Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Interview with Leya Elias, new co-Program Coordinator at Gabriel Project Mumbai

Leya Elias, the new co-Program Coordinator at Gabriel Project Mumbai (GPM) has achieved some
remarkable accomplishments – and she is only 23 years old. She brings not only a Master’s Degree in Public Relations and Corporate Communication, professional experience in the world of PR, fluency in four languages, and a host of different volunteer experiences around India, but also a warm eloquence and deep sense of care and commitment for the children of India. We spoke to her about her ideas coming into this new job.

Welcome to GPM! How is it going so far?

I’m having lots and lots of fun at GPM! While getting aquinted with our work at GPM, I’m spending my days teaching the kids not only in the Kalwa slum but elsewhere in Mumbai as well. I sit with the children every day. I work with them as classroom support, as an intern. We conduct sessions so that everyone gets a chance to interact one-on-one.  They are excited, and very eager to learn. Whatever we teach them, they absorb very quickly. It’s such a great experience, and I’m very happy to be doing something really productive with them and they are enjoying it.
Yesterday, for example, we went to a science museum, learning about the human body. There was a working model of a body that they could touch and feel. They were very engaged, and they also knew a lot about the topic, and were eager to share with us what they already knew. They were very impressive and it was a lot of fun. They ask lots of questions, and are very active and enthusiastic. When I was in school, I never asked questions, I just listened and took notes. This is a much more quality education that they can be alive and active and engaged It’s a great experience.

What is the best part of this experience with the children?

It’s great to see how much the children gain from being with the volunteers. In Kalwa, where we go daily, children want to come to class just to be with the volunteers. They get pretty excited when volunteers say, ‘I’m from England’ or ‘I’m from Australia’. They ask tons of questions, like, ‘What holidays do you have?’ or ‘What foods do you eat?’. They gain so much from these interactions. By the end of the volunteer period, the children are begging the volunteers to come back.
It’s actually amazing that they connect so deeply despite the language barrier. There are people from different part of the country, so we talk in Hindi and some Maharashtra. I speak Marathi, Hindi, English, Malayalam, and now Hebrew.
The children develop a huge emotional connection with the volunteers that helps motivate them to want to learn and grow and engage with the world. It’s not just the food that GPM gives, or the information that we transmit. It’s the emotional connection that they need in their lives. That’s what a lot of the kids come back to school for.  The volunteers give them a lot of attention and care, which is a great thing. The volunteers are very calm and loving. They are all so happy to see smiling faces. Every day, we go for the smiles. 

Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from?

I am 23 years old. I was born in Kerala, in Cochin. I did my undergrad studies there, but for my master’s degree in Public Relations and Corporate Communications, I came to Mumbai. I was working for year in PR. I did the GPM internship that year, and I was introduced to what GPM does and this job came along and I was just thrilled. I used to volunteer in another organization teaching English to children twice a week. I wanted to do something that – like my father always tells me – shares a little bit of information with the children and makes a big difference in their lives.  That’s what I’m doing and I couldn’t be happier. Now I’m a full-time here, which is like a big blessing for me and I feel really proud.

What is your long-term vision for the kids?

I want to see more and more kids to go to school, have an education that will help them I the future, that will help them live a better life, to give them a better understanding of the world. Education is such an important part of life, and will make a difference for them.

What are some of the challenges?

They need the push from their parents. But sometimes the parents are stuck in survival mode and think that school a waste of time, they should just get a job. But there is so much more to the education than just learning. It’s also hygiene and social issues
It’s especially hard for the daughters because parents often think that girls’ education is a waste of time. That’s a big mistake. In Mumbai, you can see a lot of girls working on the street or not going to school, and that’s really a problem. Girls can impact the entire society. There’s a Chinese saying, “When you teach something to a woman, you teach the whole family, the whole society.” It’s so important for girls to stay in school. I want to see more girls coming to school.  

What’s the Jewish community in Mumbai like?

I was born in a Jewish family – my mother is from Mumbai and my father is from Kerala (Cochin). There are very few Jews left in Cochin – only 29 left, most over the age of 50, and nobody to marry. When my father was ready to get married, he went to Mumbai to learn Mechanical Draftsmanship in ORT. He met my mother who was about to go to Israel, but then he proposed to her and they decided to get married and stay in India. My mother moved to Kerala. The Cochin Jewish community is very small, and is in a very bad state. The past two years it’s been hard to get a minyan for the festivals, so we bring in a rabbi and get some foreigners to get a minyan. In Mumbai it’s different – there are 4,500 Jews here and lots of synagogues and activities. But still, it could get to have problems like Cochin because people are moving away from the religion. The JCC and JDC in India are working really hard for the community with events and activities and bringing the Jewish community together. JDC really helps me meet other Jews in Mumbai and now I have lots of friends and peers. I’m also in the Jewish Youth Pioneers Program (JYP) where we have youth activities all year round – sports activities and holidays and also Khai Fest where we raise money for the Jewish youth activities and kids’ education. We also have talent shows and it’s a lot of fun. It’s fun and my father is happy that I’m getting involved in the community – even though he wants me to make Aliyah! But I really like my job right now. Maybe after this job we’ll see, maybe I will make Aliyah. But my father tells me that I would have a much better future in Israel. But I have to see, I’m not sure.

What message would you like to send to potential volunteers around the world?

They should put their hearts into sharing themselves with these children, not just their knowledge but their whole selves, their passion. The kids need that connection. They need to hear about you. If you have that passion, you’ll own the class. It will be great.

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