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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.

Inspiring Youth: The ASSET Foundation

Last May 2010, I was a keynote speaker at the Tamil Nadu Foundation’s annual conference in Philadelphia. This year, a teenager named Nita Umashankar received an award for the Young Social Entrepreneur, for her work in starting her own nonprofit, ASSET India Foundation.

Today I would like to feature a guest post by Nita’s father, Ray Umashankar, who also works to fight for children who are victims of sex trafficking in India. Here, Ray tells the inspiring story of his remarkable daughter:

Nita with her parents, Sue and Ray Umashankar

As a family we always contributed to various charities, and we wanted to do more than just write checks. I volunteered at a local shelter for abused children. My wife served on the school board. When our daughter, Nita, had her solo dance recital in Indian classical dance, she asked that instead of gifts, donations be given to the Brewster Center, a Tucson shelter for abused women and children. Her request produced a total of $7,800 for the center.

Nita, who was born and brought up in Tucson, was selected for admission to several Ph.D. programs in marketing strategy, and she chose the University of Texas at Austin.

However, in 2005, before joining the program, she said she wanted to spend a year in India working with nongovernmental organizations serving abused women and children. She also laid down two conditions:

She wanted to stay by herself and not with relatives, in order to experience the real India.

She wanted only to volunteer and did not wish to be gainfully employed.

My wife and I agreed to support her for the year.

Nita Umashankar and her family established an organization to aid victims of sex trafficking in India.

In 2006, When Nita returned home she dropped a bombshell. She said that of all the marginalized children she had seen and met in India, the children of sex workers were the most ostracized and abused. Nita said this is the group she wants to work with, and that she will go to India every six months to do so.

My wife and I were shocked. We were totally unprepared for something this radical from Nita. My wife and I wanted to support her completely, but we were worried at the same time. I told Nita that this could be a dangerous undertaking, with pimps and brokers who would not like our interference. I said we had to find qualified, fiscally responsible nongovernmental organizations that were already working with these children and find out what programs were in place.

I gave this assignment to Nita so that I could determine how committed she was to the project. I also said we needed to find out what programs failed so that we didn’t repeat the same mistakes.

Within a month, Nita had all the answers to my questions. Nonprofit groups mostly focused on teaching these children nontechnical skills, such as bag making, sewing, and vegetable vending. Those that did provide computer literacy did not provide “soft skills,” with the result that computer-literate children did not know how to look for a job.

Nita and I decided that we would provide training in information technology skills that were in demand in the job market. In addition, we would teach conversational English and also help in the placement of our graduates in internships and jobs after they complete the training.

My first plan was to raise funds for paying the students’ fees, so that they could attend established computer institutes, instead of having to start our own. But when I contacted the owners of the institutes in India and told them who our students were, they flatly refused them admission because of the fear of contracting AIDS. The owners also said that other parents would pull their children out of the institutes if they found out that children of sex workers were in the same class.

So, Nita and I started the ASSET India Foundation.

ASSET, which stands for Achieving Sustainable Social Equality through Technology, provides computer literacy for education toward alternate livelihood. The program is designed to help the children attain a level of education and familiarity with technology that will enable them to free themselves from being chained to the same profession as their mothers.

The foundation administers education programs, using functional-literacy software in regional languages, and microfinance efforts, to help people establish, own, and operate their technology-based small businesses, such as computer kiosks. We presently have seven centers in the major cities of India, including  Bangalore, Kolkata, Hyderabad (4), and Mumbai, and Delhi.

The sex workers are desperate for educational opportunities and a chance for a better life for their children. They do not want their children to know about the flesh trade and also wish to minimize the risk of their contracting HIV/AIDS.

I have thanked my daughter Nita so many times for coming up with the project idea. My passion for ASSET has become all-consuming. Before ASSET, my passion was adventure travel and mountain climbing. I have lost interest in these. I spend at least 30 hours a week on ASSET, in addition to my regular job. I get restless at social events and make notes on 3-by-5 cards in the restroom.

Since I will be 69 in June, I want every day to count for something meaningful. Through my daughter, Nita, ASSET has made me realize that the only purpose of my existence on this planet is to help those in need.

Fund raising is one of the most challenging and fun activities that I have undertaken. I look at it like a chess game and constantly figure out new ways to reach potential donors and build relationships. I scour business journals, magazines, and The Wall Street Journal for stories on successful businesswomen and -men, find out about their philanthropic interests, and hunt for their contact information.

Once I get the contact information, I congratulate them on their business successes and tell them about ASSET and share our success stories briefly. With a couple of them, my approach was rather direct, since I was desperately in need of funds to open the first center and was ready to take out a home-equity loan on my house.

It feels great when a fund-raising pitch goes well, breaking through another major barrier. I offer to meet busy CEOs at airport lounges during their business trips so I don’t take time away from their workday.

One foundation president kept putting me off for months. One day I called her up and said I was going to be in a nearby town for a wedding and would like to meet her on Saturday morning. She said she and her husband had a million errands, children’s soccer, piano lessons, and so on. I said I will have a car and will drive her and her children to their game and piano lessons. She relented and gave me an appointment. I left the meeting with a $10,000 check.

I also competed in a couple of fund-raising challenges because I was told I stood no chance to win. I won them anyway.

I tell people I suffer from an unusual learning disability. I cannot understand the meaning of “no” in any language.

I have a history of being bold in this way, long before my involvement with ASSET. I have a total hip replacement from a bicycle accident in 1993. After the surgery, the surgeon told my wife that because of the seriousness of the injury, the most I could expect was to walk with a cane.

That motivated me to train. My wife and I hiked the Grand Canyon 14 months after the surgery.

If you are going to start a charity, the No. 1 requirement is a dream. Next is a passionate commitment to that dream no matter what anyone says. People will say yours is a crazy idea, and it will never work. Just laugh it off and keep going. Be bold in sharing your dream and asking for support.

Enjoy the challenge of accomplishing your dream. I say it’s better to have an impossible dream than no dream at all.