.  We celebrated every triumphant story together, toasting to women like Urmi Basu at dinnertime. 

About a year after reading the book, I looked at Marco and said: “I'm going to India and Nepal.” And he said, “Yes, I know.” We both realized this book was more than an inspiration …this was my CALLING. I realized that there was only one thing I could do to face this problem: UNDERSTAND it. The terrors of sexual slavery and human trafficking especially called out to me, and so we planned our own ‘field trip’ to India and Nepal, armed only with the book, my passion, and each other.

 We contacted Urmi Basu at New Light, explaining that we wanted to come and meet these girls, that we wanted to learn, and that we wanted them to know that somebody cared. I found it hard to fathom what we could accomplish there, but what I did know was that we at least had to GO.

It was then that ‘destiny’ started playing some pretty amazing tricks on us. Strangely, at the same time that we were planning our field trip, we heard that some of our Patch Adams colleagues were organizing a clown tour in Nepal and that they were planning to visit different homes for women and girls, including a 7-day Himalayan trek to a village in the Langtang region, a high-risk zone for sex trafficking.  And so, of course, I looked at Marco and told him to get our clown noses out.

We packed two backpacks and left on February 14, 2013.

Our first stop was Kolkata, India, where we volunteered for three weeks with the children of New Light. Urmi Basu and her team welcomed us with open arms and an open door.  We spent time with the children every afternoon, visited their Dalit centre and danced with the girls at Soma Home. It was magical.

Marissa in Kolkata, India. (Photo courtesy Marissa Kokkoros.)

We next headed to Kathmandu, Nepal, where we had a week to ourselves before the clowning started. By chance, we ended up at Maiti Nepal, which helps survivors of trafficking, on Visitor’s Day and I ended up teaching English lessons to the same girls I had been dreaming about not even a year before.

After Maiti Nepal, we met up with the clowns and started our Himalayan clown tour. 

Marissa and members of the Patch Adams Clown Troupe clown around with children in the Himalayas.  (Photo courtesy Italo Bertolasi -- Clown One Italia Onlus.)

We spent seven days in a village with no electricity and no hot water, going from house to house, clowning in a local school, and getting to know some of the most inspiring women I have ever met. I met women who were tilling soil in extreme conditions with babies strapped to their backs.  I met pregnant women with no maternal care, and little help. I spent my days with them, in their homes, in their fields, playing with their children.


Marissa works with children in the Himalayas.  (Photos courtesy Italo Bertolasi -- Clown One Italia Onlus.)


When it was time to return home I knew that my life could never be the same. I had found my calling. I had to continue to help these women and girls.

This was the beginning of my life, and the best part was my husband was behind me 100 percent. I came back home to Canada where I created Aura Freedom International, a Canadian nonprofit. I have started projects with New Light and Apeiron. But the best news is that Anuradha Koirala and Maiti Nepal will be coming to Toronto on September 29, 2013 as our guests for a fundraiser.

So here we are, only two years after reading Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, back in Canada and organizing an event for Maiti Nepal! It has already been the journey of a lifetime, and it is only beginning.


Check out Aura Freedom to learn more about their work with Maiti Nepal and New Light, donate to their fundraiser, and connect with them on Facebook and Twitter.

How has Half the Sky Movement inspired you? Share your story.