Real life

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

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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

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