Friday, December 01, 2006

Street Children

Can you imagine walking down the street everyday, seeing small children in tattered clothes curled up sleeping on the sidewalk, or keeping stride with you, tapping your arm, crying "I'm hungry I'm hungry!" In many countries, this is a regular occurrence, so much so that people tend to ignore the child completely.

When I was young, maybe around 6 or 7, my family was visiting friends in California and decided to go to Mexico for the day. I don't remember what we did in Mexico but at the way home we got stuck at the border because a US Drug officer was murdered. (Of course, no one told me why at the time) I just spent my time sitting in the back of the four-door car peering out the window as we sat in a line of traffic. The only thing I remember from that trip was looking out and seeing a little girl about my age carrying jewelry, in tattered clothes, going from car to car trying to sell pieces to tourists waiting. I remember looking at her with my six year old eyes, and thinking "She is just a kid like me. Why is she out there, and why am I in here?"

That question has always stayed with me. On my many trips to India I have taught extremely poor, low caste girls in Bihar, played and taught art to former street children living in a group home in Mumbai. Each time I was able to interact with some amazing, bright, playful, and affection children, all of whom left an important impression on me.

One day in Jaipur my friends and I were waiting at a circle for a bus to Delhi. A little girl with beautiful dark skin, white teeth and two little braids sticking up came running up to me. She was wearing a tattered green skirt, and was barefoot and without a shirt. She smiled at me, and started asking "shampoo? shampoo?" while making hair washing motions. Many other little kids came running up, and I began to ask them their names and other questions. I decided to get them some food and their was a lassi shop nearby so I bought them lassi's (yogurt drink). The first little girl that came up to me told me her name was Meera. She was very talkative and helped introduce the other kids. In the end she asked again if she could have some shampoo. I explained that I didn't have any with me.

I still think of her, and wondered what happened to her. I'm not sure, but her mom may have also been living on that street corner with her. Other times I passed through that bus stand I looked for her, but she was never there.

I wish I could have done more for her. I wish there was more help to kids and their families living on the streets. Living in such dire poverty kids have no access to soap and water, let alone an education. If they live with their parents they are barely scraping by, and many have to beg just to eat.

That's what I keep thinking about lately. In India there are so many street children, and so many families living on the street. They often are migrants from villages, unable to make it at home and hoping for a better chance in the city, they often are illiterate or have very little education, and have no access to any knowledge or connections to get ahead.

When I finish graduate school, I dream of starting an NGO specifically focused on aiding children and their families in these kinds of difficult situations. I want to work as a link in the chain, to create points of access for these families to have a chance to get ahead. For their kids to be educated, for parents and future generations to gain skills and find a job, to find safe housing and clean water. Things any family wants.

Lately I have been coming across some interesting NGOs which work with street children in this way, such as with works with kids in Jaipur. It has open air schools, a "school on wheels" a "shower bus" for kids to shower, and homes for kids with no where else to go.

Today I also looked at a photo journal on BBC ( regarding street children in Bangladesh. I found it extremely interesting how they empowered a girl who had been a street child herself to work as a counselor and advocate for other street kids, teaching them.

If anyone knows of any other organizations doing these kinds of things in India, I would love to hear about them. I have some ideas about what my NGO would involve, but also I want to see what and how other working organizations are doing as of yet. Also, suggestions and comments always appreciated.

(The picture at top is one I took in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) Vietnam of a little girl of maybe three or four who followed us for blocks trying to see us Wrigley's chewing gum. The second picture is three of my students in Bihar, all from extremely poor families. At bottom are some boys at the home for street children in Mumbai, acting silly for the camera.)


sashi said...

ASHA is big as a Indo-US bridge on child education in India. CRY is another old NGO in this area.

Lovely photos and writing. I shall come back for updates on your quest. :)

owlhaven said...

Lovely story

Jasmeet said...

Ah! poverty and the Indian kids... I wonder why they always use pictures from the third world with dark skinned kids posing with huge grin in the front of the cameras? Does this generate more sensation? Does this generate more sympathy? Or does this simply generate a stereotype... that poverty exists only in the third world... have we forgotten the good ol' New Orleans after Katrina and the Mid-west??? What about the poor white people? What about the poverty of superficial thinking? And how would you depict that? Would you still use a picture clicked in a remote village in Bihar to depict that?

linzi said...

good question Jasmeet. I guess I would say this- regarding the pictures. All three pictures are taken by me, and the first one, from Vietnam, had an impact on me, as it was one of the first times I had to encounter a child begging. The second and third ones, are not to show faces of "Poverty" but they show actual children I know and have interacted with. The second picture are three of my students from Bihar- from left to right- Sumitra, Heena, and Kalamonti. In no way did I put them in their as dark skinned representives of the "third world". To me they are individual children,and wonderful ones at that. The last group of children are all former street kids- now living in a home in Mumbai,where I taught them some art and english, and they taught me to swing a cricket bat.

So, WHY the "third world", why "Indian kids". Well. I can tell you honestly, I know poverty exists everywhere. No,I am not trying to reproduce stereotypes that the only hungry kids in the world live in the "third world" (I am using quotes because I find the labels of "first" and "third world" themselves to assume a unilinear progress with the western world as the "civilized" that I don't agree with to begin with).

Honestly, the reason I focus on India is because, well, I study India. I could also choose to study poverty, or children, or education, or culture anywhere in the world. I chose India. Why did I choose India? I really don't know. But it is not out of some sense of me being "western" and doing something for the poor "third world" children. In fact, I am rather ashamed of many things the western world has done. I don't want to be a representative of that. I focus on India, simply because that's what I choose to focus on.

Sometimes people may assume I choose to study India for some silly stereotype, or superficial reason. Maybe I like samosas a whole lot. Or you know, Bollywood is cool.

Yeah, Samasas are good. Bollywood is entertaining. But, I don't think I ever choose to study India to perpetuate stereotypes. India is full of too many languages, cultures, religions, regions, etc to every fully understand. But I can study certain things. I can get to know certain people. Like Sumitra, Heena, and Kalamonti. I know them very well. I lived with them in rural Bihar for 2 1/2 months. But I have also spent time in Delhi. India has many faces, rural, urban, extreme wealth, extreme poverty, just like any other place on this planet.

I don't know if that answers your questions... I don't know if you still think I am thinking in stereotypes. All I can say, is that I am aware of these issues and try to be reflexive. Maybe at some point, everyone falls into the trap of stereotyping. But, hey, is it wrong for me to want to live and work in India, rather than, say, Boston, or Haiti, or Paris?

Michelle Fraedrick said...

I volunteer for a charity that does work with street children in Kolkata. I was there Nov 2008 for 2 weeks and am going back again in March 2009.

I would love to share some photos from my trip with you. email me at michelle [at] microgiving [dot] com.