Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A Portrait Of India: Day 1

Posted on behalf of Jim Cook, President of Children International.

With our excellent field staff, today I visited a neighborhood obviously in the grip of harsh poverty, where we’re supporting the efforts of a badly-needed pre-school.

At this very small school, Shweta Tiwari, the staff teacher, is performing daily miracles with 15 to 20 students age 4 and under, I met with the children and their moms.

As I write this, I’m still stunned and saddened by what I heard from those mothers, one in particular. A striking woman whose clean, ivory colored sari belied the hell she has endured over the past few years.

As the articulate spokesperson for the group, she recounted how four years ago, the municipal powers informed her and the people in her neighborhood that they would be moved to a new location, as their “squatter area” was needed for new development. Progress!

Except the community the city called a squatter area was the only home she and her neighbors had ever known.

Soon the bulldozers came and the people were sent to an area far away, an area none of them had ever heard of, and certainly one to which no one wanted to go.

But go they did. Just like with so many things in their lives, they were left without a choice in the matter. That’s one of the problems of being real poor…choices are made for you. And to you…you’re left to just do your best what those choices are.

What they were in this case included renting a truck with your neighbors and moving what little you had to a new area where the current inhabitants would violently protest your intrusion.

The city provided no documentation of any type of new home or even the lot they might have been assigned. The home didn’t exist and the “lot” was determined by what can only be described as a desperate land grab of a piece of hard scrabble barely 10 feet square.

They received nothing. “Just get out,” they were told. So this poor woman, her mother and child moved out. Her world ripped out from under her.

And yet as she recounted this horror, she didn’t cry. She smiled.

I wanted to hug her and tell her how I hurt for what she has had to endure. I wish I had. But instead I just mumbled how sorry I was that she and her family had to suffer and that I hoped Children International would be able to bring something positive into what had been a pretty bad decade for her so far.

It seemed a feeble response when placed beside the magnitude of her story.

I visited her home later…it’s hard to describe how bad it was. Inside I was greeted by a goat eating something that looked like stuffing from a pillow. The stench was bad. Rats crawled through the area at night…she showed me the hole they used. I can’t imagine what the home looks like when the rains come, with such a porous roof. No toilet. Ten by ten is probably exaggerating its size. Dark.

Her name is Rafia. Her story is one that will stay with me…like many do.

She doesn’t deserve this. No one does.

I hope we can make a difference in her life…and the life of those other mothers in the room that day. I told them that it was now personal for me…meeting them and hearing their stories and looking into their dark eyes.

We must make a difference for them.

A last thought…as she described the bulldozers entering the area of her previous home, I could only think of the poignant photo of the student standing defiantly in front of the tank at Tiananmen Square in China years ago. And how this poor woman and her neighbors didn’t even have the satisfaction of knowing their plight was, at least, noted by the outside world—by someone who might care when it mattered—as was the case for that lonely student in front of the tank.

Well, even though it was four years ago, it matters now. And we’ll do what we can to help.

Tomorrow on the blog, Jim shares more thoughts from his recent trip to India. For more photos and to read his journal entries, visit Jim's Journal: At the Heart of Calcutta.

1 comment:

evergreen3 said...

What can be done to improve this family's living situation, given the tiny parcel of land available? How much would it take to make very basic improvements in this family's life or for the community of people that were moved?