From the alley to the classroom

The man punched the child in the eye, right in front of us, as another man was holding the child from behind. Remarkably no one among the throngs of people around reacted.

My dear friend Matthew and I were on one of our trips to Mumbai, walking the narrow path by the Haji Ali shrine. We were taking in the scene and sounds: street hawkers, devotees, people begging, devotional music…and barely audible in this hubbub of activities, the sound of waves crashing against the exposed rocks as an incessant reminder that we were on a tiny peninsula surrounded by the Arabian Sea.

It was then that we came upon this dismaying scene. Everyone else carried on unperturbed, perhaps given the normal occurrence of such incidents. But our attention startled both men. The child pounced on this opportunity to escape and ran off amid the crowd, with perhaps only a shiner to show as damage as opposed to what could – and likely would – have been much worse.

Mumbai is renowned for its street children – and they are innumerable there as well as across South Asia. Many are orphans, others abandoned by their parents, often at birth. Still others living with their families aren’t afforded any comforts of childhood; at a young age, they are forced to do menial jobs earning paltry sums so their families can eat at least once a day. They are resigned to a present, and sadly a future, of poverty as well as the risks that come with it.

One such example from a few weeks ago was the case of Zahra, an 8-year-old child maid in Islamabad beaten to death by the couple that employed her. Her inexcusable crime? She inadvertently opened a cage to feed the couple’s parrots and the birds flew away.

Both the Pakistani and international media picked up that story and legal proceedings are taking place. But there are countless and “nameless” more Zahra’s who face abuse; their existence generally deemed meaningless – or at best, a nuisance – by society. To say their life is difficult is an understatement: they are forced into survival mode at birth in a world with no shortage of predators.

It is for these children that OBAT Canada introduced the Back-to-School program. The program provides working children living in displaced population camps with intensive catch-up courses for four hours a day and six days a week to allow them to attempt government board exams. Students who successfully complete this step then have the option of enrolling in vocational studies to pursue a professional career path, funded by OBAT Canada. All this for less than $20 per month.

There is no doubt that these children have pressures to keep working for their families, which is why courses are only four hours per day. OBAT’s team also meets with their guardians to ensure they understand the importance of this program and they are fully invested in their children’s education. This permits the children to keep working to support their families, while building a sense of community with others in the same situation as them, and collectively motivating each other for self-worth and a better future.

These types of initiatives have the potential to make concrete changes among disadvantaged communities. Every child deserves an opportunity to maximize their potential. Let’s be among those who help them get there.