He was a river diver. In the Yamuna, the most polluted river in all of India, he dove below the surface to collect metals — copper, silver, gold if he was lucky. But one day, his foot got caught.
His wife and five children waited for him to come home, but he never did…
For several months after his death, his widow, Shabnam, tried to continue as normal. But for many reasons, living on the banks of the Yamuna was not easy.
“I was missing my husband there,” she says. “I used to think of my husband and miss my husband. The children missed their father.”
But their grief wasn’t the only thing that made living here difficult.
“The neighborhood there is not good,” Shabnam says. “People, most of them men, are drunkards. And I don’t find it fit for girls to be there.”
Even the river itself is a danger. Experts say it is so polluted that there’s no oxygen left in the water. It is a dumping ground for toxic chemicals, raw sewage and garbage. Yet, for the communities living nearby, the river is their primary source of drinking, bathing and washing water.
All five of the children contracted typhoid.
“After my husband died,” Shabnam says, “I lost hope of living. But then, the children were there.”
Suddenly, Shabnam was on her own, and hopelessly unsure about how she would ever provide for her large family. Uneducated, she had trouble finding a job. Rent to live near the river is cheap, but she knew she had to make a change.
Today, still less than a year after their father died, Anjum, Mushir, Anna, Bashir and Shenaz sit on the bed with their mother in the large slum area where they now live in New Delhi. They are 12-, 11-, 9-, 6- and 4-years old, respectively. They live in a neighborhood with roads too narrow to drive a car down, five stories up, up, up seemingly endless, narrow spiraling concrete steps to a one-room living space on the top floor of one of the buildings. Their new home is better — clean and tidy, with a bright blue wall that feels warm and cheerful.
“Here, the rent is high,” Shabnam says, “but people don’t interfere too much in other’s work or business or life, so it’s better than there. It is peaceful here.”
“I give both the mother and father’s love to the children,” Shabnam says, “so now they are coping with their loss.”
Along with their mother, the children have others who are helping them to move forward and thrive — their Holt sponsors.
In Delhi, sponsors support children through SSG, Holt’s longtime partner organization in the city. It was just a couple months after their father’s death — in their time of greatest need — that SSG met the children and immediately matched them with sponsors. Through sponsorship and SSG’s Kinship Care program (KARE), which strives to keep children in their families and out of institutions, Shabnam receives a stipend, which she uses to pay school fees, school supplies and tutoring classes for each of her children. In addition to the financial assistance through the KARE program, Shabnam and her children receive guidance and counseling from a dedicated SSG social worker, who empowers Shabnam to provide for her children and get back on her feet.
Every day, the family eats dal and chapati — the children three times a day, and Shabnam two times a day. These foods are staples of the Indian diet, and the primary food for families living in poverty. It’s not a lot, but it is enough.
Shabnam’s next greatest priority is her children’s education.
In India, families pay large school fees and provide the uniforms and supplies for their child to attend school. But in most cases, the public school system isn’t enough to get a good education. With class sizes as large as 50 and 60 children, and a system with few incentives to keep teachers motivated, children don’t learn well here. To actually learn, children must attend “tuition” classes after school – unofficial schools in and of themselves. And when combined, all of this can be very expensive, especially for a family of five children.
Shabnam used to ask for help from her brother-in-law, who lives in the same building as them. But now, because of sponsors, she no longer has to burden his family with this expense — she can provide education for her children on her own.
“Now, because you are here, I can carry on with the education of the children without asking any help from him,” Shabnam says — speaking directly to her sponsors, through the camera. “Now I’m assured that I can carry on with the education of my children.”
The children like going to school, and understand just how important this opportunity is.
“I want to be a teacher,” Anjum says. A shy, sweet smile comes to her face as she speaks —nearly matching the brightness of her yellow sari.
Mushir wants to be a sports teacher someday — he likes making people play games, he says. Nine-year-old Anna quips that she likes playing games. Shenaz, 4, says she doesn’t know what she wants to be when she grows up, but she likes to dance! Bashir, who is 6, says he likes playing Hide-And-Seek, and Catch-The-Thief, then shyly smiles and leans back behind his siblings.
“I want them to make their own living, to be independent and to go on the right path,” their mom continues, looking down the row at each of her children. “I tell the children to be part of the truthfulness. To be together. To have love and affection with their brothers and sisters — that if they have love and affection in the home, they will have love and affection outside also.”
This family experienced great loss, but in love, they are healing. Healing in the love Shabnam has for her children, the love the siblings have for each other, the care of their SSG social workers, and the love and provision of their sponsors — people around the world who care enough to help them emotionally heal, be physically healthy, and empower them to work toward their goals.
“But because KARE is helping now,” Shabnam says about SSG’s program made possible through Holt sponsors, “I now have hope that I can do something for the children — to get them an education.
“With hope of taking care of the children,” she says, “I am living.”
Megan Herriott | Staff Writer