January 2006 Report (Part Two)

Friday January 20th, 2006

We arrived in Mumbai late Thursday night from Kolkata. Having inhaled quite a bit of pollution in Kolkata, it took me a day to recuperate before I could head back out to visit projects around Mumbai. Fridays is a day of meetings where the trustees of Al-Imaan Foundation gather over lunch and discuss progress of current projects and those that are affordable and most worthy to take under their wings. While my uncle was negotiating what projects Comfort Aid International would to take on, I indulged in a bit of luxury at the hotel. As the daily grind of life went on for people living on the streets, men finding food for their families, I had the luxury of sleeping in plush blankets and relaxing with a massage that “only” cost $25! I let my guilt be reasoned with the fact that this money was also paying for another individual’s salary.

As guilty as I felt, I left feeling rejuvenated, not from being pampered, but from knowing a little of the woman’s life and thinking of how I could help people in her situation. During my massage I found out my masseuse had been married at the age of 16 to a stranger introduced to her by her brother the day before her marriage. And now the stranger, who’s supposed to be her husband, went around with a mistress and she had to support her two daughters! Although her daughter was sick and was not in school, she couldn’t afford to take the day off, and instead had the older daughter (who was only 13) take care of the younger sister. Too sad to say anything I could only say a small prayer for her that she find justice, whether in this life or the next, only He (SWT) knows.

Saturday January 21st, 2006

There are no words that can describe what I saw today. Today we were scheduled to go visit three different projects in various areas around Mumbai. Our first stop was the Sakina Girls Home. This is an orphanage for 59 orphans from the age of 5 – 16 years. I was very impressed to see the impeccable state of the orphanage. The girls were very organized and the house was exceptionally clean. I say that because it’s very hard to find such cleanliness around such institutions in India. Unfortunately India is known for its overflowing urban filth. Because of cramped space, lack of proper utilities, havens such as these are rare to find except in hotels or luxurious homes.

Girls studying at the Sakina Girls Home

Since this is a girl’s orphanage, there are very strict rules for men entering the house. Regardless of who they are, all the girls immediately put on their Hijab before male visitors are allowed to tour the premises. Being a computer engineer, I was very pleased to see a classroom with about 5 computers; all kids in primary and secondary are given basic computer lessons. I would later find out that they also keep in touch regularly with donors via the net and took my email so I could be in touch with them. The girls have 3 rooms full of bunk beds and each has a modest drawer or locker space for her belongings. I’m embarrassed to say that although I was just traveling, not even my belongings in my suitcase would have fit in the closet space given to them. But I was told, and I would later witness with my eyes, this was still heaven.

Girls at Sakina Girls Home
Sakina Girls Home

We met the administrator and one of the trustee’s of the Al-Imaan Foundation, another inspiration to me on this trip. She talked passionately and lovingly about the girls at the orphanage as if they were her own. It was not only that she was an administrator and she was able to make things happen for the girls, but the compassion and love she had for these children was inspiring. So often we are ready to write a check for a worthy cause, but along with writing that check, it’s that hug that these children need. She talked about how these girls need a loving compassionate hug or someone to just listen to them. These are young girls without mothers to show them love and to be their best friend. She tried to find friends and role models for these girls in the women of the local communities. It was sad to hear that she did not find humanity in the women of our community, but rather found it amongst the other sects. It is pathetic that when she tried to motivate these ladies to play, show love, be friends with these girls she got haughty attitudes. Instead she found counselors and friends from other communities to befriend these girls.

With this boost of motivational energy from our conversation with Naseem Bai, we were off to Govandi. I had been warned to expect the worst. Unfortunately I had forgotten my “perfumed handkerchief” so I started to recite ‘tasbeeh’ as we drove to Govandi. I was worried about my reaction – what if I wringed my nose from the smell, or what if I wrenched from the unbearable stench? I prayed to God (SWT) to give me patience to bear what I would see. Govandi is a slum area with about 20,000 Muslims. When I say slum, I do not mean streets with graffiti walls, teen gangsters walking around. When I say slum I mean houses with no sewer systems, children walking around naked, playing with dust, garbage and filth, I mean houses built out of wood planks, plastic and if lucky tarpaulin or tin roof.

Our first stop in Govandi was the Jaferi English School, a project supported by various Trusts including CAI, which had built a science lab and supports many students with tuition fees. This school has classes from nursery to 10th grade (the highest level before college) and has more than a 1,700 students who live in the slums of Govandi. These children are fortunate to be taken away from the filth and disease ridden air for a few hours everyday. Many kids in the slums are subjected to work or help their families because they can’t afford to put food on their plates.

As most of you must know, Indians love eating ‘pan’ and therefore there are a lot of “spits” in India. The very first site that I saw before entering the Jaferi English School compound was a sign that said “DO NOT SPIT”! And it was working; the school and its compounds were clean; however, it was surrounded from all areas with the gutter-like streets of the slums. On one side you had the chaotic traffic of the main road, to the back was the gutter as well as backs of homes. I’m not even sure if the water that ran through was supposed to be a river that had turned into a sewage system, or whether it was a man made gutter!

“Do Not Spit” sign before entering school premises
Houses and gutter behind Jaferi School
Clean school environment
The daily news board

We were introduced to the Principal and the Vice-Principal, who were both women, to my great joy! They gave us a personal tour of the school and we heard about the progress of students and even saw the 9th and 10th grades taking a test. To prevent them from cheating they were intermingled with each other. We heard a success story about one of our students who had joined Jaferi School during KG and had now graduated with high marks. Although his grades were not at par with other students graduating at the same level in other schools, with some perseverance, the principal was able to help him get admission into a college. This ambitious student passed third out of all students in the Maharashtra State of India. Today he works in Singapore with Siemens. Hearing this was reassuring that our works, all our efforts, are slowly but surely making an impact on a life, a family, a community, and the international community.

9th and 10th graders taking a test
Principal of Jaferi School in Govandi
Vice-Principal of Jaferi School in Govandi

I had yet to see the homes these students stayed in. We drove out to the “residence area,” where people had constructed shanty homes. The moment I stepped out of the car – no amount of perfume could have minimized the stench that surrounded me. I forced myself to focus on the aim of the visit to stop the revulsion I felt within me. In order to complete visiting the projects without breaking down, I told me, absorb now and think later.

We visited a selection of shanty houses that had been selected for construction and also homes that had been successfully completed. As we walked through the maze of houses, we passed two or three year old children playing with dirt and filth. If you ask me where the garbage bin was – it would have been humorous – it was everywhere! On the streets, outside stores, near homes, everywhere kids played on these streets. I saw a small girl, perhaps 5 years old, holding an infant boy of 9 months. I wondered where her mother was, maybe working if lucky?

A little girl taking care of a baby boy

I really had no words to describe what I saw or where I stood. The homes were packed next to each other, there was hardly a foot of space between the back of homes and these were the places where most would relieve themselves. In the front there was only enough room to walk, with your head always ducking. The ceilings were low; the rooms were dark and damp. The houses were just made of one room or sometimes two – a semi-permanent wall made a division to create the second room.

One of the families we visited had five children, none of whom were going to school. Unfortunately even though CAI was willing to pay for their education, probably out of hopelessness, their parents were not sending them to school. To enter their house, I had to duck and climb down, because of the rains the government had ‘raised’ the ground level of the alleyways and so their house was about 2 – 5 feet under ground level. Of course there was no furniture, all I can remember is there were two dark rooms, with clothes hanging. The back room was supposed to be the kitchen area; I only saw a stove with a few plates. The children were so excited to have visitors, and to have their picture taken. I wonder if they even knew that a far different world existed outside of their world. One of the houses we visited had a TV, but whether it was working or not was the question. The maximum form of electricity that I saw was a bulb hanging in the main room. Perhaps the TV set served another purpose?

Kids excited at having their picture taken

Unfortunately we were on a time limit and we couldn’t stay and visit and talk to individual families for very long, so we were ushered from one house to the next. One of the houses we visited was now in rubles. The back wall, too weak to stand had collapsed while the family was sleeping in the night. A few dogs were now nesting in the ruble. At this point, with tears blurring my vision, I wanted to scream. I wanted to scream because this was one reality, and the other reality was that from where I came, when we looked for houses, we made sure we had a ‘guest room’ to cater to those occasional days when we would have visitors. I wanted to scream because this family of five now had to live as guests in a similar home, which also probably had five of its own occupants! I wanted to scream because this is not what God (SWT) wanted us to make of his beautiful world. I wanted to scream because humans have such potential to rise above, but yet here we had subjugated ourselves to level of animals, finding any place to sleep and any food to eat.

Of course I had to force myself to walk on. I do not have a picture of this ‘house’ as I was too distraught to think. Too many thoughts were jumbled in my head and I was too shaken to click.

As we walked from one house to the next, I saw many things. I saw a woman putting sequences on a ‘pacheri.’ After going through several middlemen this would probably end up in one of the show rooms in Dubai. At one point we passed a gasoline stove outside of a house, this was known to take lives of many women, because it was so easily flammable.

Dangerous stove in small alleyway

The last family we went to visit had their house hanging at the edge of a small cliff. One false step and I would have been in the gutter. Their floor was made of loosely held bricks and the walls were made of tin roof material. Even though they lived in such a destitute dwelling, the mother was inviting and welcoming and smiling. She was feeding her kids, and invited us to share their meal. I was being taught humility in so many ways in this journey, what a ways I have to go!

Nothing to show off, but yet so welcoming
Mother with five children sitting on their only bed
Eating a modest meal of rice

As we were driving away I saw kids playing on what was supposed to be a playground. If we would have our kids playing on such grounds in the US, we’d probably have gotten sued for breaking every law that can exist about child playground safety rules. I also saw a little girl cross the street on her own, pick up her dress and sit down to relieve herself. As I sat in the car with my eyes and mouth wide open in a big shocking ‘Oh my’, she peed and played with what looked like a coconut shell that had been thrown there. I kept forgetting this was their norm.

There is some hope however, Comfort Aid International, through its donors like you, have tore down and rebuilt about 75 homes, providing basic but decent homes for the most deserving. It provides for one room with attached toilet/bathroom. The room is used for everything, sleeping, living, cooking, etc. The most important benefit is the privacy it provides, especially for the womenfolk who otherwise would have to trek some distance among people for nature calls. Most funds come form Sehme Sadaat of Khums money, as Govendhi is almost 100 sadaats. The rest come from donors who want to help these families. A typical home costs about $1,500, a little more for large families with parents living together. A tiny room is added to the attic above for their sleeping.

Playground?

Our last stop was visiting the Zahra Boys Orphanage in Mumbra. This was a renovated orphanage that had 79 boys living and studying here. Some of the boys were having their lunch and some were getting their tuitions. They even had a gym for the boys where they could work out. Each one of them came from similar setting that I have just described in the slums of Govandi, except these were orphaned. Here, too they had a computer room where all the boys were taught basic computer skills. I keep envisioning an institute where we have computer engineers working. If the west is into ‘outsourcing’, why not take advantage of that? Any business experts out there who can make something of this idea?

Zahra Boys Orphanage
Gym at Zahra Boys Orphanage

Sunday January 22nd, 2006

Our last day in India, we went for a walk by the beach near our hotel. I thought the beach would be deserted, but I was surprised to see so many people there. There were people running, jogging, walking, begging, selling, playing cricket, the beach was alive. It is the begging bit that I want to expand on. When we were leaving I saw from a distance a cripple getting out from a car with the help of an older man. The cripple was also dumb, as he could not speak. When we approached them, he asked us for money and so I gave him all the change I had, which wasn’t much. He wanted more of course and as we were walking away he started jumping up and down and beating himself. I wonder if he was beating himself because he was poor or because of his health. I couldn’t tell whether he was deformed by birth, or deformed because of someone’s ownership of him. It is a known fact that many children are purposely deformed at birth so they can do this very thing.

When we were on our way to the airport we gave away some toiletries that we had remaining to a beggar on the street. She took it and walked away, but after peeping to look what treasure she had got she came back to our car window to ask, ‘ye kya hei’. This was soap, and I tried to explain to her it’s used to wash your hands with, and she got so excited that she had got some “powder”.

My journey had come to an end. I had the chance to see first hand the reality of poverty. I had made miserly attempts at living as they do. I had made a feeble attempt to personalize any help that I can give. Part of my purpose had been fulfilled. But the other part has yet begun. I have yet to answer the questions in my mind; I have yet to find out how I will be a part of those answers. But I hope that by sharing my thoughts and experiences of my trip, I will have done a small part to bring awareness to all of us. So that perhaps we can see that they did not choose to be in the state that they are. That it is our obligation to teach those who are in destitute situations ‘how to fish and not just feed them fish’ and to bring them out of this vicious cycle of poverty.

Thank you all for reading and for being patient with the late arrival of the reports. Thank you also for your encouraging comments. I hope this has given you renewed motivation and ammunition to give your continued support to causes such as Comfort Aid International.