Thursday, August 28, 2008

Davakar



This beautiful boy is Davakar. He is 5 years old at the time of the photo. His mom is still alive but has cancer and is unable to take care of him so he lives at the Home. Davakar is awesome because he is like an old man in a 5 year old boy's body. He has this adorable habit of walking around with this hands resting on the top part of his stomach (what I imagine a 60 year old man would do when taking his morning stroll in the nearby park). Davakar is also really thoughtful. He was in my class and would always be the first to finish projects such as the "autobiography" he is holding in the above photo. Whenever he finished his work instead of running around like a normal 5 year old, he would go around and help the other students finish their projects! Davakar is also incredibly smart. One of my favorite stories is that I was teaching the kids the words "fast" and "slow" and I said something like "I run slow!" at which point Davakar piped up and said "I run slowLY". I was floored. This kid is clearly a genius. Also just another example of what kind of intelligence and talents would have gone to waste without Sandhya and without the Home.

PS - Davakar is holding a page from his autobiography that I had the kids write. I taught them some simple sentences and they filled in the blank. Davakar's says "I love Sandhya. I like the color red. I don't like pacola. My favorite activity is reading."

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Mustafa and Abdhul

Okay, enough stories about girls, here is my first post on some of the boys at the Aarti Home. The above photo is of Mustafa (in front) and Abdhul. Mustafa and Abdhul are orginally from the Mumbai area. They are not orphaned children at all, but actually lost children. The story, as I understand it, is that Mustafa and Abdhul both separately became lost from their families. Being very young at the time, they did not know how to find their homes and could not tell the police where they lived. The police posted notices in the newspaper trying to find their parents, but no one ever came to claim them. Not knowing what to do with these two boys, the Indian police decided to stick them in a juvenile detention center.

A few years ago, Sandhya was asked by the government to take her expertise on caring for so many children at once, and inspect the juvenile detention center. Sandhya said that was she found was disgusting: the boys lived in tiny cells with one (very unclean) bathroom for the entire center and were given bland, unnutrious dinners (rice, and sometimes curry if they were lucky). They were not given any kind of education or any other kind of activities to keep occupied. During her visit to this juvenile detention center, Sandhya was especially horrified to find Mustafa and Abdhul -- boys clearly too young to be criminals. When she heard their backstory, she convinced the government to allow her to bring them back to The Home where they have been living ever since.

One of the more heartbreaking moments at The Home was the week leading up to Mustafa's mother's birthday. Every day, Mustafa would ask Sandhya to call the Mumbai police to find his mother in order to wish her a timely "happy birthday". Of course, we could not find Mustafa's mother for him. Comforting him on her birthday was one of the saddest moments of my life.

Another interesting story about Mustafa and Abdhul was the day they decided to change their names. From their names, it is clear that both these boys came from Muslim families. Though the kids at the Aarti Home will try to convince you that there is no religion at The Home, there is prayer time when they read from the Bhagava Gita and also an altar for the Hindu Gods. Mustafa is especially religious, and likes to pick fresh flowers daily for the altar. Although the idea of religions being mutually exclusive of each other is not too strong at The Home (kids would constantly ask us or tell us about their favorite Gods; Ganesh and Jesus were always among the top three), most of the children are professed Hindus. Maybe it was this that made Mustafa uncomfortable, or maybe the passing of his mother's birthday lit some fire within him to start a new life, but something triggered Mustafa to change his name to Sreenivas. This was a little bit adorable because Sreenivas is the name of one the older boys at The Home whom Mustafa really liked, but mostly just strange because he was very, very adamant about the fact that everyone refer to him as Sreenivas. Abdhul, his best friend and most loyal follower, subsequently also decided he wanted to change his name but did not know what to change it to so Sandhya decided on "Sreekunth" for him. No one else at The Home seemed to think this name change was as strange as I did, so maybe it's a cultural thing? Anyhow, this happened towards the end of my stay, so these boys will always be Mustafa and Abdhul to me.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Hashitar and Washitar

Washitar (left) and Hashitar (right), pictured above in the blue hats and outfits, were the two babies at The Home while I was there. We are celebrating their birthdays in the photo above. Like most of the kids at the Aarti Home, the birthdays of Washitar and Hashitar (so named because they arrived at The Home around the same time) are actually unknown. Sandhya just chose a random auspicious day to be their birthdays. Everyone at The Home has a "birthday" and everyone's birthday is celebrated with cake and ice cream and the birthday boy/girl gets to wear a special outfit throughout the day instead of the usual school uniform.

Washitar and Hashitar both arrived at the Aarti Home as babies and so the Aarti Family is the only they will ever know. Everyone at The Home collectively takes care of them, taking turns washing, feeding, and playing with them. Washitar is more outgoing and loves to be held by everyone. Hashitar does not like strangers and she mostly just cried whenever I tried to hold or play with her. Also one time she peed on my arm.

Most of the babies that arrive at the Aarti Home have either been abandoned at the local hospital or left on the steps of the Home. In one especially horrifying story, a mother left her baby in a shoebox on the steps of the Home one night prior to a rainstorm. By the time the live-in mothers at The Home discovered the baby, she had been soaked in cold rain for the past 6 hours, and sadly, did not survive. Because of this Sandhya has now created a covered crib outside The Home for babies to be safely deposited into. It is a bittersweet reality that the crib is now regularly used.

Although I think it is horrible that Washitar and Hashitar will grow up never knowing what a mother's love feels like, I love these two babies with all my heart and am so grateful for the joy they have brought me. Here they are during the celebration of Krishna's birthday. Washitar (being held by Sandhya) is dressed up as Krishna and Hashitar is dressed up as Radha, Krishna's lover.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Pushpa


I will write about Pushpa first because she is one of the first stories I learned about.  Pushpa was eight at the time of this photo.  Her name means "flower" in Hindi.  From what we can gather from her, her father used to have her dance on the streets to make a living. A few years ago, her father remarried, and her stepmother sold her to a sixty-something year old man for "marriage".  Pushpa says it was her stepmother who sold her, but who knows which parent actually decided what.  She was sexually abused by this man, and so she ran away and lived at a train station for some time before being discovered by a teacher who brought her to the Home.   arrived.  

We arrived at The Home just a week after Pushpa did. When we met Pushpa, she was having a very difficult time adjusting to the home.  Not only had she been through such traumatizing events, she spoke a different language from the other children which made it hard for her to make friends.  Because she danced on the streets during her childhood, she missed out on a substantial amount of education and was put in classes with the youngest children who were just learning their ABC's.  So, Pushpa being very sad and lonely when we met her, became one of the first chidren we connected with. We quickly showered with the eight years of love and attention that she had missed out on.

My favorite thing about Pushpa was that she had this very adult way of speaking -- she sometimes reminded me of a wise grandmother.  There was one day when I was sitting with her and all the boys in the home ran into us and were being really rowdy and she made this "tsk" noise, turned to me with this disdainful look on her face, and shook her head and muttered "boys..." 

A few months ago I was sad to find out that Pushpa was having such a hard time with her studies that she had decided to give up on an education and was trying to learn how to do embroidery and stitching instead.  The last time I called the Aarti home, I was shocked to find out that Pushpa had been taken out of the home by her brother, and it is unclear where she is now or what she is doing.  I can only hope that her brother's character is more upstanding than her father's , and that she will be able to learn a vocational skill that will enable her to make a living and support herself, instead of falling back into the position of being owned and controlled by the men around her.  

Aarti Home


In the summer after my freshman year of college (2007) I spent five weeks teaching English at this wonderful organization called the Aarti Home (pictured above).  Those five weeks were the happiest weeks of my life and, collectively, the most meaningful experience I have ever had.  The Home was started 15 years ago by my personal hero Sandhya Puchalapelli.  What started as a simple effort to take care of a few orphaned children has turned into a full fledged NGO providing shelter, education, and love to over 80 children.  Out of these 80 kids, about 70 of them are girls abandoned by their parents because of deep-rooted economic and cultural forces that disfavor daughters.  The luckiest of the girls are those who were abandoned as babies, untraumatized by the event that left them at The Home.  Others, sadly, have been sold, prostituted, or chosen to run away from a life of domestic abuse.  It completely breaks my heart and makes me sick to my stomach that these children have been through these types of things that no child should have to endure.  And yet, these children are able to live their lives with so much gratitude for the people around them. They are more eager, curious, and lively than many other children I have work with.  I started this blog so that I can share with everyone the stories and lives of these children.  I don't mean this blog to be a "look-what-kind-of-horrible-things-there-are-in-the-world", because quite honestly, these are the happy stories.  Without Sandhya and without The Home, these kids would all be out on the streets stealing and lying to survive, if not dead.  Instead, I want this blog to be both a tribute to the resilience and awesomeness of the children, and a reminder to us that it's really not that hard to make big, positive changes on other people's lives; we just have to put our minds and hearts to it.