With the outburst of technology surrounding us, it’s common for today’s youth to tune out global issues and tune in only to their iPods or cell phones. However, many South Asians have done the exact opposite by breaking through this construct. Many have opened their eyes and given their hearts out to the adversities of India and its bordering countries.
Although it is hard to believe, a new influx of American born Indians are connecting to their roots and are helping reform the unsteady infrastructure of their countries. Feeding the hungry, teaching the locals how to read and write, and freeing the Dalits are just a few of the accomplishments of these young men and women. Every so often, we at Sapna like to highlight these enlightened individuals â€” not only to honor them, but to inspire all of us to step outside the box and initiate social change.
Parijat Tanna, Age 24
Pari went to India with the hopes of working with her uncle at his law firm in Ahmedabad, Gujarat to study international relations between India and US. His career was not what she expected, so she decided to volunteer at a non-profit over the weekend to pass her time and also help out in the community. She walked the slums, and to her surprise, there was an already established NGO at the Gandhi Ashram where she began to volunteer. Pari would often wander around the community center, when one day, a group of girls approached her and asked her to teach them English and Math. Expecting this to be an easy and laid back trip, this little turn made her experience follow a very different trajectory.
â€œIt was a lot more than what I had imagined, and it was a struggle, but one where I learned a lot,” states Pari. Working with underprivileged children and womenâ€™s rights allowed Pari to figure out what she wanted to do with her life.
On a daily basis Pari would take the local bus from her uncleâ€™s house to the slums where she would give English and Math sessions to the young girls informally, but soon the group got larger and the class became more formal and would be taught on a regular basis. A lot of her work also included her convincing parents to allow their daughters to actually receive lessons and go to school. If she had the time, she would have a large tutoring session for about two hours a day in which all the kids of the slums would attend. As if volunteering at one place was not enough, Pari would go trash picking with the girls sometimes and she would also take the local bus home and volunteer at Seva CafÃ©, a restaurant run by volunteers that makes money through donations from customers. Her stay in India lasted about one year, and she would go back in a heartbeat if her parents let her.
â€œIt changed me completely as a person, I changed my career and found my passion,” she reminisces. “I now work with kids in a non-profit here in the USA. The experience made me realized that I had a passion and that is working with kids. There was so much I had heard about the slums in India, but to witness it first hand was unreal. I saw a lot of adversity, but the greatest thing I saw was the positive attitude, humbleness, and kindness from so many people I made friends with there.â€
As a girl volunteering alone in India, she did encounter some frightening moments, but it never stopped her from going back. “Once, I had forgotten to charge my MP3 player and was walking without music… my safety net to avoid people, and this man approached me. He kept offering me money and I didn’t understand why, until it hit me. He was offering me money to come back with him to have some sort of sexual interaction. I was horrified. I had no were to go, I was in the middle of a field when the realization hit me and no one was around. My flight or fight instincts kicked in and I kept my pace normal to not throw him off. I grabbed a pen from my purse and held it in my hand, cap off, point ready to jab. The man followed me the whole way, until I reached the doors of the community center. Finally he walked away. I informed the boys who volunteered at the community center, who treated us NRI volunteers as family. They escorted me out of the slum for a week. After some time, I was comfortable walking on my own again.”
“My biggest fear from this, however, was the realization that the girls I worked with had to face these conditions every day. This was THEIR environment. It made me wish I could have done something more for the girls, a way to protect them.”
Pari knew that what she faced was merely a fraction of what these young girls faced on a daily basis. This was her strength and inspiration that kept her strong. However, she also says that if you choose to volunteer, make sure it is at a safe place, a place where you know the people, and a place you can trust. She did encounter a few situations that were less than ideal– but that never deterred her from continuing her journey to help people.
According to Pari, the most important thing she learned during her time there was, â€œto make the most of whatever you have and keep a positive attitude. I also learned that I can do anything as long as I put my heart into it. That I can survive anything, that I am so fortunate to have the opportunities I did growing up. I learned that people can love unconditionally and have a good heart. These girls are my heroes and I will never forget them.â€
Romin Irani, Age 23
Romin was born and raised in San Diego, California and never thought that he would take a trip to India. He was familiar with community service because he had done community service on and off for two years in Mexico with a local Church group. A turn of events lead him straight to Bangalore to help the Dalits. Dalits are people who are traditionally known as people of a â€œlow caste.â€ They are often disregarded and are generally the people who work as servants, doing odd jobs to make ends meet. Romin joined a group called DFN (Dalit Freedom Network) which is partnered with OM (Operation Mobilization). DFN is the U.S. side of things, whereas OM is based in India and mainly built schools for slum and rural kids that gave them an English medium schooling, something that usually is expensive in India.
Romin wasnâ€™t sure how he would make it through his trip, but at the end of it, he didnâ€™t know how he would leave the kids and come back to America. He fell in love with them. Even though he went there to teach them English, he learned more from them than he ever thought he would. He was shocked at how little they lived with but how happy they were. It opened up his eyes to a world that he never imagined he would be a part of.
â€œI was challenged to see the true hardship so many people face in the world. How they lived their life, what struggles they faced, I saw what held them down, and I would ask myself, â€˜how could I even help?â€™ And then I understood how I, as a person, could be changed and impacted from those things.â€
He spent three weeks total in India, two of his weeks were spent in Bangalore and one week in a small village called Chittor. He knew that in a small span of three weeks he couldnâ€™t change the adversities that have been apparent in India for centuries. He did however believe that his goal was â€œto be of use, to try and serve my hardest and leave any kind of impact I could.â€ On a daily basis him and the group he worked with would wake up and have breakfast made by the cook at the dharamshala- which loosely translated means â€˜sanctuary,â€™ but is a place where visitors go and sleep for a night when traveling from one Indian city to another. They would later have devotional with the children, and then teach the curriculum that was given by OM. Romin says they would get creative from time to time and â€œbring in new games or different approaches to teaching certain subjects, and also worked with kids who were behind.â€
He believes itâ€™s the little things that countâ€”â€œ I donâ€™t know if I made a direct lifelong change to anyone, thatâ€™s not for me to suggest or know…I know we made one person happy by the smallest thing…he was actually the cook for us and we loved him and his family. We took a picture of his family and sent him a frame with it, it was the only picture he has ever had of his family and still is thankful for it.â€
Community service trips are not only to help those in need, but a time for self-realization. These students cum adults believed that these trips literally changed their lives in a way no other circumstances could. Taking a trip to India, visiting your family, and looking at the slums out of your air-conditioned TATA Sumo cannot compare to the hands on work that these teens and adults are doing and have done. It is not only about helping children, but about touching someoneâ€™s life and making a difference. Whether we believe we individually can make a difference or not, we as a whole can, without a doubt make a difference. As was once said by the great Gandhi, â€œA small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.â€ â€”NATASHAH TORKI
If you are interested in helping out, check out these websites: