India's Invisible Children
A Volunteer Journey into an Indian Orphanage
Lurching along the dirt road, I gaze out the window at rural Orissa in northeastern India as the car bounces over potholes, sending plumes of red dust billowing behind it. The small villages we pass are as familiar to me as if I had been here only last week. The shacks that line the river, their plastic or tar paper roofs held down with rocks. The smell of curry and incense hanging thick in the air. The tiny shops and vendor stalls selling sarees or pots or candies, the mangy dogs and cows nosing at piles of trash, the rickshaw drivers pedaling through traffic alongside schoolgirls with their braided hair and backpacks. People seem to fill every square inch of space. It is exactly as I left it a year ago.
I glance at my daughter sitting next to me, trying to gauge her reaction. She's looking out the far window with eager eyes. It's not the street life we're passing that has Chandler enthralled; although it's her first trip to India we have been traveling in the country for over a week now, and she's grown acclimated to the scene outside the window. Like me, she is excited to be on our way to the orphanage, at last. The reason we are here in the first place; the reason I have brought my fifteen-year-old child halfway around the world. To spend a week with a hundred children at the Miracle Foundation home who had captured my heart the year before. Their photographs line the walls of my house, occasional letters and drawings arrive from them, I write about them and fundraise for them. My desire to bring my own daughter to this place, to this experience, has led us to this moment.
I turn my head back toward the passing palm and ashoka trees, and the river glittering in the afternoon sun. Questions ricochet silently inside me. What will the kids look like? Will they have grown much? Changed? Will they remember me? What will Chandler's reaction be, what will she feel? Then we are pulling through the gates into the ashram. The large open space in the middle of the compound is empty, no one there to greet us. I realize they are not yet expecting us. We get out of the car and start up the little pathway that leads between buildings to the interior courtyard.
One by one, they begin to spy us; I see little brown faces peeking out around corners and through bushes. Slowly the ashram comes to life. Word of our arrival spreads and dozens of grinning, jumping children surround us on the path and pour into the courtyard. Within seconds we are engulfed by barefoot children grasping for our hands and clambering over each other to smile up at us. Ten feet away, yet separated by twenty bodies bouncing between us, Chandler also stands with several kids holding each hand and more clinging to her arms, her pale skin and long blonde hair almost lost in the sea of children. She knows many of them on sight, familiar with their stories and the pictures she's seen countless times. The amazement on her face makes her look even younger than her fifteen years.
"Hello," "Welcome," "Good Evening," the children say. Small hands reach for me. There's Santosh! And Sibani, Daina, Salu.I pick up the tiny ones like Papuni and search for other faces I haven't seen yet. Children run up to show me small things I had given them the year before stickers, crayons, hair clips. They display these cherished treasures; such simple possessions, so proudly owned and taken care of. They ask for nothing from me other than being here. In many ways they are just like other children I've known with homes and families of their own except for their neediness, their raw hunger for affection, love, belonging.
They had been imprinted on my soul forever.
* * *
I never expected to be in India. And without a doubt, I never thought once I had been I would return, again and again.
It wasn't the exotic beauty that drew me back. It wasn't the warmth of the people, their gentle and inquisitive nature, their open hospitality. It wasn't the storied, ancient history of the country or its rich and varied culture. It was not the colors or the spices or the sounds or the spirituality of the place. India is all of these things, to be sure, and I have grown to love them all. But they were not what seeped into my being and pulled me close, becoming a part of me that I missed with a strange emptiness when I left.
It was the children.
They are everywhere. They fill the railway stations, the cities, the shanty villages. Some scrounge through trash for newspapers, rags or anything they can sell at traffic intersections. Others, often as young as two or three years old, beg. Many are homeless, overflowing the orphanages and other institutional homes to live on the streets.
There is a holocaust quietly happening among India's children. The perpetrator is poverty, and its foot soldiers are disease, gender and caste discrimination, unclean water, illiteracy, and malnutrition. Its allies are corruption, ineffective government policies, and rich industrialized nations that, in an indifferent and arrogant imbalance of global power, claim exemption from a battle fought on such far lands. While there may be no Adolf Hitler or Idi Amin behind it, make no mistake it is a holocaust all the same.
While this silent war is waged against millions of children, a very different India is the one we see and hear about. Its emergence on the international markets with leading industries such as technology, pharmaceuticals and manufacturing have put it squarely in the center of global importance, with an astounding annual growth rate of nine percent bringing an influx of new wealth daily. The country is home to the fastest-growing middle class in history; whose numbers, at over three hundred million, are more than the entire population of the United States. India has emerged as one of the world's greatest wealth creators, thanks to a buoyant stock market and high earnings. Stories about this shimmering new India fill newspapers and business magazines.
Yet amidst this growing prosperity there is a hidden India. Hundreds of millions are excluded from the boom, living completely outside the affluence it brings. They exist on its periphery, pushed to the margins, and often seem a source of embarrassment to those who wish to present only the shiny new face of Indian success. In this other India an entire generation of parentless children is growing up more than twenty-five million of them, with close to four million more joining their ranks each year. India is also home most AIDS orphans of any country in the world, approaching two million a number that is expected to double over the next five years.
In my journeys over the last three years into the orphanages, slums, clinics and streets of India I have become immersed in dozens of children's lives. Their hope and resilience amazed me time and time again; the ability of their spirits to overcome crippling challenges inspired me. Even in the most deprived circumstances they are still kids they laugh and play, perhaps far less frequently than others; they develop strong bonds and relationships to create family where none exists; and most of all they have an enormous amount of love to give. The stories they shared with me do not belong to me. They were given to me as a gift, often because I was the only person who had ever asked. And so I am merely the narrator who attempts to relay their stories to others, for that is the only thing I have to offer.
Many people ask me, why India? And my simple answer is, why not? I find most people who ask this question are really asking, why don't you do something here at home instead of traveling halfway around the world? There are plenty of children here who are suffering and need help. I agree, and donate significant amounts of both time and money to nonprofits doing incredible work for children right here in the United States.
But besides that, why India? Because I believe that every life, no matter where it's lived, has equal value. Because extreme poverty in India is not the same as poverty in the United States. Because there are very little if any safety nets for these children who fall through the cracks. Although we have vast problems in my home country as well, millions of children in the U.S. aren't generally threatened by malaria and tuberculosis, denied their entire educations or trafficked, sold into factories or domestic labor if they're lucky, to brothels if they're not. A childhood cannot wait for the AIDS epidemic to subside, for poverty to be eradicated, for adults and governments to act, for the world to notice them. Once gone, their childhoods can never be regained.
And quite simply, because those twenty-five million children exist.
on 3 December 2008.
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