A Dubai-based student and her college friends helped raise money to rebuild an orphanage in Kenya and found surrogate families for 29 girls. Tanya Kewalramani tells Shiva Kumar Thekkepat why
Dubai students help Kenyan orphans.
Faith’s face was a map of sorrow. Her brow was always wrinkled, her large eyes questioning and filled with sadness as she looked out at the world. I couldn’t escape them – mostly because she always followed me around. I was new to the Ananda Marga Mission orphanage in Njoro, Kenya, and had come from my home in Dubai to rebuild the orphanage, connect the orphans to families, and teach them to be sustainable.
Seven-year-old Faith was one of 29 orphans there, and she was clearly missing the warmth and love of a family. “Hello,” I smiled, holding out my hand, but she would dart away, reluctant to come near me. I couldn’t blame her. I was a stranger, but I wanted to find out more about this little girl with the sad face.
I discovered her mother had left her with her grandmother two years before. She’d managed to cope for a year, and then dire poverty had forced her to leave the poor girl at an orphanage run by Rupa Didi [big sister], an Indian missionary.
But I kept reaching out to Faith, and finally she allowed me to hold her. I was overwhelmed to feel her little hands in my palms and see her shy but warm smile. “It’s OK,” I reassured her. “It’s going to be OK.” Right now I didn’t know how I could help her – but I wanted to make her smile like that all the time.
I’d come to Kenya with five friends – Gaurav Inder Toor, Marissa Block, and Juan Diego Lopez, who were members of the Class of 2014 with me at the Trinity College, Connecticut, USA; and Aurora Bellard and Paroma Soni, freshmen at the same college. We were there to help rebuild the Ananda Marga orphanage that had been destroyed in the ethnic conflict that had enveloped Njoro in 2007.
With their shelter gone, the girls had been staying at temporary accommodation provided by the Lion’s Club of Njoro. It was a basic, sparsely furnished three-room
tenement, but they needed a home. Gaurav, 21, had visited before and had been so moved by the plight of the girls like Faith that he asked us to go back with him to help them all, if we could finance it.
Luckily, there was an intiative by Davis Projects for Peace with an award of $10,000 (Dh36,733) and we’d applied for the grant, and won it. We called our project Empower Social Orphans. However, after doing a basic project appraisal, we’d realised that the award money wouldn’t be enough to help the children properly. So together with the others we’d decided to collect more funds on our own.
Together we raised an additional $12,000 with bake sales, and by selling posters and postcards.
We were clear about our mission before we left for Njoro in May this year. We had three main goals. First, to connect each girl to a family. By connecting we didn’t mean adoption. Rather we wanted them to have a family to rely on, to take them out and give them a taste of the real world, advise them when they needed it and guide them on the right path.
The second was to rebuild part of the orphanage that had been burnt down during the ethnic violence.
The third was to open a bakery, teach them basic entrepreneurship skills and to make the orphanage sustainable even after we left.
It was a shock to see these children packed into a space that cramped their spirit. The girls were shy and initially awkward around us – they hardly ever had any visitors and did not know how to react in the midst of strangers. “Come here,” we’d coax, getting them to play games with us. We’d filled water balloons and tossed a few at the girls. Initially, they were shy and confused, but after a while they’d laughed, and joined in, throwing them back. That proved to be the ice-breaker. Soon they were bonding with us.
“What’s you name?” asked one, sidling up to me. “Can I see your glasses?” asked an inquisitive curly haired girl, pointing to my sunglasses.
There were 22 girls living at the orphanage, the rest of them – older girls aged between 15 and 17 – were at a boarding school about four hours’ drive away. The younger girls studied in a school near the orphanage.
The project had begun in real earnest from the second day. For the first week we stayed in Nakuru, the
It was such a shock to see these children packed into a space that cramped their spirit
largest town in that area – half an hour away from Njoro. We then went door-to-door to try to find families who would visit the girls, so they felt a sense of belonging.
We did profiles for each of the girls by talking to them, asking them questions about their family, the kind of life they had led at home, their interests and what they wanted to study, and then tried to match them with like-minded families.
It was hard work but eventually after eight days, we managed to get a family for each girl. We had some European, American and Indian families who volunteered to care for the kids.
They were affluent families and once they realised the dire circumstances the children came from, they agreed to try to help. One of the European women was moved. “I have children of my own, and know how it must be for them,” she said. “I’ll certainly go and visit my ward at least once a month.” The families also offered to help them with advice and encouragement as they grew up and got ready for college.
It was a very emotional experience for us. It was the first time in my life that I had interacted so closely with children who had so little and expected even less. It was painful to see the eager young faces of the girls who had no one to turn to, look so trustingly at us.
It was also physically exhausting, because none of us had worked at hard physical labour before – especially constructing buildings. We hired a contractor and 25 workers, but we had to be on our toes all the time. We hadn’t anticipated how they would be able to sustain and keep the orphanage running. There would be furnishing, electricity and water bills to pay. Rupa would go around three days a week collecting donations, door-to-door to help pay the bills but this was never enough.
Rupa wanted to run a school on the ground floor. She raises crops like beans on a nearby farm. But that is not sufficient for the upkeep of the children, so she has taken out a bank loan as well.
We bought them ovens and cooking equipment, and arranged for a local baker to visit the centre and teach the girls how to bake cakes, cookies and biscuits. The girls will be then able to sell the products.
It was the first time I had interacted so closely with children who had so little and expected even less
much work it would be. Two of us had to go to the store in town early in the morning to ensure that they sent the day’s requirement on time, or it would never arrive, or if it did it would be too late. Then we’d help the workers, carrying the material, and mixing the cement.
Finally, two and half weeks later, the building was complete. The structure had two floors, with a few large halls on the ground floor and three large bedrooms on the second floor, with two toilets. While the structure was ready, and painting done, we were worried about how
There are 1.3 million orphans in Kenya and only about 300,000 of them are in a home, or orphanage because many of the families are too poor to look after the children and abandon them. So, there is lot of work to be done.
Gaurav talks to Rupa every two days, and she’s now found a donor who’s helping her build another wing to the orphanage so they can expand.
After spending a month there, we developed such strong bonds with the children that on the day we were to leave we were all almost in tears. I still remember Faith standing shyly near the school and waving goodbye.
“I want to be a driver so I can travel all over Kenya and meet people,” she told me. And she will. We are hoping that they will be able to realise their dreams. Rupa and others like her will be able to give her wings.
We want to spread the word about the project so they can get some money to run the orphanage. We are on Facebook and Twitter and trying to raise money, and get clothes and shoes to send over to them. Our college donated seven laptops.
The hard part is there is a lot more to be done, and we are thousands of miles away, but none of us can stop thinking about Faith and the other girls there.
With Faith and Brenda, two of the kids at the mission
All of us pitched in to realise the dream of the children
We’d play games to get to know the kids better
We would help the workers to speed up the building process
Rupa (in orange) is dedicated to helping the children
It was so fulfilling to see the children happy
Interacting with children gave me a new perspective