Friday, 12 August 2011

Down and out in Delhi: a home for street children

Former street child Suraj listens to an English lesson at the shelter for street children
© UNICEF India/2011/Andy Brown

After our morning at the culinary training centre (see part one of this blog), we went to Old Delhi to visit a night shelter for street children and a community bank. This time, I was training Lalita, Ruchi and Omesh, from the UNICEF India office, in blogging and online video. The afternoon’s projects were again run by Butterflies, a local charity that UNICEF works with on sport and development, including by provide sporting activities for street children during the Commonwealth Games and Cricket World Cup.

Old Delhi is a bit like the evil twin of New Delhi, where the UNICEF office is located. Where the new town has wide, tree-lined avenues, clean streets and vast, gated mansions, the old city is full of narrow streets and dilapidated buildings. Its streets are filled with a dense crowd of people and animals, including goats with full udders and carts drawn by large oxen, which battle tuk-tuks, cyclists and cars for command of the road. Disabled beggars limp between vehicles chasing a few rupees and entire families sleep rough on the pavements wherever there is a patch of shade. It was hot, noisy, chaotic and bewildering.

We stopped outside the railway station in Old Delhi, which is a hub for street children, drawn by the lure of begging from tourists and travellers. The train station is a red and white brick building, mirroring the style of Mughal-era architecture, if not its magnificence and antiquity. There was a tap on the van window, which I initially ignored as you get conditioned to do by all the touts and beggars on the streets. The noise became more insistent and I turned to see Stayaveer Singh, education coordinator for Butterflies. He was sitting on a motorbike and smiling broadly. Indicating for us to follow him, he drove off down the road and down a small side alley, where the night shelter was located.

The shelter was a long concrete building with an iron roof, alongside an alleyway where homeless men wandered aimlessly up and down and we were attacked by buzzing flies. At one point, I saw a large rat scurry past. I could smell a distant whiff of sewers and hear the sounds of trains rattling by, accompanied by the deep blast of their horns. “I’m surprised I never noticed this shelter before,” Lalita said. “It’s almost on top of the railway track.”

Former street child Rohit demonstrates the children’s bank for Ruchi
© UNICEF India/2011/Andy Brown
Midas touch

Inside the shelter was a much more pleasant environment. It was cheerfully decorated with a large, colourful mural of butterflies, signed by visitors including the German pop group Wise Guys. Lalita also spotted trophies from the Commonwealth Games activities. The area we visited was for children only, most of whom were in class studying either English or computers. “We have 44 children staying here at the moment,” Stayaveer said. “We have more in winter when it gets cold at night. At this time of year, a lot of children sleep rough outside shops or in the market.”

I talked to one boy, 14-year-old Suraj (not his real name), a small boy in a white vest with thick, cropped hair and a broad smile. He was reading a book in English and proudly showed off his language skills, running a finger along the line of text as he read: “A long time ago, there was a King. His name was Midas. He was a kind king but he was foolish and greedy.”

“I know this story,” I said. “We learned it in school as well. Everything he touches turns to gold.” “That’s right,” Suraj replied in English, smiling.

After the class, we set up our filming equipment and the team interviewed some of the children, including Suraj, about their lives before and after coming to the shelter. “I came to Delhi in 2002 from Mathura [200 km away],” Suraj told us. “I used to use the shelter toilets at night. I would sometimes stand outside the gates and watch TV through the doorway. One day the shelter manager said ‘don’t just stand outside, come in and join us’.”

“After that I started staying here regularly and was admitted to school. The teacher is very helpful. I like studying English and want to be a cricketer someday. Butterflies really take care of us. They provide everything we need and look after us when we get sick or fatigued. We get 10 rupees a day which we can save in the bank.”

Suraj indicated the ‘Children’s Development Bank’, a red and yellow metal booth in the corner behind him, decorated with butterflies and with room for one child to stand behind the metal grill. “I also work here as a bank manager,” he said. “I have a cash book and a ledger. Often children come here at night from the train station. I deposit their money for them and help them with any enquiries.”

Bilaal leads a Bollywood dance workshop for children at the shelter.
© UNICEF India/2011/Andy Brown
Bollywood dreams

After the interviews it was time for the children’s daily activity. On other days, they go outside and play sports, but today they were learning to dance. “The children asked us to do this activity,” Stayaveer said. “They watch Bollywood movies on TV in the evenings and wanted to learn how to do the moves. One of our former students, Bilaal, is now a professional dancer so we asked him to come and run the sessions.”

Soon afterwards Bilaal appeared in person. He was outgoing and charismatic and needed little encouragement to get in front of the camera for an interview. “When I was little I lived in a village in Bihar,” he said. “After I fought with my brother, my father brought me to Delhi. I was eleven years old. He couldn’t afford to send me to school so I played in a park behind his stall. That’s where I first met children from Butterflies.”

After talking to the children, Bilaal’s father brought him to the shelter. “I studied here with my friends,” he continued. “I was very happy because there were many things to do, like dancing, studying and watching TV. We even had an outing to the Taj Mahal. I love this place. Whatever I am, it’s because of this place. I want to share what I have now with the children here.”

After the interview, Bilaal led a dance workshop for the boys and we got some great footage of them moving in formation against the colourful backdrop of the butterflies mural. I noticed that Bilaal also worked in a subtle language lesson. He counted out the rhythm “one, two, three, four” and the moves “left, right, front, back” in English.

Back in the office, I ran an editing workshop, and the team started work on their blogs and videos. I was really impressed with what they produced. I was particularly struck by Lalita’s blog, in which she described the shelter visit with remarkable candour. “I am so glad to have met Rohit at this bank rather than seeing him working in a small tea stall,” she wrote. “Or probably not seeing him at all, the way we don’t see so many children on the streets of Delhi.” I thought back to my own initial reaction to Old Delhi and, with a twinge of guilt, recognised myself in what she said.

For me, the most striking aspect of the visit was the contrast between the men and the boys at the shelter. The adults were often listless, with wasted bodies, shabby clothes and a vacant look in their eyes. It was as if they had already given up on life. The children, by contrast, were full of energy and life. They smiled, chatted, studied and danced with real enthusiasm. It made me realise how lucky they were to have been found by Butterflies while they still had a chance to turn their lives around - before they became the men outside.

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