Friday, February 12, 2016

The Hearts of Kalwa

Maia Ferdman is the Los Angeles Jewish Federation's Fishel Fellow and is currently a JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps Fellow, living in Sofia, Bulgaria. In the Summer of 2015 Maia volunteered with Gabriel Project Mumbai in teaching non-formal education classes for children living in the slums. Maia also took on a project to interview some of the families living in the slums to get a glimps and a better understanding of the community she was working in. Here is a glimps of three wonderful families:

While volunteering in Kalwa slum with the Gabriel Project Mumbai (GPM) in the beginning of the Fishel Fellowship, I was fortunate enough to visit the homes of some of our students and interview their families. I loved getting to know the children within the extracurricular classes, supported by REAP, GPM’s partner in the slums. However, the time we spent with the children only represented a slice of their days. These home visits and conversations with the families of our students took me a little deeper, and gave me a wider glimpse into the heart of Kalwa.

On interview days, Leya (who works for GPM and interpreted the conversations) and I navigated through the maze of narrow passageways tucked between dilapidated shacks, as our students expertly weaved around the exposed wires and hanging laundry above us. Each family opened their home to us and talked about their daily lives, their children’s education, and their hopes for the future. The following three interviews represent glances into these families’ personal perspectives, hopes, and dreams, and the challenges of living in an urban slum.

Laxmi (12)

“I did not go to school,” Barath C. Mali told me in self-taught English. “But I want my girl to go to school. I don’t want any child to be uneducated.”

“I know. I know what will happen if you don’t go to school,” he added.

Barath, his wife Asha, and his mother-in-law Nanda welcomed me into their home in Kalwa slum. We sat barefoot on the concrete, damp from the heavy monsoon rain outside, and surrounded by corrugated tin walls. Their roof, a black tarp, is higher up than those of other homes, and the open entrance lets in plenty of natural light. A clothesline and small shelves holding spices and plastic bins line the walls, and a bag of rice sits next to the pile of sandals in the entranceway. As we sat on small wooden blocks we began to talk about their daily lives, their struggles, and their hopes for their, Laxmi.

Laxmi, a soft-spoken only child of about 12 years old, doesn’t know what she wants to be when she grows up. She sat still, smiling shyly, while her family members talked over one another at increasing volumes.

Her father, Barath, sitting on his knees over a makeshift stove, eagerly explained that he worked as a porter at the Mumbai airport for 35 years. In a mixture of agitated Hindi and broken English, he stressed that he had not received a salary for over ten months, since the airport privatized. He now had to find intermittent work carrying sand bags for construction, but this was not enough; the family had not paid their rent in over four months.

“I’m fighting with my country, I’m fighting with my law,” he said. He explained that he is part of a union, and that he is pushing for his rights after working at the airport for so many years. “What do I do? I’m not a terrorist; I’m not some robber. I’m a very simple man…and my country’s not helping me.”

Barath expressed this frustration with a sense of urgency, eager to make himself heard to the foreigner sitting inside his home.

“There are people coming from abroad, do their business, and just go. But you have to think about the people that stay here. What you can do for me, don’t do for me. But do something for this girl,” he said, pointing at Laxmi.

Indeed, despite their financial difficulty, Barath, Asha, and Nanda are eager to invest in Laxmi. While none of them went to school themselves, the family hopes to earn enough money to send her to a good school and buy her a laptop so that she might learn about computers. Nodding emphatically, Nanda yelled over Barath that Laxmi would make a great teacher.

“A girl can teach a lot of things, can share her knowledge with others,” Barath agreed. He added that he does not like making Laxmi work in the home, and would rather she focus on her schoolwork. At the same time, he said he tries to push Laxmi to be thankful, reminding her that in other places around the world, some children might not get any food.

Laxmi, sitting to her mother’s side, smiled meekly and all three adults spoke at once. “We are very proud of her,” they said.

From left: Nanda, Laxmi, Asha, and Bharath

Rahim (11) and Mubarak (12)

For Jaiba Sheik, education is about survival.

“If you’re studying, you get to know how the real world is and how to survive,” she said.

Jaiba’s six-year-old daughter Sajbun started going to the REAP classrooms last year. She is a good family friend of our students Rahim and Mubarak, who sat patiently on the woven rug while Jaiba spoke with us. A thin mustard-colored sheet splits the home, which directly faces the railroad. The boys sat quietly at the foot of an old and chipped table holding an old-style brass sewing machine.

As she held her fidgety one-year old child, Jaiba expressed her desire to keep her children in school as long as she can afford it. She stays at home while her husband works in irregular construction jobs. While she herself attended an Urdu school while growing up in Uttar Pradesh, she wants her children to study many languages, especially English. She does not care what profession her children aspire to enter – she just wants them “to achieve something in life.”

Jaiba’s home sits adjacent to one of the REAP classrooms. The door to the room is a tattered curtain, an open entrance for stray animals and the drifting sounds of our raucous classroom. Jaiba often listens to the laughter and lessons of the class with the Gabriel Project Mumbai volunteers, happy that the children are always learning something new. She also appreciates the hot lunches provided by GPM every day – often, Sajbun will bring some food home to share with her younger brother.

Toward the end of our conversation, Jaiba’s one-year-old squirmed out of her arms and onto the floor in the middle of us, laying flat on his back and promptly falling asleep. Rahim and Mubarak, silent until that moment, giggled at the boy’s behavior.

Like Jaiba’s husband, Rahim and Mubarak’s father also works intermittently in construction. Their mother works as a housekeeper in Mumbai. Smiling, the boys said how much they love having the freedom to run around Kalwa and visit their cousins in their Maharashtran village during holidays.

The brothers, along with their sister Rishma (15), are some of the most active and engaged students in their class. Each of them follows a strict study regimen – after our morning lesson they also go to public school. They have a bit of free time afterward, usually choosing to play street games like hide and seek, “lokovi,” or “gabardi.” Around seven in the evening, the boys return to their books, studying English with a private tutor.

Despite this strict schedule, the boys relish in their education. Without a moment’s hesitation, Rahim listed English and Hindi as his favorite subjects. Mubarak said he likes the variety of games GPM volunteers bring to the classroom, and particularly enjoys learning about countries and cultures outside of India. He said he wants to be a taxi driver when he grows up, because he likes riding his bicycle and thinks he would make a good driver. He said he wants to use his education to earn more money and look after his future family.

Rahim on the other hand hopes to use his education to become a police officer and catch robbers. Smiling with an uncharacteristic shyness, he said he wants to go far in life and do something good for his country.

Brothers Mubarak (12) and Rahim (11)

Vanita (11)

Yeshoda ushered us into the two-room home her husband, a mason, built for his family. She urged us to sit on the wide wooden table that doubled as a bed, desk and chair for visitors. A small makeshift shrine for Ganesh, garnished in traditional marigolds, hovered above us on a shelf. A red tarp split the home into two rooms, and a single light bulb bathed the room in a dark red hue.

With a glowing smile reminiscent of her three excitable children, Yeshoda said she hopes education will give her children a secure future. Born in a rural village, Yeshoda was married at 13 years old, and neither she nor her husband went to school. She approximated her age now at around 30 years old, but does not have her birth certificate and could not be sure.

Yeshoda said she takes care of the home, keeping things clean, cooking, and taking her kids to and from school. She refuses to have a TV in their house, and said she has to press her three kids, Vanita, Rahul, and Rakesh, to study their books (she also has a teenage son who lives in her village with her parents). Chuckling, she said they always come home very excited about what they learned in school that day, but they rarely practice their English on their own.

“I like to play after school,” Vanita said. She likes to play “Koko,” which is like tag, and go to her neighbor’s house to watch TV.

As Vanita spoke, Yeshoda moved to a spot on the floor bathed in a pool of sunlight to hand-wash laundry. Vanita added that she also helps her mother at home. For example, she said, she stands in line for the water tap every day. She also stands in line to get groceries when the family receives a ration card. Vanita also proudly explained how she helps her mother sweep and wash “vessels” (pots and pans).

Vanita has a vivaciousness that radiates, even from her petite figure. With her mother’s bright smile, she emphasized that “Friends!” are her favorite part about school. Indeed, she began attending the REAP classroom three years ago, after her friends told her how fun the lessons were. She also complained about the class monitors at her public school, who she said “don’t let us have fun.”

There’s a limit to Vanita’s sociability, though. “My brothers are very naughty and mischievous. They tease and pinch me when the teachers aren’t looking,” she said. She also said she finds it hard to concentrate when the class gets too rowdy.

Despite these tussles, Vanita and her brothers are driven in their education. They could not attend the REAP classroom after hearing about it initially, because all three children fell ill with a fever at the same time that landed them in the hospital. Luckily, she said, they met a doctor who was able to help them recover completely. Today, both Vanita and Rahul want to become doctors.
Vanita and her mother Yeshoda

Parts of these interviews felt chaotic. During one interview, a stream of curious neighbors peeked inside. A few men entered the home uninvited, talking amongst themselves and eyeing this unfamiliar American girl holding a notebook. Interspersed between sentences in another interview was the occasional wail of a train, its horn droning out the interwoven Hindi answers and English translations. Occasionally a baby would cry, or people would speak over one another. In one instance, a stray dog attempted to enter the house through the tattered curtain door, and the children giggled profusely under their breaths as their family friend hissed it away.

Despite this chaotic backdrop, these encounters plainly displayed the Kalwa families’ kindness, openness to share their stories, value for their children’s education and futures, and most of all, warmth.

Read more of Maia Ferdman's insights on her blog HERE.

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