Category Archives: poverty

Before the Sun – Help a “Born Into Brothels” student realize his dream

©Avijit/Kids with Cameras

Maybe you’ve seen the documentary film, Born Into Brothels. A tribute to the resiliency of childhood and the restorative power of art, Born into Brothels is a portrait of several unforgettable children who live in the red light district of Calcutta, where their mothers work as prostitutes. Zana Briski, a New York-based photographer, gives each of the children a camera and teaches them to look at the world with new eyes. When it was released in 2005, the film by Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

The film’s producer, Geralyn Dreyfous, was kind enough to write an endorsement for my book, The Weight of  Silence: Invisible Children of India. Geralyn said, “Weight of Silence makes visible children who remain invisible to the rest of the world and reminds us of each child’s right to dream out loud and in color.”

It’s been 7 years since Born into Brothels was made, and many of the children have gone on to pursue their dreams. One of them, Avijit Halder, himself aspires to be a filmmaker. And he’s raising money to fund his project, Before The Sun. Now a senior at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Avijit has come full circle and is making his own film.

Geralyn Dreyfous wrote to me about Afijit:

Avijit Halder came into my life as a subject in one of the first films I executive produced called BORN INTO BROTHELS. He was a young determined 12 year old determined to get an education and pursue his dreams of being an artist. Several years later he came to Salt Lake City to visit and was offered a scholarship at a local day school Rowland Hall Saint Marks and then landed a scholarship to the Tisch School at NYU, majoring in filmmaking.

Today he is worried about starting his senior thesis, graduating and finding a job in a city he has come to love. He is a remarkable young man. Fearless and not afraid to try new things, Avijit will make his mark in the world as a photographer and filmmaker.

Before the Sun is an undergraduate thesis short film, written and directed by Avijit. It is a visual poetry set in the colorful neighborhood of Jackson Heights, Queens – a place where languages, beliefs, and traditions are piled on top of one another and identity is easily erased – it is the story of three immigrants, imprisoned in their mundane lives.

The three strangers – a Mexican teenage boy, an old Russian man, and a middle aged Bangladeshi housewife – slowly become entangled in a web of inevitability. In their daily lives they intersect one another, and through silent observations, hidden enigmatic bonds are formed.

They have never met one another nor they communicated in any way. Yet everyday expectations are formed as they long for one another. What will happen to these relationships when life takes its toll, shattering it’s fragile existence?

Born into humble beginnings in Calcutta, India, if there’s one person who’s been to the ends of the earth to do what he loves, it’s Avijit, one of the children documented in Born Into Brothels. The documentary’s prestigious Kids With Cameras Program and the amazing Geralyn Dreyfous helped him follow his dreams and his art, and he’s spent the past four years learning every aspect of filmmaking.

Here is what Avijit says about his film:

As an immigrant living in America, I know how hard it is to adapt, and to suppress feelings of nostalgia. When I first arrived to this country,  it was easy because everything was so new and exciting; but after a while I began to feel isolated.  I missed everything about Kolkata, my family, my friends; but most of all the feeling of being understood/ the feeling of belonging. 

Avijit Halder today - photo BBC News

This film is important to me because I believe that it gives a personal voice to immigrants living in  America. Many people in this country have misconceptions about immigrants. Some believe we are the cause of many problems, while others just feel pity for us; but we are never accepted for who we are . 

From experience I would say most of us are here to pursue the ‘American Dream’, and to better our condition. We sacrifice a life at home, but try to re-create a new home in America. This film will give a glimpse inside the mind of immigrants. 

If you would like to help Avijit realize his dreams, you can go to his Indiegogo page to make a contribution to his film. There is also a very nice story about him at BBC News.

When it’s Dangerous to be Born a Girl

Today’s U.K. paper The Telegraph declared a very troubling headline:

India ‘most dangerous place in world to be born a girl.’

Girls are widely regarded as a burden to Indian families who fear the high costs of their weddings. Photo: REUTERS

Females are almost twice as likely as males to die before reaching the age of five, The Telegraph quotes UN figures.

Disturbing and scary don’t even begin to describe such statistics. It’s heartbreaking enough that in many places in India, as well as other parts of the world, poverty and disease and lack of education and warfare or violence have impacted children’s lives so severely.

But to live in a place where it’s twice as dangerous to be born, simply because of your gender, is even more horrifying and unacceptable.

The Telegraph goes on to report:

From 2000 to 2010 there were 56 deaths of boys aged one to five for every 100 female deaths.

Indian campaigners for the rights of girls said the figures reflected widespread discrimination against girls, ranging from neglect to abuse and killing of unwanted female infants.

The figures, compiled by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, emerged as India was plunged into introspection over the case of a two year old girl fighting for her life in hospital after being abandoned by her family and trafficked between several adults before being beaten, bitten and branded by a 14 year old girl. The girl, known as Falak, is suffering from severe chest injuries and brain damage and according to her doctors is unlikely to survive the next 48 hours.

Photo from the UN

Girls are widely regarded as a burden to Indian families who fear the high costs of their weddings and resent spending money on their education only for them later to leave the home to marry.

Many women abort pregnancies when they believe they will deliver a girl, often under pressure from their husbands or in-laws who favour boys.

Campaigners believe there may have been as many as eight million cases of ‘female foeticide’ in India over the last decade.

This discrimination has driven India’s sex ratio progressively lower.

Census statistics show it fell from 976 girls per 1000 boys in 1961 to 914 in 2011.

But according to campaigners the figures hide the cruelty and neglect suffered by girls kept by their families, in particular from malnutrition and denial of medical treatment.

Ranjana Kumari of the Council for Social Research said Indian mothers breast feed girls for a far shorter period than they do their sons and feed them less well because they fear good nourishment will speed the advent of puberty and the need for a costly wedding. While boys are taken immediately to hospital, sick girls are kept waiting because their families do not have the same interest in their survival.

“They think they need to feed the boy, but there is less desire for the girl to survive, it is common in rural India. Boys are immediately taken to the doctor, but not the girl. She is the last to get the medicine,” she said.

Female infanticide was also a factor in the UN figures, she added. “It has been a practice in central India for a long time, where mothers were made to feed the child with salt to kill the girl child.”

In Plain Sight but Invisible

Shelley with fellow volunteers Joanne and Kathleen, waiting on the train

Sitting on my backpack in the Rourkela railway station at ten o’clock p.m., I am waiting with my group of four other volunteers for our train. We hover around our amassed baggage, far more than the five of us need because many of the bags contain art supplies, games and treats for the children at the Miracle Foundation orphanage in Choudwar we are on our way to spend a week with.

From nowhere it seems, two boys suddenly appear beside us. They look about seven or eight years old and are alone. Silently they hold out their hands, then bring them to their mouths, then hold them out again in the universal language of begging. I am acutely aware of the mountain of belongings surrounding the five of us, the suitcases containing toys and treats for other children, the plastic bags of food and drinks for the overnight train journey at my feet.

There are millions of such children in India; waves of people step over and around them every day without ever really seeing them. Of all the vulnerable children they are the least hidden, in plain sight right out on the pavement or the train stations – yet they are perhaps the most invisible of all.

When brought face to face with them, it becomes almost impossible for me to ignore them, to say no. A struggle invariably begins inside my soul and no matter how many times the situation happens, that struggle never lessens and is never resolved. The truth of the matter is that giving money to these children will not have any significant impact on their lives beyond a few moments. It might even worsen their circumstances; many of these children turn the money directly over to parents or other adults who are either exploiting them or simply trying to stay a step above starvation. Reinforcing the tactic of children begging as a successful strategy merely continues the cycle. Activists and NGO workers will tell you over and over that if you really want to make a difference for children like this, or in fact anyone in desperate need, then supporting legitimate holistic programs that address the root issues and long-term solutions is the only way to make a lasting impact.

With railway kids in Mumbai, 2007

I agree with this. In my head, I know it is true. I donate thousands of dollars and volunteer hundreds of hours every year to NGOs that work with vulnerable children. It’s the reason I’m in India in the first place, volunteering in this orphanage. But in my heart it is another story every time I’m approached, every time children like these boys look up at me with their haunted or, even worse, vacant eyes. It’s so hard to look away, to wave them off, to pretend not to see them.

A few minutes later, the station alert sounds as our train approaches the platform. I grab my backpack and a team suitcase. But I can’t help it. Just before we start down the platform to where our car will board, I pull several candy bars and two bottles of soda from a plastic bag and set them on the ground. We begin to walk away and I look toward the boys. Amazingly, they do not grab the snacks and run. They just stand there, not taking their eyes off us. I look at the candy, then at the boys, and nod my head. Hesitantly the older one questions me with his eyes and looks at the pile on the floor for the first time. I nod again and like a shot, the boys quickly snatch it up and dart off at a blazing run.

After we board the train and find our seats, I stow my backpack under a side bench and sit down. Within moments, there is a knock on the window. I look out and the two boys are standing on the platform, now with several other boys. They’re all grinning from ear to ear. “One more, auntie!” they shout. I smile and wave at them, but the train is already pulling out of the station. As little as it seems, I’m glad we left the candy and I hope it makes them happy even if it is only for a moment. They stay with me long after I’m gone and I wonder how they ended up there, what their life is like, where they will be tomorrow.

You Bought Me Sleep

This is a post for TRAVEL BLOGGERS GIVE BACK, a unified movement of bloggers giving back by posting stories about their favorite charity organizations. Join us on Facebook, and please help spread the word! 

Shelley Seale and Caroline Boudreaux in India, 2005

The idea of volunteering in another country has long been considered the province of students and recent graduates; images of intrepid twenty-year-old Peace Corps workers in a remote Sierra Leone village might spring to mind. Today, however, the idea has reached far beyond that to become accessible, and highly popular, among travelers of all types and ages. Volunteer travel has grown so popular that a term has even been coined for it: Voluntourism.

Foreign destinations are luring American citizens who want to sightsee, while at the same time engage in community service. Companies and websites specializing in voluntourism have sprung up by the hundreds, and volunteer vacations can be found in all parts of the world, doing all kinds of activities – from digging wells for clean water in South America, protecting the elephant population in South Africa, or working with children living in orphanages.

It was this last type of volunteer vacation that hooked me. In 2004, I became involved with a nonprofit based in Austin, Texas called The Miracle Foundation, which manages orphanages in India and recruits sponsors and donors to support the children living there. I began volunteering for the foundation and sponsored a child, a ten year old boy named Santosh, living in the state of Orissa in northeastern India. Caroline Boudreaux, founder of the organization, soon invited me to accompany her and a group of other volunteers to Orissa. And so it was that in March 2005, I found myself in India for the first time – a ten-day volunteer trip that I was to make, it turned out, many more times over the years since.

The village is remote, and it took forty-eight hours of exhausting travel to arrive at the ashram where the children live. By the time we arrived, all ten volunteers in the group were suffering from sleep deprivation and culture shock; the overwhelming throngs of people, the smells and sounds that awakened all the senses at once. The streets filled with bicycles, rickshaws, cars and cows with the constant, blaring beep-beep of the horns that rose above it all. Mostly, the frantic poverty that does not let you rest.

Caroline had briefed us well on both India and expectations for our week at the orphanage, but nothing could have prepared me for what I felt when we turned through those gates. Dozens of children were lined around the drive in a semi-circle, waving and chanting “welcome” over and over. I climbed out and they swarmed all over me, reaching for my hands and touching my feet in blessing. I was overwhelmed, lost in the sea of small bodies; smiling, barefoot children who asked nothing from me more than simply being there.

As I would soon come to find, in India these “invisible” children are everywhere – they fill the streets, the railway stations, the villages. Others have been trafficked or taken into indentured labor to pay off an old family debt. They are orphaned by AIDS and malaria, simple infections or sometimes, nothing more than poverty – their parents cannot afford to feed them.  Many are homeless, overflowing orphanages and other institutional homes to live on the streets. Amidst the growing prosperity of India there is an entire generation of parentless children growing up, often forced into child labor and prostitution – more than twenty-five million in all.

But there in Choudwar, a small town about a hundred miles south of Calcutta, one man named Damodar Sahoo had dedicated his life to providing a home and family for some of these children. Before The Miracle Foundation, he had constantly lacked enough food, clothing and supplies to adequately provide for those he had taken in – children who had nowhere else to turn.

Mr. Sahoo, known to everyone simply as “Papa,” greeted the volunteers heartily, chewing the betel nut that turned his teeth red. He gave us a tour of the compound while the children trailed us, rushing past each other to claim a volunteer’s hand. They were everywhere, always underfoot, craving our attention. As I walked along four or five clung to each arm; when I sat down they filled my lap, their slight frames making barely an imprint against my skin.

I spent the following days just being with the kids, befriending them, playing with them. Our days at the ashram were filled with games, reading, dancing and laughing. It felt a lot like summer camp. There were puzzles, English flash cards, hopscotch, frisbee and the hokey-pokey, which the children wanted to do over and over once it was taught to them. I began to discover who they were – their individual personalities and dreams. I watched the shy ones come out of their shells and self-confidence blossom.

As it did, their “best behavior” fell away and they were normal kids, not always sweet and perfect but often mischievous as well. When they thought I wasn’t looking, they would shove each other out of the way or bestow thunks on one another’s heads in annoyance. They used the language barrier to their advantage, pretending at times not to understand when the adult volunteers said it was time to put a game away, reminding me of my daughter when she was young and seemingly deaf to the word “no.”

We began to make friends, and I discovered that they were just as curious about us and our lives as we were about them. The kids spoke varying levels of English, largely dependent on how many years they had been living in the ashram and attending school. Some had a large vocabulary and conversational skills; others spoke little more than a few words of English. I found it was surprisingly easy, however, to communicate without sharing even a word of common language.

In many ways they were just like other children I’ve known with homes and families of their own – except for their neediness, their raw hunger for affection, love, belonging. In the midst of the games, laughter and silliness that we engaged in all day long it became almost easy for me to forget that they were orphans. When that reality came crashing back it never failed to hurt my insides with the same breathless intensity as it had the first time. Especially when it intruded unexpectedly, as happened one afternoon.

Shelley and Santosh, 2005

Caroline and Papa had arranged an ice cream party. Two tables were pulled into the courtyard as the frozen cartons were delivered. The kids lined up eagerly from youngest to oldest to be handed their paper cups of ice cream as we scooped it out in a battle of time against the sun blazing overhead. As we served the icy treats and listened to the kids slurping away, I noticed that Santosh, the boy I sponsored, was nowhere to be seen. I asked some of the other boys about him, and they pointed toward the top of the stairs.

I went up and found him sitting alone, seeming sad and listless. He wasn’t interested in the ice cream. A house mother named Madhu passed, and I asked her to help me find out what was wrong; I was afraid Santosh was hurt, or sick. Madhu took him into the boys’ dorm and talked to him for several minutes.

“He misses his mother,” she said simply when she came back out.

I felt it in my heart, and knew that although they loved us being there it could sometimes only make them miss the presence of their own parents. The good of all these caring surrogate parent figures – Papa, Caroline, the house mothers, the volunteers – outweighed the heaviness of sorrow, to be sure. But it was easy to miss the sadness, at times, in the presence of love that filled the ashram. I was reminded anew that these children all carried secret grief and damage inside them, often hidden or temporarily forgotten but never erased entirely.

I sat with Santosh on the edge of the concrete walkway outside his dorm room. Draping my arm around his shoulders I squeezed reassuringly and held him against my side. I knew that his mother had died when he was so young he couldn’t possibly remember her, not really; but to mourn the idea of a mother, that huge absence in his life like a great gaping hole – that was another thing completely. We sat together, not speaking, while in the courtyard in front of us the other children slurped up their ice cream noisily.

* * *

Still, these children living under Papa’s care are the lucky ones. Far from the tourist’s India of the Taj Mahal and yoga retreats, a journey into an Indian orphanage is a difficult one – hard on the body, hard on the heart. In homes like The Miracle Foundation where children are well taken care of, it’s far too easy to forget how many street kids are outside those gates, the children sleeping under plastic roofs beside a sewage-filled canal, the thirty thousand babies born HIV-positive each year. In the best of institutional homes there is love and community, and needs are met on the most basic sustenance levels; although there seems to never be enough food, never adequate medical care. And never, ever enough room.

For every child fortunate enough to live in a home like The Miracle Foundation provides there are a thousand more the orphanage cannot afford to take in. A thousand who have nowhere to turn but homes run under vastly inferior, sometimes horrific conditions; a thousand more children living on the streets, begging at train stations, or working twelve hours a day for pennies. Children for whom childhood has been discarded.

The beautiful kids at Papa’s home no longer had their own parents, yet they were still joyful and filled with hope. Their hope and resilience amazed me time and time again; the ability of their spirits to overcome crippling challenges inspired me. They offered seconds and thirds of their precious food, serving us before eating themselves. They rushed to bring water, pull up a chair for us, take our shoes off and put them back on, carry our bags – anything and everything.

Even in the most deprived circumstances they were still just kids – they laughed and played, perhaps far less frequently than others; they developed strong bonds and relationships to create family where none exists; and most of all they had an enormous amount of love to share. As I bore witness to the harm that lay in each of them because their past, as I discovered the stories behind the faces and the names, there was simply no way to go on with my life afterwards as if they did not exist.

* * *

It was clear that Papa and Caroline were doing something special, something more than what could be seen with the eyes. Papa was the heart of the ashram and had created an almost tangible presence of love. He had given up a far easier life and job as a government official to dedicate himself to these orphans. Paid a very small allowance as the director of the home, it was not an easy existence. He didn’t seem to regard himself as remarkable or noble, however, and appeared detached from all things material.

Papa with his children

“I am a simple beggar,” he said, his eyes boring into me to confirm that I didn’t doubt his words. “I need nothing, except for these children, my family.”

Caroline told me that over the past few years as she raised money for the orphanage, building a new wing and bunk beds and bathrooms for the children, she had repeatedly asked Papa to let The Miracle Foundation make some improvements to his small quarters. To give him something that would make his life a little easier.

“Let me do something for you,” she told Papa.

“No, no, I need nothing,” he answered always.

“Let me buy you something,” Caroline persisted.

But Papa only shook his head, gesturing toward the new dormitories, the children in their uniforms going to school.

“You have already bought me the most important thing,” he said. “You bought me sleep.” 

Millions of children in India share a similar story. A life of poverty with no family and little hope. The Miracle Foundation provides these orphans with food, water, clothing, shelter, education, medical care, love, and most of all – hope.

For more information, visit: 

The Miracle Foundation – www.miraclefoundation.org

Miracle Foundation’s Voluntourism site 

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