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Olga Murray, Who Changed the Lives of Children in Nepal, Dies at 98

After a six-week trip to India in 1984, Olga Murray flew to Nepal to hike through remote Himalayan villages.

There, Ms. Murray, an adventurous, 59-year-old lawyer, encountered stunning landscapes and friendly people. But it was the children she met during her trek along rugged mountain trails from Pokhara to Siklis that enchanted her and went on to transform her life.

“They were poor beyond anything I had ever experienced — dirty, dressed in ragged clothes, malnourished, without toys of any sort,” she wrote in her autobiography, “Olga’s Promise: One Woman’s Commitment to the Children of Nepal” (2015, with Mary Sutro Callender). “And yet, they were the most joyful, funny, amiable little kids anywhere on earth. Their most fervent wish was to go to school someday.”

One night, she was invited into a hut, where she met three children whose father said they were lucky to get an education — even if they hiked two hours up and down a mountain to school. As she watched the children sitting on the dirt floor of their hut, doing their homework by candlelight, she had a revelation.

“I suddenly knew — out of the blue, in a lightning moment — what I wanted to do with the rest of my life,” she wrote. “Right then, I made a promise to myself that I would find a way to educate Nepali children.”

Ms. Murray dedicated her next 40 years to thousands of Nepali children. She began during her next visit in 1985, providing $1,200 in college scholarships to four orphaned boys.

Then, through the Nepal Youth Foundation, which she co-founded in 1989, she created a social safety net that included building nutritional centers to relieve starvation. She also rescued thousands of girls and young women who had been sold by their fathers, often poor subsistence farmers, into indentured servitude for wealthy Nepalese families.

Ms. Murray, who was recognized by the Dalai Lama in 2001 as an “unsung hero of compassion,” died on Feb. 20 at her home in Sausalito, Calif. She was 98 and had lived half the year in Nepal; her final visit there ended in May. The foundation announced the death.

Freeing girls as young as 5 who were sold for $less than $100 a year — a practice called kamlari that was in place for generations among the Tharu ethnic minority in southwestern Nepal — has been one of the foundation’s most significant achievements.

In 2000, the foundation began an unusual arrangement that led to the return of about 13,000 girls from lives of menial labor, long hours and emotional and physical abuse as kitchen slaves: The organization deployed social workers to learn — from the girls’ parents and the middlemen who brokered sales — where the girls were working, Som Paneru, the foundation’s president, said in a phone interview. Sometimes, the police intervened to liberate them. The foundation also found and rescued the girls when they returned to their villages for the annual Maghe Sankranti winter festival — a condition of their employment.

To secure freedom for the girls — also called kamlaris — the foundation offered the families something simple: piglets or goats that they could sell after a year to gain at least the same amount of money as they would selling their daughters. The families could also keep the animals to breed and butcher for income. The foundation also guaranteed that the girls would get an education.

“We brought back 37 girls in 2000 and provided them with school uniforms, clothes, meals and books,” said Mr. Paneru, one of Ms. Murray’s scholarship recipients. The amount of girls rescued rose exponentially each year, he said.

The foundation then sued in Nepal’s Supreme Court to outlaw indentured servitude as a violation of the country’s labor laws; it was declared illegal in 2006, but there was little enforcement until 2013.

“We turned the community against the practice,” Ms. Murray said in a 2014 video on the foundation’s website. “It’s not just this generation of girls, but it’s their daughters and granddaughters and their great-granddaughters who are going to be saved from this terrible practice.”

Many of the rescued kamlaris became vocal opponents of indentured servitude through the Empowering Freed Kamlaris program, which evolved into a network including co-ops with credit groups, microlending opportunities and shared livestock.

Olga Davidovits was born on June 1, 1925, in Satu Mare, Romania, and immigrated to the Bronx when she was 6, with her mother, Matilda (Herskovits) Davis, a seamstress, and her three sisters. They joined her father, Joseph Davidovits, a furniture maker whose surname was changed to Davis when he arrived at Ellis Island in 1927.

After graduating from high school in 1942, Olga traveled around the United States for three years before enrolling at Columbia University. She transferred after a year to Ohio University, in Athens, but returned to Columbia, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in government in 1949.

After graduation, she was rejected for a job at the U.S. State Department because, a college classmate working there said, she was born behind the Iron Curtain and still had relatives there, making her subject to blackmail.

She was soon hired by the syndicated political columnist Drew Pearson to answer reader mail. She worked for him while she attended George Washington University Law School, graduating in 1954.

During her second year in law school, she met Judd Murray, who ran his own advertising agency; they were married in 1955. They divorced six years later but remained friendly until his death in 1976, said her grandson Sean Murray. She is survived by her stepsons, Patrick and Steve Murray; one other grandson; and four great-grandchildren.

Ms. Murray knew it would be unlikely for a woman in her era to land a job at a law firm, and was hired in 1955 as a research attorney, or clerk, at the Supreme Court of California in San Francisco. For the next 37 years, she worked for two justices until she retired in 1992 to focus full time on the foundation.

By then, she and Allan Aistrope, a volunteer English teacher at an orphanage in Nepal, had begun building an organization that operated on a shoestring budget. In 1989, they started what was then called the Nepalese Youth Opportunity Foundation, with Ms. Murray as the president and chief fundraiser. Mr. Aistrope left in a dispute in 2000.

Over the years, the foundation built 17 nutritional rehabilitation clinics; the Olgapuri Children’s Village, which has room for 80 children whose parents cannot support them; a counseling center for children affected by trauma and loss; and a vocational school.

Freeing the enslaved girls resonated deeply with Ms. Murray. On Jan. 15, 2014, which the Nepali government declared Kamlari Freedom Day, she attended a parade in the district of Dang.

“Som and I watched as hundreds of liberated girls marched in their long dresses, chanting slogans and raising their fists in the air,” she wrote in her autobiography. “It took me back to the first demonstration I participated in when there were still thousands of girls bonded away.”

She added, “As we stood on the sidelines, a few of the girls motioned to me to join the march, and so I walked with them — for the last time.”

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