ALMOST two years of local fundraising have come to fruition with the opening of six new classrooms at a school in Nepal.
The building has been made possible thanks to a project set up in memory of Neal Turkington, the young Portadown soldier killed in Afghanistan in 2010.
Neal’s family - father Ivor, mum Marie, brother Gareth and sister Cathy - have recently returned from an unforgettable and emotional visit to the mountainous Lamjung region where they unveiled a plaque to officially open the two-storey extension which will be school to 476 children.
Although the original target for the Neal Turkington Nepal Project was set at £55,000, the overwhelming support from the public helped that figure reach almost £102,000.
One of the most recent cheques was for £3,501.48 from Bocombra Primary School, which Neal attended. His other local schools, Killicomaine JHS and Portadown College, have also been active in raising money, with countless individuals and groups also playing their part by organising everything from quizzes to barbecues.
The latest individual to be inspired by the project is Cork man Ed Burke, who is currently walking 400km along the Irish Border to raise funds.
And next week, Ivor Turkington will meet up with Ed, a former official in Afghanistan, to accompany him on the local leg of the walk from Armagh to Portadown.
Said Ivor, “Ed was struck by the similarities between Neal and himself, even though they had never met. They were both young men from Ireland, the same age, they had been to university in London at the same time, and they had both worked in Afghanistan, with Neal being killed shortly after Ed arrived in the country.”
In a blog he is writing on his trip, Ed said that the more he found out about Neal, including his passion for the Gurkhas and Nepal and the humanitarian work in which he was involved, the more he felt ‘sedentary and selfish’ by contrast. The Cork man is fascinated by frontiers and what they mean to people and decided this walk along the border would be the most appropriate way to raise funds for Neal’s project.
Neal, an officer with the Royal Gurkha Rifles, died on July 13, 2010 when his base was targeted by a rogue member of the Afghan National Army, which the British Army had been working alongside.
The book and travel-loving soldier, whose motto was ‘seize the moment, make a difference, have no regrets’, had first visited Nepal when he was 19 to teach English as a volunteer. He had also worked on a number of humanitarian projects both in Nepal and El Salvador.
After graduating from Sandhurst Military Academy, Neal returned to Nepal to learn the language and it is the school he attended in Thansing Valley which has been extended and has benefited from his legacy.
Ivor, who described the trip to Nepal as an “emotional rollercoaster”, with feelings of pride interspersed with sadness at the loss of a son and brother, said his first impressions of the country were of the profound poverty in which people lived. However, he was also struck by the wonderful reception his family received and the gratitude of the Nepalese villagers which he described as “completely and utterly overwhelming”.
In fact, the whole village of 700 people came out to greet the Turkington family, and put on a two-hour cultural display for them. He said, “I’ll never forget the people with their eyes so full of joy at the prospect of having this new building.
“It took us 20 minutes to get from the school gates to the podium to unveil the plaque as there were so many people putting garlands round our necks and dye on our faces, which is a traditional form of welcome.”
Ivor added, “The difference between the old school and the new one is like the difference between day and night. The old one was like a cattle shed and the new one is a modern, earthquake resistant structure.
“It was very difficult emotionally but seeing the school gave us a sense that Neal’s life and where we are now on our journey means so much to people over there.”
Looking to the future, the Turkington family hopes to spend the surplus money on a similar school building project, and is working with the Gurkha Welfare Trust to identify a suitable school.
Part of the money will also be used to fund computers for the school which has just been refurbished and to promote cultural links between it and the Portadown schools which Neal attended.