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Lost and found

By Kasharn Rao

Massive Magazine’s Kasharn Rao has returned from visiting his family in India, with a story to tell about the life of a street kid.

With my one-year-old brother in a pack on my back, and the Indian sun providing sweltering embrace, I strode along the edge of the stained, mottled curb, and peered through my dusty glasses at the young man before me. Only 17 years of age, skin a rich dark shade of walnut, and the beginnings of what would hopefully one day be a fine mustache, Asif smiled widely at me and greeted me with radiant enthusiasm. He was tidy, healthy, and his grasp of English was remarkable. It was this smiling youth who was scheduled to take my family, myself, and a small handful of others on a tour of Delhi’s streets.

At first glance, with his positive demeanour, you wouldn’t have been able to tell that years ago he fought to survive in a world that had left him a defenseless child, with no future. But seeing the blue Salaam Baalak Trust t-shirt proves that the future can be changed, provided someone actually stands up and tries to do so.

Heading down a narrow dirt road away from the cacophony of Delhi’s automobile infested streets, I walked beside Asif as he began to explain the life of a street kid.

“You know what reason a kid would come onto the street? Sometimes they are orphans, or even lost at festivals. Sometimes they come from abusive or poor families.

“Not all families are happy families, they can’t care for the children like you would. Children have to survive on one meal a day, and sometimes they go to bed hungry. Sometimes no school, no play, they are forced to work all day.

“Sometimes they are powerless against alcoholic parents, violent parents, or even sexually abusive parents. The child’s mind is very tender, and cannot bear so much,” he explains.

“So they try to escape to another place. A promised land. The big city. It can be any big city where they think they have opportunities. Could be Delhi, Mumbai, Washington, New York, any others.

“Do you think a child living away from home is easy? It is very hard. The only thing that pushes them is their instinct to survive.

“Kids are collecting rags and things from the garbage and they sell and they get money. First they start working alone or in a group. By working they can earn around 100 rupees ($2) per day.

“The money they are earning has to be spent on the same day, because they don’t have any bank account or locker where they can save their money.

“Suppose they put money in their pocket, at night when they go to sleep, anyone can steal money from them.”

Asif says street children spend their money two ways.

“Entertainment and drugs.

“They don’t spend money on food because in India, there are many villages and places that provide food to them, or they eat street food from the trains. Those children have very good idea of how to steal food from the trains.

“So about entertainment. The children love Bollywood movies. And in India there is a system that every Friday there is a new film released at theatres.

“So children buy drugs and go watch the movie.

“Taking drugs is on the streets is illegal in India, and if they get caught they get beaten very badly by police.

“The movie theatre is dark and air conditioned, so they can get high easily.

“They use glue. It’s very cheap and they can buy it from any general store.

“They get drugs to take the pain away. It gives them a false sense of security and courage, so children as young as five or six are addicted to different intoxicants.”

Asif, speaking calmly as if he was talking about the weather, continued to reveal more, information that somehow managed to get worse than it already was.

“That’s mostly the boys. The girls have other reasons why they are living on the streets. Girls face immense pressure due to arranged marriage.

“Gender equality is unfortunately not yet achieved in our culture. Girls are viewed as a burden.

“So at the time of marriage, the boy’s parents expect a certain amount of money and gifts from the girl’s family. The poor family curse their child for being born a girl. They send them from their homes.

“Some girls fall in love with a man who has no interest in taking responsibilities. So after a while these men throw away the girl. Then with no other choice, they are forced to live on the streets.

“Brothel owners are always on the lookout for helpless girls, they also blackmail and con them.

“Just down the street there is a place where 3000-5000 girls are working as prostitutes. On average, these girls are forced to serve at least five to 10 men per day.

“The money goes straight to the madame of the the establishment. If the girls want money, they have to take a loan from the madame, then pay it back.”

Then, like a breath of fresh air in a pit of camels, there came some good news.

“Legally the girls must be 18, so Salaam Baalak Trust (SBT) and other organisations do search these places to take away girls who are under 18.

“Salaam Baalak Trust works for the street kids. It was established in 1988, after the success of the film Salaam Bombay!”

Salaam Bombay! Is a Hindi film released in 1988 about the daily life of street kids living in Bombay (Mumbai). It was directed by Mira Nair, and won the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Hindi, and multiple others.

It tells the story of a boy called Krishna, who sets his brother’s motorbike on fire. His mother sends him to work in a circus until he has saved up enough money to repair the bike. However, while he is on an errand, the circus disappears, and he is forced to live on the streets, where he is beaten, robbed, loses his friend to prostitution, and all sorts of other horrible events. Since these events are common occurrences in the lives of street children, it’s an unbearably realistic film.

Mira Nair put the proceeds of the film towards forming Salaam Baalak Trust.

“Twenty-nine years ago, we started with 25 children and three staff members. Now we have 8000 children and 200 staff.

“We provide shelter, education, and social security for he children, and we do activities with them.

“We rescued over 900 children last year.”

Over the years, Salaam Baalak Trust has successfully worked with over 72,000 children and many have been returned to their families. They have two children who have completed their engineering and one boy who is currently pursuing engineering, three who have completed their Masters in Arts programme, seven who have won scholarships for advanced programmes to American Universities, 30 in an Australian affiliated University, and many more who are pursuing their academic career in schools and colleges across India. The overriding goal is to help children develop into informed, capable, and responsible citizens of our nation and the world.

“We set out to create a nurturing environment that can foster normal physical and mental growth of street and neglected children. To allow them to return to mainstream society and eventually contribute to its development.” -SBT Website

There are multiple ways that SBT achieves what it sets out to. One way is through contact points.

Contact Points are located at railway stations and crowded places, and act as primary links to identify vulnerable children as soon as they arrive in the city.

Contact Points not only work with children ‘of the streets’ but also with children who are on the streets (living on streets with their families and surviving off begging or ragpicking).

Over the years, Community Contact Points have also been established in slum pockets of Delhi such as Akanksha and Mansarovar Park, where there is a large population of children at risk of becoming street children.

Life on the streets generally renders children aggressive and emotionally frail, due to lack of care and protection. Contact Point teams fill this void with their warmth and sensitivity. After a medical check-up and medical aid when needed, the team attempts to trace the child’s family and understand his/her history.

Returning the child to the family is always the first choice, but sometimes it’s impossible, or not in the child’s best interest, when the child is likely to be abused, exploited, or neglected at home.

In such cases, the child is encouraged to join a full-care residential centre after being referred to a Child Welfare Committee (CWC).

Children living on streets with families and at-risk children are motivated to become regular visitors at Contact Points through a peer education program and the dedicated efforts of Contact Point teams.

The team members build a strong bond with these children by lending them a patient hearing which gives them a feeling that someone cares for them and has the time to listen to their stories. Education and play become major pullers for children to sustain their involvement at Contact Points. Oblivious to the perils of crime, sexual abuse and economic exploitation, hundreds of children leave their homes in the quest for a better life. With a firm belief that a threatening environment seriously impairs a child’s freedom of expression and capabilities, SBT’s full care residential centres intend to fill this cavity by providing children a secure, caring and nurturing environment. A safe place to sleep, a space for personal belongings, regular healthy food, study, play, and most importantly the feeling that “I am protected and no one will harm me.”

Regular medical check-ups of the children are done at the Full Care Residential Centres and Contact Points. Individual health cards are maintained for each child. Whenever required, pathological tests are conducted as per the recommendation of the doctors.

SBT also invites external doctors or get the children treated by specialists at hospitals. Children are regularly vaccinated against hepatitis-B and tetanus.

There also happens to be rehabilitation programs, to aid the children in overcoming their addictions to harmful substances.

“What does the name Salaam Baalak mean?” asked a gentleman with long dreadlocks. Asif smiled again, pleased at the interest.

“Salaam is an Arabic word which means, ‘hi, hello, or salute.’ Baalak is a Hindi word which means ‘child’. So together it means ‘hello child’ or ‘salute the child.’”

Much later in the tour, feeling very dehydrated but thoughtful, we arrived at Aasra (a word that means ‘support’ in Hindi), the nearest residential centre. We were brought upstairs to meet the children living there. Some had foetal alcohol syndrome, others had mental disabilities, and all had been through hell, yet there was one thing that all these kids had.

A smile.

I’d never seen happier kids, I sat down and practised my Hindi, asking many of them what their names were, and how they were doing.

I started a very intense hand clapping game with Karan, a small boy with dark eyes, and couldn’t help but feel that even though I was playing a children’s game, I was playing it with an adult. Most of these kids, aged between four and 13 had undergone a trial by fire, owned nothing, faced the ultimate threat of possessing no future, and somehow managed to crawl through all of that and still be able to beat a stranger at least three times their age in a hand clapping game.

Asif himself once thought he had no future. When he was four years old, his mother left. His father would take care of him, until he died of tuberculosis when Asif was six.

“I was all alone. I cried lots, unsure where I would go. I managed to get a ride to Delhi, thinking I could find something there.”

Asif spent the next eight years fending for himself, fighting to survive, until SBT found him, and helped him recover, kept him safe, and gave him an education and a part time job as a tour guide.

Asif has a maths exam in October, and after he finishes school, he would like to study English Honours, and eventually become a teacher.

The best thing about this plan is that it is possible. Where once the future seemed locked into a nightmare state, a pair of hands has molded it into a free pathway.

The future will never be set in stone so long as heroes are willing to stand up and fight to break the bonds that crush those who suffer such misfortune into submitting to a relentlessly dismal existence.

You are capable, not only of shaping your own destiny, but those of others. What seems like a minuscule, insignificant difference can prove to be a vast power when combined with the movement of other willing people across the globe, a vast power that could shift the tides of someone’s entire future, and unearth an orchard of opportunities.

Salaam Baalak Trust aims to provide a sensitive and caring environment to street & working children and other children on the margins of society. It seeks to dissolve the barriers that rob children of the opportunity to realize their rights.” -SBT Website

Visit the SBT website at www.salaambaalaktrust.com to learn more about the organisation and how it works, read stories of former street kids, and learn how you could be a force for change in someone’s life.

1 Comment on Lost and found

  1. Wow, what a great article. I really enjoyed reading this and felt like I was there experiencing it all with the author. Thanks

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