Jewish Journal

From the Streets of Delhi

The give and take of learning with India’s street children

by Rachel Firestone

Posted on Aug. 31, 2011 at 11:10 am

Playing Holi at Khushi Rainbow Home for Girls in Okhla, Delhi. Holi is a Hindu festival of color, masquerade and role play associated with the coming spring, which always falls around Purim. Photo courtesy of The Dilse Campaign, New Delhi.

Playing Holi at Khushi Rainbow Home for Girls in Okhla, Delhi. Holi is a Hindu festival of color, masquerade and role play associated with the coming spring, which always falls around Purim. Photo courtesy of The Dilse Campaign, New Delhi.

“Have you ever been to the Jama Masjid?” The little girl looks up at me with bright, intelligent eyes, the yellow of jaundice and malnutrition already receding from around her irises, a brightly colored scarf hiding the long, curved scar rising up from just behind her ear. She is one of our newer girls. She had arrived two weeks earlier while I was out of town, and we had just met.

The little girl was sitting in on the English class of her own volition. Like all new children during their first month at Dilse, she was in her adjustment period and had not yet been assigned to any specific learning group. As we worked on alphabets, she watched everything with squinting, critical eyes. Then she began tracing the letters on her worksheet with the loving reverence of a devotee, as if carefully and repeatedly writing out the holy names of God.

Soon we had learned two letters and their corresponding sounds, and we began blending — articulating the sound of each letter as I pointed to it, and slowly putting two letter sounds together to make a syllable.  Back and forth, back and forth — “A, T, T, A. Ahhh, Ttttaahhh — AT,” “Ttttaaahhh, Aaahhh — TA!” The little girl’s eyes widened when she saw the connection. We started clapping in time to our voices and adding on different consonants to our base syllable, “AT.” And suddenly the girl was reading. “Hhh-AT, HAT! Ffff-AT, FAT! Ccc-AT, CAT! FAT CAT!”

When she realized that the sounds she was decoding were actually words with meaning, she looked up at me, startled. Peels of her laughter ricocheted off shoulders and elbows and danced in the air above our heads. She jumped up and ran in circles around the group of us sitting on the mat in the yard, singing in a singsong voice, “Fat cat! Fat cat! Fat cat!” pointing her fingers up at the sides of her head like pointed little feline ears. The child before me had just had her first taste of what it means to be literate — she had decoded the letters into words, and the idea of what they represented had come alive to her.

Jewish tradition has always placed great value on education and literacy. In addition to encouraging us to explore our own frame of reference, we are taught to learn with others, that knowledge acquisition is symbiotic. The very format of rabbinic literature instructs us to actively engage with both material and fellow learners, to debate, question, analyze and wrestle with the matters at hand. I have always felt that Judaism presents learning as a means toward attaining a more present and involved existence. We are encouraged to be mindful and aware of how our actions in the everyday fit into the larger scheme of things, and we are pushed to always learn more and actively widen our worlds. When letters came alive and became words for her that day, the little girl with the head scarf got a taste of how wide the world can be, and her appetite was whetted.

Children from Ummeed Aman Ghar for Boys in Qutub Minar, Delhi, enjoying a moment of leisure. Photo courtesy of The Dilse Campaign, New Delhi.

A few minutes later, we moved on to a new activity — words that start with the letter “S.” The little girl was equally engaged, chattering on incessantly about every word she could think of that started with an “Sssss” sound. Yet in midalliteration, she looked up at me suddenly, her mouth still open in a tiny “o,” and she asked again, “Didi (older sister in Hindi-Urdu), have you ever been to the Jama Masjid?” The Jama Masjid, or Friday Mosque, is the biggest mosque in Delhi, in the heart of the old city, and I had been there numerous times in the previous few months. Surprised, I answered, “Yes, I have.”

“Do you ever go there to take pictures, and do you ever wear a headband over your hair?” The headband is a trademark feature of mine, but today, my hair is loose. Taken aback, I again answered in the affirmative. “But how do you know that? Did you used to live there?”

The girl nodded her head vigorously, pushed back her scarf in her excitement, and continued with her questions, “I saw you first during Ramzan (“Ramadan” in Urdu). Does a bhaia (older brother) go with you, and does he have a very big camera?”  And during Ramadan I had gone to the mosque with my friend, Marti, who uses a large reflex camera. At my answer, she erupted again into giggles, and I shook her hand warmly, unable to stop smiling, “Nice to meet you again, Fatima, it has been a long time!”

Fatima had been one of the little street urchins who run in packs around the grand mosque steps and into the surrounding lanes spidering out into the old city. When she saw me, she was one of hundreds of children competing to stake their claim over the wide swaths of city streets — bartering, making deals, and scavenging for food and recyclables according to unwritten codes of law I will most likely never be able to understand. At one point, she was living with her mother and older sister, both of them hooked on “solution”—the mix of cleaning and whitener fluid often sniffed along with glue — and working migrant construction and day-labor jobs. Often they spent their nights at the Old Delhi Railway Station or, during the cold season, in the tent camps outside of Meena Bazaar, the busy marketplace behind the Jama Masjid. Fatima is about 8 years old, and several months ago she saw me, a foreigner, entering her territory in the big mosque. Perhaps I spoke with her, or perhaps she only saw me from afar. Now somehow, thanks to a talented and committed field team, she is living and attending classes at one of our schools at the Dilse Campaign, where I have been developing education programs for the last year and a half.

Growing up in Los Angeles as the daughter of two rabbis, living walking distance from the synagogue of which we were members,  and attending Jewish day school, summer camp, youth group — the works — I was part of a very tightknit Jewish community. At the same time, l lived side by side with people of all different backgrounds and ethnicities in one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world. Be it tearing through the neighborhood on roller skates or scooters, playing basketball or getting to know fellow dog-walkers and runners, I was taught that worlds and realities of these different communities are all fundamentally linked. We all eat much of the same food, breathe the same air, compete for many of the same jobs, get pulled over for the same traffic law violations, and when we seriously err, we get sent to the same jails.

Likewise, benei adam, human beings, in different parts of the world, different communities and different religions often suffer from eerily similar issues — economic disparity, unfair working conditions, unequal distribution of goods, lack of awareness on how to access basic amenities such as good education, comprehensive health care and much more. And I was always taught that a major part of Judaism’s commitment to tikkun olam, repairing the world, means engaging with other “people groups,” working toward making everyone’s olam a better place.

A young girl looks up from her book at Khushi Rainbow Home for Girls. Photo courtesy of The Dilse Campaign, New Delhi.

Meaning “from the heart” in Hindi-Urdu, the Dilse Campaign of the Centre for Equity Studies strives to do just that. A collaboration between government and citizens, the think-tank/action-research organization works to develop a sustainable, large-scale intervention model to uphold the dignity and rights of the urban poor — specifically the children and youth who live and work on the streets. Dilse’s Delhi program includes a health clinic, a field team, a research arm and three community-based residential schools across the city. For the past year and a half, I have been working on developing English language and computer-skills education programs for these schools, in a mix of classroom teaching, curriculum development, teacher training and supervision, and staff soft-skill training and capacity building. While Dilse runs four similar schools in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, the organization’s Delhi program currently works with more than 350 children and youth in-house, and provides services to more than 2,000 other children and families in the various communities in which we work.

One could say that I am engaged in the work of social justice and tikkun olam, as all of us at Dilse are working to build a more just and equitable world. Yet I often feel that the phrases tikkun olam and social justice have a self-serving ring to them:  “Look what we can do for them.” “They need help, and we can help them.” To some extent, this is undeniable and unavoidable; in a world where some people have more privilege and were born into a world with more resources, more supportive communities and, frankly, more luck than others, certain people find themselves desperately in need of help and support, while others are in positions where they can grant it.

But what does tikkun olam really mean? As with learning, I believe that tikkun, or repair, can and should happen both ways, and it is never a one-way street. One of the most powerful lessons I have learned from working with the Dilse Campaign in New Delhi is that I am receiving tikkun as much as I am giving it. Every day I am challenged to grow in new ways as I interact with my physical and human environment. While this mutual process of learning took me by surprise at first, I now feel that this mix of tikkun olam, repairing the world, and tikkun atzmi, refinement of the self, is one of the most powerful ways in which I can connect with the children and young adults with whom I work.

This notion of internal and external repair also brings home a larger debate — where should we invest tikkun? And which olam, world or reality, are we talking about? Having grown up with a strong identity of my own and feeling interested in, welcomed by and invested in a culture very different from mine pushes me to ask what Judaism’s commitment to peace, equality, justice and diversity really means, and how we are encouraged to live out these values. Are some people’s olam more deserving of change than others’? Does tzedakah and service work within the Jewish community take precedence over intercommunity work?

It is our responsibility, as committed Jews, to work in other communities and find a common ground where we can both learn and be learned from. How can communities know and appreciate one another and the beautiful, subtle web of their differences and commonalities, and work toward making peace if they have never really interacted?

Dilse children teach us a powerful lesson in their phenomenal ability to act as bridges between communities. In their new environment, children like Fatima do not know the “rules of the game.” As they learn both inside and outside the classroom, they depart from the arena of their previous lives and, unknowingly, they close a door behind them. Their worldviews, their expectations for themselves and their awareness of society’s expectations for them are soon much wider than before.  Even in doing something as simple as putting sounds together to read a word, children like Fatima go through transformational learning — where one is taken and changed into something different from what one was before. Yet the vast majority of those who have families maintain contact and strong relationships, going home to visit on holidays and special occasions, bringing back news, and often helping parents and family members get outside help and support. Despite all the changes they have gone through, they appreciate the learning from their previous context, and they are able to flit back and forth between worlds.

Supporting the children and helping them stay on track during this vulnerable period requires a lot of reinforcement. Resilience can be developed in the space between teacher and learner, caregiver and child. As a program developer, I am continually trying to come up with ways to expand, explore and make use of this space. To meet this challenge, a great part of my work is child-participation based, and I spend a lot of time both in the classroom and working with children after class in small groups. And though my primary role is to teach and develop education programs for the children, I am repeatedly awed and amazed by the powerful lessons they teach me every day.

Fatima taught me some of my most valuable lessons. Who would have thought that a foray into the old city and spending several hours at the Jama Masjid one Ramadan break-fast could make such an impression on someone? A little girl who observed me from afar remembered my face so clearly that she recognized me in a context completely removed from her previous reality. That day doing alphabets taught me two lessons:  First,  even the small things we do can have a lasting effect on something or someone, and so, we should be conscious and present in our day-to-day words and actions.

Fatima also taught me the beauty of going with the flow. A little girl whose world was full of big changes and instability, Fatima was nevertheless ready to absorb and process everything that came her way, one day at a time. Her patience and determination even in the face of external chaos are qualities I strive for in my own life. Working with Fatima gave me tikkun that day. I hope to keep Fatima’s quiet, naïve bravery in mind when I grapple with my own life changes and the important but sometimes uncomfortable learning that comes my way. 

As I sit on the mat, in the garden of the school in Old Delhi, with rambunctious little hooligans running in circles around me, thousands of miles from the city and community of my childhood, I feel I am living all the values I grew up with in a visceral and exciting way.  Day to day at Dilse, my work is almost always an adventure fraught with Delhi’s traffic, limited building infrastructure, the challenge of working with inexperienced teachers and the need to accommodate multilevel classrooms of children of all ages with multiple learning and social issues. But then there is the heady mix of naiveté, life experience and wisdom I so often encounter in these children, their unabashed honesty, and the electrifying moments when I find ways to connect with them and see those lights come on. I am often astounded by their remarks, by their application of new knowledge to current realities, and by their nimble ability to connect information and find meaning in what they learn. Some days these all come together, and I see them love learning and love themselves. In such moments I know that working with these children can be transformational — both for them and for me.

Rachel Firestone, 25, grew up in Los Angeles and is a graduate of Wesleyan University. She is currently living in Delhi, where she works with the Dilse campaign of the Centre for Equity Studies.

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