As Hannah Cremona’s first Christmas away from her family in Malta, she is lucky enough to spend it in a place she considers her second home. In October, Hannah travelled to Nepal for the third time, with no return ticket.

“I’m currently volunteering at Maya Universe Academy in the Tanahun district,” she says. “Tanahun is located at the foot of the Himalayas. Here, in rural Nepal, most of the people who live in the villages depend on farming for their livelihoods. Life is very simple, with limited access to basic amenities like sanitation, education and safe drinking water.

Hannah Cremona with a local shop owner during the Dashain festival.Hannah Cremona with a local shop owner during the Dashain festival.

“But it’s beautiful. The landscape is hilly and green and the nights are crisp and cold. In the morning, the valleys are shrouded in heavy mist. There are wild animals, including leopards and monkeys. And from the hilltop, I can see the Annapurna mountain range.”

The Maya Universe Academy is a social entrepreneurship project providing quality free education for the villages’ children as well as another 20 children from other villages. Instead of paying for their children’s school fees, parents dedicate time to the project.

“The school is run by the community and employs local teachers, farmers and construction workers,” Cremona says. “Parents also volunteer to work on ongoing projects.”

Cremona is currently leading the sales and marketing efforts for the Maya’s poultry farm.

“The chicken farm was built and set up using donations from Maltese. The profits generated will sustain a food programme, which I started in April 2014. Over 100 students receive fresh eggs three times a week.

“We are now focusing on launching free-range broiler chickens. Our aim is to partner with popular eateries in Pokhara to offer free-range chicken on their menu. We are working towards more conscious farming in both our poultry and vegetable farms.”

In response to the earthquake that shook Nepal last April, Maya built a larger hostel and will soon host over 25 children from Gorkha, a district which was devastated by the earthquake.

Christmas celebrations here are not about buying gifts but about spending time with loved ones

“Right now, life in Nepal can be challenging,” Cremona says. “While everyone is trying to move on and repair the damages caused by the earthquake, we are now suffering a fuel shortage. This makes it difficult to travel around Nepal. Many families do not have gas in their homes. Supplies imported from India, including daily commodities and chicken feed, are running out.

“This is resulting in a heavy rise in prices. People are losing their jobs. Restaurants are closing down and there has been a sharp drop in tourism. Although Nepali people stay eternally hopeful and hospitable, attracting tourists back to the country would be a major lifeline.”

Over the past two years, Cremona has spent five months in Nepal.

“Last Christmas, I woke up feeling a great sadness knowing that I will be consuming copious amounts of food and exchanging fancy gifts, while people in Nepal were suffering. Even though I’m grateful for what I have, this year I decided to return to Nepal in October and spend Christmas here. I wanted to share what I have and give what I can to the children at Maya.

“Hindu is the main religion among the Nepali people. However, everyone is tolerant towards other religions and the harmony is quite unique. There is a small Christian community close to our village. Some Korean friends are building a small church too. I plan to celebrate Christmas with these families who live and work with us at Maya Universe Academy. The children have never heard of Father Christmas. I would like to make this day a little special for them this year.

“Christmas celebrations here are not about buying gifts but about spending time with loved ones. We are planning to collect a little money from each volunteer to buy small gifts for the children and volunteers who live at the hostel. We will exchange them on Christmas morning while enjoying tea and cookies.

“I have celebrated the main Hindu festivals, Dashain and Tihar, in the months leading up to December. It has been special to share this experience. Nepalis celebrate with plenty of food and raksi, which is local mulled wine. Elders put tika, a mark on the forehead, on the younger family members and give their blessing. This is the main thing that differentiates from our Christmas celebrations in Malta. Nepal is my second home and I look forward to sharing this time with my new family.”

Still, Cremona will miss spending Christmas in Malta.

“I will miss opening my Christmas stocking with my brothers while sipping tea and sharing stupid jokes. I will also miss my niece Giulia’s first Christmas. However, I will be happy here. Seeing the children laughing will give me great happiness.”

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