Sunday, October 12, 2008

Recently I have befriended some very inspirational people working here in Kolkata. I could go on and on about how dedicated they are and how they are making a difference but I think their story and the people they work with say so much more. Here is an article that is due to go on the Discovering Deaf Worlds website shortly, written by a couple, Christy and Dave, who stayed at Shuktara. They are travelling the globe looking at deaf communities and decided to hang out with this organization. Christy is deaf and Dave is hearing. Their website is

I hope you will be inspired too, as I have been over and over again living here in Kolkata, and seeing so many people reach out selflessly to bring upliftment to someone else -- in this case children who were once in situations that felt completely desperate, and who have not only found hope but more importantly a sense of true security. I hope that I can find my own mustard seed-sized way to help SHUKTARA grow, to keep this Kolkata star shining on brightly.


A Star of Happiness Shines in Kolkata

Shantara grew up on a farm in India the only deaf child of seven siblings. His father is unknown and two of his brothers died young from lack of medical care. His mother used to beat him and he was often ridiculed for being deaf. One day Shantara had enough and ran away. He boarded a train and arrived at Howrah train station in Kolkata where he would find a way to survive on the tracks. His source for food involved chasing down and tackling rats, crows and wild hens. With gathered newspapers from the streets, he would cook whatever he caught on a makeshift stove. Shantara was found and placed in several different home environments but always teased because he was deaf. Again and again, he would run away and return to Howrah station to live on his own. He was nine years old.

Anna was born in Tamil Nadu, South India. He is partially deaf, epileptic and has learning and behaviour problems. After his mother died, his family did not know what to do with him. His father took him on a long train ride. Anna fell asleep. When he woke, his father had left him. He was alone, confused and roaming around the unfamiliar tracks of Howrah station. Picked up by a local homecare, Anna was often beaten and drugged to a point of comatose to keep him quiet. He was 10 years old.

Sumon has cerebral palsy and is unable to walk without assistance. One day his brother took him for a taxi ride to Howrah station. He removed Sumon's clothes, rubbed him with dirt and left him lying on the ground with 10 rupees (25 cents) tied to his wrist in a handkerchief. He was 6 years old.

Rekha and Bapi, both deaf, possibly lived together at Howrah station. No one knows much about their families or their background before this time. They could be siblings, or just friends who met while fighting for survival. As trains arrived to this central destination in Kolkata, Rekha, Bapi, and several other children would race through the cabins, rummaging for any leftovers before the train departed on its next destination. They were 7-8 years old.

These are only a handful of stories from the thousands of children who end up at Howrah Station. Some of them are abandoned by families who want nothing to do with a child who has a disability. Others run away themselves to escape a life of abuse and mistreatment. Yet some families drop off these children with hopes and prayers for opportunity that someone better off can look after their child. What happens to these children when they arrive at Howrah station? For many, this will remain their lives, as they know it into adulthood, if they survive. Aware of the enormity of child homelessness in this area, many NGOs (Non-Government Organizations) and homecare facilities search for these children to place them in a home. But oftentimes those homes, as Shantara and Anna experienced, are abusive and unreliable.

So let us now tell you about the magic of Shuktara, a place of hope, stability, equality, safety, freedom and love. In 1999, David Earp of the UK, with helping hands from Alison Saracena and Brian Forst of the US began a home to take in those disabled or deaf children of Howrah Station. Immediate basic needs were met: a place to sleep and bathe, a staff to provide three meals a day, and most importantly, a loving, safe environment that will forever be there for them. Shuktara now provides two homes, one for 15 boys and another for 3 girls. Many of them go to school, and some even have jobs where they willingly share their earnings with other boys and girls at the home.

In these two homes, there is no oppression based on your caste level, no inequality because of your sex, and no discriminating attitudes towards any disability. Meet Pappu. Born in the Brahmin caste, Pappu was handed a life of opportunity, comfort, education and security. At age 19, by circumstance, he was living nearby the recently established boys home of Shuktara. He began hanging out with the boys, learning sign language, and getting more involved with their lives. In this time Pappu discovered a greater purpose for his life and, despite his family's strong disapproval, left their home to live with the boys at Shuktara. Eight years later, Pappu now manages the home, is fluent in sign language (as well as Bengali, Hindi and English), and has become an instrumental role model to his community.

Shuktara means "Star of Happiness" and the moment you step through the door, you understand why. There is so much love and appreciation from the eyes and hands that greet you, regardless of the unbelievable stories these boys and girls come from. By learning behaviours from humanitarians like David, Pappu, Alison and Brian, these children now take care and support each other. They have created their own family. A place of belonging. A place where they feel safe. And a place they feel free from the limitations the outside world once laid on them. This is the immaculate beauty of Shuktara.

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