Saturday, May 31, 2014

Week 3: Grappling with the realities of slum life

Adina Lichtman, a proud member of the 8th Cohort of JDC Entwine-GPM service program in India, chronicled her experiences in a series of evocative letters to her friends and family.  Adina, a student of Social Work and Art at NYU and is Hillel Community Service chair on campus, captured some powerful and touching moments during her time on the program, caring for vulnerable children living in the slums, connecting with the Jewish community with the JDC and experiencing the wonders of India. GPM will be publishing excerpts from her diaries in a series of blog posts and photo essays. 

--Read Adina's 1st week here--
--Read Adina's 2nd week here--

Week 3: Grappling with the realities of slum life

Namaste to all,

After 3 weeks of being in India, all I can tell you  is I have so much to learn from this culture and the people here. What they give me is more then I will ever be able to give. This email will probably be a little bit heavier than my previous ones, but it’s the only way I can describe my experience thus far.
Twice a week in the morning, we cook alongside 17 women who live in the nicer part of the slums and get a small amount of money for their work. They cook food for the students we teach. The students live in the poorer area of the slums, which means less electricity or running water if there is any in their homes and their walls are made of tins and very thin slabs of wood or sometimes tarp.  The food is provided by the Gabriel Project Mumbai (the organization I’m working with) and REAP as incentive for the children to come to school and so their parents want to send them to school. It is very often the only meal those students will get that day. The food is provided so that the parents let their kids go to school to get their meal for the day instead of begging for money or working.  I learnt this week that 30 children a month in the Thane district slums die from hunger. That’s almost one child every day that dies from hunger in the slums I work in every day.

I just learnt this week that last year at around this time, a good portion of the Kalva slums was bulldozed. Why? Because the government wanted to keep “them” contained, and they were spreading out too much and taking up too much room. So a truck came and just plowed down all their homes. It’s hard to think about the lives these children live when you are teaching their smiling faces every day. This week we taught about rainbows and the rain cycle, the next day one of my students came running over to me at the end of class to show me what she made at home. It was a picture of the rain cycle, and rainbows – she had remembered what we taught her and chose to review it at home and give herself homework! Have you ever met a student who creates homework for themselves?! These children are unbelievable, so excited to learn! Every time I walk through the slums to get to class I feel so torn about what I see, but the few steps before I step into the classroom I get these excited butterflies, because I know my students are waiting eagerly to say “good morning teacher!”… Little do they know that they make my morning THE BEST when I walk into that class.

I also got the privilege of teaching adults in the Thane Jewish community the Parsha this week. The class went really well and I think they really enjoyed it. At the end of our class, we wanted feedback as to what types of things they wanted to learn. Their questions were loaded. They badly wanted to learn about the meaning of life and our purpose as Jews in this world. They asked about how we know the torah is the word of god and how the torah was passed down from god – to Moshe and then to all of us. They wanted to know torah baal peh vs torah she bichtav [Oral Law versus Written Law]. Some questions were easier to answer while others were questions I wake up thinking daily. All I could think when I left was how lucky I am to live in a community where there are so many Rabbis and Teachers I can call and ask these questions to and get different opinions with different perspectives. I appreciate having a big Jewish community both in and out of college more than I ever have before. I am so lucky to have such a beautiful Jewish community at home and in school, and I think sometimes it takes leaving your community to see how beautiful where you come from really is.

This Shabbat we went to Mumbai for the weekend, we had prayers at the Kneseth Eliyahu shul which is over 100 years old! It’s painted a beautiful light blue on both the inside and the outside. It’s HUGE! And so are the hearts of every person inside of it, however the actual number of people in it is significantly less. There were very few people there, but enough to make a Minyan. We ate dinner Friday Night at Chabad. It was so cool to have someone from Morocco on my right and someone from Australia on my left and all around the table all these people from different countries all sitting in the center of Mumbai and singing the same Shalom Aleichem tune. We sang the night away and ate all these delicious foods!

Shabbat day our group took a walk to the old Chabad house, where the 2008 attacks took place. We went to the room where the terrorists barged in and shot the Chabad rabbi and his wife. The bullet holes are still there and the babies’ room is still painted in the baby blue colors with the aleph bet painted on the wall. They are in the process of rebuilding the Chabad house there – and it is beautiful to see that as Jews, we are just constantly allowing our struggles to motivate us to grow. The Chabad house in India is going to be bigger than it was before, and in the same place and for me it served as a reminder that as Jews, we can’t be broken. Am Yisrael Chai was all I kept thinking as I walked through the Old Chabad house covered in bullet holes. Gabriel Project Mumbai is the organization I am working for here, they create opportunities for the youth of the Jewish Community here in India to do volunteer work in the Slums. The name Gabriel is [named in part] in memory of Rabbi Gabriel who was the Chabad Rabbi killed in the 2008 attacks.

Sunday was time for us to take a bike trip in Mumbai (due to my lack of bike riding skills I rode the back of the tour guide’s bike!) We left at 6 am to try and avoid the traffic of Mumbai. We began bike riding as the sun was rising, and as the city itself was waking up. As we were riding, I saw tons and tons of people sleeping on the streets, every 5-10 feet was another person rolled up in a blanket sleeping. I would have never known that this many people slept on the streets at night because they aren’t there during the day. I NY most of the people you see sleeping on the streets at night are also there during the day. Here in Mumbai, everyone works. I saw all these people during their morning routine, brushing their teeth, rolling up their blankets, saying their morning prayers just like we all do every day. Living in NY I have seen many people who experience homelessness daily, the difference is, here in Mumbai it’s the norm, and doesn’t stop anyone from carrying on with their day to day lives.

Mumbai to me is a city filled with extreme contrasts. You have extremely over the top hotels and mansions that almost no one can afford, right next to people who are experiencing the most extreme poverty. The Taj Mahal Hotel is the nicest hotel in India, and anytime you walk by it, there will be children who aren’t in school and sent by either their parents or other adults to go beg you for money. They only are taught a few words of English that all revolve around asking for money. Its hard to go to the slums daily and then see how some of the really rich live here. It makes me feel uneasy and has given me a lot to think about.

On our bike trip we went to a few different markets. The meat market was one of the first but I couldn’t bring myself to go inside, I don’t do well with seeing dead animals and the smell was awful, but from what I heard there was even a man who was sleeping in the meat market! People sleep anywhere and everywhere here in Mumbai. We also went to the flower market, cow shelter (where all the cows are treated so well because they believe 330 million Hindu gods all have spirits within the cow so its holy to feed them.) Then we went to the fish market which was the smelliest, busiest, craziest market I had ever seen! Everywhere I looked there were sharks being chopped, lobsters being tossed, fish being beheaded, eye balls being sweeped, sting rays being sliced! Fish guts was everywhere – my feet were covered in it! (Sandals probably weren’t the best shoe choice!) It was quite the experience!

After that we took a ferry to Elephanta Island, about an hour away from Mumbai – where we could get a little peace and quiet from the hustle and bustle of the city. There we saw lots of ancient ruins and monkeys (one of which stole my friend’s grocery bag!) After Elephanta Island we went to another Jewish Indian Wedding! But this time I dressed properly for the occasion – I got an Indian dress! For the first time since I have gotten here – I was able to walk through the streets without being stared at for standing out as a white girl. I must have looked really Indian because not one person stared or asked for a picture with me (something that happens quite often to white people in India!)The wedding was so much fun and I love the Jewish community here! They are all so sweet and excited about meeting us and introducing us to all their families and friends!

 Everyone I meet here is so warm and hospitable. A family we met who has 2 kids and the four of them live in a studio one bedroom apartment with only 2 beds. The kitchen is also the living room and the bedroom. There is no table and is about half the size of my room at home. Yet they still invited us in to their homes, offered us snacks and drinks and introduced us to all their kids! They are so happy with so little (compared to back home)! This family I met is considered middle class and has it pretty good compared to a lot of families here in India. I am learning a lot from everyone around me and know I still have so much to learn!

On the bike tour around Mumbai
Early morning on the streets of Mumbai

Taj Mahal Hotel,

A lot of monkey business on Elephanta island

Lots of love,

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