Hope Floats

One of the recurring problems we faced and still face, is parents who want their daughters to discontinue their education and go in for an early marriage.

In 1996, 18-year-old Salma lived at Delhi’s congested Nizamuddin basti with her mother, a domestic worker, in a ramshackle hut made of scrap material. Her brother earned a meagre income white washing houses.

That summer, Salma graduated from the education centre run by the Hope Project Charitable Trust. She enrolled in Delhi University and got a job for Rs. 600 a month, as an assistant to a judge. Her brother however, forbade her to step out of the basti. Salma retorted she would stay at home if only he agreed to pay her Rs. 600 every month! Defeated, her brother relented.

Today with a monthly income of Rs. 4000, Salma earns enough to have built a secure home for her family. Her mother no longer needs to work. Her brother speaks of her with obvious pride.

“The dargah of Sufi master Hazrat Inayat Khan was really the starting point of the Hope Project,” says Kamini Prakash, Executive Director of Hope, as we sit in the sun-dappled dargah, a veritable oasis of peace, cocooned within the teeming crowds of Nizamuddin Basti. “In 1975, the Hazrat’s son, Pir Vilayat Khan, also a Sufi teacher, came to Delhi to visit his father’s shrine and was moved by the poverty in the area. Since one of the main ideas of Sufism, as of many other religions, is service to humanity, he started this project. It started in a very small way, by just directly responding to the first need of the community, which was nutrition, but gradually expanded to a vision that hopes to fulfil other needs like education, health and methods of income generation.”

The spirit of Sufism, says Kamini, guides the project in every aspect. “For example, we at Hope, have adopted this beautiful and simple practice initiated by the Hazrat called the Universal Service. It is a ceremony where you pray by the light of one main candle, symbolising the source of all knowledge, all creation and of several smaller candles, representing various religions, like Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and so on. And finally, we light a candle for oppressed peoples, for the downtrodden, and for those who are seekers of truth. As each candle is lit, an excerpt from their scriptures is read out. This tradition was the Hazrat’s way of demonstrating the unity of religion, and has increased relevance in our troubled times. Recently, we held a prayer service for the victims of the Gujarat violence and it was very moving.”

Stepping inside basti Nizamuddin is a disarming experience. Here is a city within a city that dates back to the twelfth century, a smorgasbord of narrow streets, mosques and shops, built around the shrine of the Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. Today, the basti attracts landless, rural migrants; the disabled and the destitute; runaway children from the poorer sections of India and Bangladesh. Needless to say, Hope has its task charted out in this urban village. For the past 21 years, the project has been distributing milk to destitute children, pregnant and nursing women, tuberculosis (TB) and leprosy patients and the handicapped within the basti. The efforts of Hope ensure that factory employee Shahida can go off to work, secure in the knowledge that her two-year-old will be cared for, at the creche here. That, like her mother, young Parveen will not be confined to earn a living through domestic work. That, she will learn sewing, making dolls, preparing pickles and papad at the Livelihood Generation Centre. That high school graduate Kareem, is now a licensed driver and will soon hope to earn more than Rs. 1,500 a month, after training at the Vocational Education Centre.

Setting up this extensive network, however, was no child’s play. Projects like educating young girl especially, took some time to find favour with the community. “One of the recurring problems we faced and still face, is parents who want their daughters to discontinue their education and go in for an early marriage. And when I say early, I mean sometimes, as young as 13 or 14. And then, Rita the Principal of the Centre, goes and talks to the parents and tries to make them change their minds. We have social workers to help us in this and the teachers to intervene, and it is quite helpful, because they belong to the community itself. And you know sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the parents agree to let the girl study one more year.”

But, Kamini and Rita face other problems as well. “Some parents object to the girls coming to school, and to combat that, we have to work hard. Social workers go to their houses to speak with them. I too, meet people and we make them aware how important it is to continue with schooling, how the girls need to be self reliant and slowly, these ideas seep in.” And the efforts metamorphosise into life. “It is wonderful to watch these girls spread their wings, grow independent. There is one incident, which I find particularly and sweetly symbolic. As you know, some of our girls come to school wearing a burqa and take it off when they get here. So last year, when we took part in the run for Gujarat at India Gate, this student called Fatima stepped into the dargah, took of her burqa and said, ‘Ma’am, I’m keeping this in your office,’ and then she ran down boldly from India gate to Rajpath, it was like this exhilarating rush for freedom. It was ennobling to watch this.”

There are hundreds of such success stories, which Kamini can tell us, she says. “The best part is that these children have made it out of such utter poverty. I mean, even our classrooms are ramshackle for want of resource. There is very little ventilation, they are dark, there is very little furniture. When it rains, the roofs leak. Because there is so little space, we have to work in shifts. And you can go on, find a 100 faults with them, but for us, the most important fact is that these are the places, which provide ‘hope’ to our children.”

The conversation veers from schools of learning to schools of healing, as Kamini takes us around the dispensary in the project building. “This is where we provide basic curative services. An allopathic doctor comes in everyday, a paediatrician comes in twice a week, and a gynaecologist, once. What we want to focus on now is really, health promotion and awareness programmes in the community. I feel an NGO’s aim should be to prevent diseases and illnesses rather than just getting curative services, because the hospitals are already doing that. So we try not to duplicate existing services, rather to complement and strengthen them. Like we just started a TB dots program in collaboration with the government. Earlier we used to have a very small number of TB patients, just four or five, coming in regularly. And now we have launched a huge awareness campaign. We go to the basti and hold talks, our youth group holds plays, and we inform people about the disease, how they can prevent it, what the early symptoms are and how it is perfectly curable, if detected in time. And within a month, the number of people reporting went upto 40, half of whom tested positive for the disease. The medicines are supplied by the Government, we distribute them and monitor closely if people are continuing with the treatment.”

Hope really does float, especially in the form of volunteers, who turn up here, with clockwork precision when most needed and also, when most unexpected. “It is as if the Hazrat is watching out for us,” says Kamini. “Take the case of this fantastic dentist called Ivan, who landed up here last October. He came to visit the dargah and it is almost as if, he was summoned here. I was showing him around, and later, he came in to say hi at our office. I said, ‘Come, let me just show you our project as well.’ When I asked him what he did for a living, he told me, he was a dentist. And I told him, two-thirds of our kids suffer from dental problems and need dental care. He said, he would come back to help. Of course, because I am such a sceptic, I thought, ah, this is what they all say. But then, come the following April and I look out and there he is with a suitcase. I asked him, ‘What are you doing here? To which he replied, ‘I told you I’d come back.’ He had his entire dental clinic inside that suitcase! He said, ‘All you have to do is give me a room.’ And it was amazing. Absolutely amazing.”

Then there is Anthony, a gentle-looking, bespectacled American who is currently teaching English to young boys at the centre. “Anthony arrived here, out of the blue and said ‘Hi, I am living here in the basti and I am here for two years, to learn Urdu. I heard about your project and want to know what I can do to help.’ I asked him ‘What do you do, what can you do.’ And he said, ‘I’ve trained in teaching English as a second language.’ And that was exactly what we needed! I had been looking for people who could do that and I told him it was fantastic and this is how we started our English learning groups.”

Volunteers do not have any special skills, says Kamini. “It would be superb to get volunteers involved with the youth. Volunteers are great, because they bring in a new world really, so it just enhances the exposure our kids receive. Otherwise, this is a really insular community. They meet people from other parts of Delhi, from colleges, other places around India. So, even if volunteers don’t have concrete skills to contribute, it is great if they just come here to interact with the children.”

As late afternoon slides into evening, Kamini helps us make our way out of the basti. “Hope has been a rewarding experience,” she says. “Earlier, I was with this big NGO, where I really didn’t do any grassroots work. It was basically a funding agency, where I got a lot of exposure, but didn’t necessarily get the satisfaction of making a difference or seeing the immediate impact of my work. But I get to do that all the time at Hope,” she says with a smile. Earlier, we had a chance to watch eight-year-olds perform a play, as part of their recreation hour, spoofing a snobbish memsahib and her absent-minded maid. “Aaj meri friend aa rahi hai. sub kuch theek se karna. Kahin meri insult na ho jaaye,” says Shabana, acting her part to perfection. The audience roars in laughter. Kamini is right, the difference Hope has made is evident, visible in the confident young faces around.


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