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  • Foto van schrijverJaira Sona

The summer that changed my life

One year ago, I never imagined my life to be like this. I lived a student life in Amsterdam and grew up in an environment strongly contrasting with India, where 67% of the population is living below the poverty line.

In my 22 year old life, I travelled to many places, but I never experienced such extreme poverty until I arrived in India. In the summer of 2016, I travelled through India with my mother. In Pushkar (Rajasthan), we encountered two boys begging on the streets. After buying them some ‘chapati flower’, the boys invited us over to their home to eat food with their family. Arriving at their home, I witnessed their living situation and it affected me.

I never came this close to extreme poverty before. Over 200 families are living in self-made tents on the Camel Fair ground in the center of Pushkar. The tents are made of sari’s, fabrics and wooden sticks. The families are lacking of basic life needs, proper shelter, employment, sanitary facilities and income.

Can you imagine having to sleep outside in the rain? Having an open desert as your toilet? Wearing the same dirty clothes for weeks because it is the only outfit you have? Having to beg on the streets in order to get enough food for your family? I couldn’t and that’s why I decided to make a change.

I went back to Pushkar one month later, because I became very close with the five families I met📷 the first day, and they started to feel like my family. Due to external and internal factors, the universe had led me to Pushkar with a mission. I spent all of my days at the camp, spending time with the kids and their families. I decided to spend a night at their “camp”, because it didn’t feel right to go back to my hotel while the kids, who I spent all of my days with, were sleeping outside. I wanted to know what it was like to live like them. That night changed my life. Sleeping outside on the cold, sandy ground, among the cows, dogs, mice and insects, makes you very grateful for the kind of life we have here in Europe. After that night, I decided to do something to make a change. All of these children on this camp are born in inhumane conditions to remain in this intergenerational cycle of poverty. I decided to fully commit myself to try to make a change. As a 22 year old Law student from Amsterdam without money, sources or power, I wouldn’t dare to dream that one year later, the lives of five former homeless families would have be completely changed.

Starting the Sona Pushkar Project

I started by selling silver and handicrafts from Pushkar in Holland in order to raise money. Setting up a website, the product-sale, and promoting my project required a lot of time and energy. The project took over a big part of my life since I was doing it by myself, so it wasn’t easy to combine that with my Law studies. I took a semester off and fully committed myself to the project.

Together with my mother I came up with a project plan and I started the Sona Pushkar Project. I wanted to make a fundamental change focussing on three key outcomes: residence, education and employment. These key factors will create a ripple effect that lasts for generations and end the intergenerational cycle of poverty among these families. My aim was to make these families educated, empowered and employed, to achieve the big goal: helping to break the cycle of poverty.

Moving from a tent into the Blue House

After raising money, I went back to Pushkar in November 2016 and started with changing the living situation of the five families I met the first day I came to Pushkar. These families, who were previously living on the camp, moved into a rent house: the Blue House. The Blue House was built for the project and consists of five rooms. There are not many realtors that allow this low caste to rent their house, so we were lucky to have found someone who did. The moving process was easy, since the families hardly had any possessions. We placed everything they had in a tuktuk and moved into the house from one day to another. These 28 people had never slept under a roof before. They were so excited to set up and furnish their own house. I had to teach them all the basics, such as using a bathroom, folding up their clothes and brushing teeth. I provided them with all necessary utensils and lived among them in the Blue House every two months I went back to Pushkar. The families adjusted to their new lifestyle surprisingly fast.

Education: the key to a different future

All children in the Blue House are enrolled in school. Some of the children are sent to the local school through my project, others were already lucky to be sponsored by other tourists. Education is the key to change a child’s life. Through my website and social media, people who like to help can sign up for sponsorship. Sponsoring a child’s education costs €150 euro per year, this includes school fee, uniform and schoolbooks. None of the prior generation had gone to school and not a single person of this underprivileged community has a proper job. Being born in this excluded community isn’t easy but these children will have the chance to end this intergenerational cycle of poverty. The ultimate goal is to send all children on the camp to school, in order to give them a chance in this world.

Employment: making the families self-sufficient

Besides residence and education, the families are employed by my project. The women are sewing silk bags which I sell in shops in Holland. The men are driving “the Blue Tuktuk”. This electric tuktuk is donated to the project by Join The Pipe, a company that is providing water-connections worldwide. Before this project, all men and boys of this caste were drumming for a living. Drumming is still something they enjoy and they are really talented musicians. The drum-season is just a couple of months per year and this was their only form of income. That is why many families sent their kids to go begging. This was a way of survival, whereas most of the time they didn’t have enough money for food. The five families don’t need to worry about having enough food anymore. My project is providing monthly food packages for all five families. These food packages are filled with enough chapati flower, oil, rice, washing powder and herbs and spices for the whole month. The food program are partly sponsored by individual sponsors who signed up through my website. Part of the sale of the handmade products made by the Blue House women is also funding these food packages. This is to make them aware of the fact that they need to work in order to get something. By employing the adults I hope to make them self-sufficient and independent.

Future plans and goals

There are some conditions prior to being enrolled in my project: the children have to go to school regularly and the adults have to be employed. I hope to create a ripple effect of education and employment. The five “Blue House families” have a completely transformed life after helping them for merely one year. The new generation will have a life so different from their parents. They will be the first generation to finish school and maybe even attend college. They will live their lives in a house, with a job and fair income. When these families eventually become more self-sufficient, I hope to help more families who are still living on the camp.

In July 2017, the NGO has invested in buying land in Pushkar. On this land the families will work in order to save money to build their own house. Each family will have their own house, through their own effort and work. The future plan is that the project will build a building where the children’s development will be accelerated by teaching them English and other underdeveloped subjects, and to also let them explore their creativity, sports and other skills.

Combatting India’s biggest problem: Child Marriage

Rajasthan, the province of Pushkar, has the highest rate of of child marriage. 60 percent of the women are married before the age of 18. Child marriage is a violation of children’s rights. It limits choices, freedom and the chance of a different future. Children shouldn’t be tied down against their will. In the community concerned in Pushkar, child marriage is very common. Most of the boys and girls get married at the age of 15. Besides the negative effects on children, marrying out children also increases the family’s debt. According to Indian traditions, marriage is of big importance and a lot of money is used for it.

Among my project’s families, I strive to prevent child marriages. I set the condition that no child in the Blue House can marry before the age of 18 for girls and 21 for boys, as the Indian law says. If they don’t comply with this condition, they are not allowed to be part of my project.

The parents of one of the 15 year old boys in the Blue House were arranging a marriage. I talked to them trying to implement a different mindset. Finally, I persuaded them by telling that this boy’s life has so much potential. I put him in school 4 months ago, and he is doing great. If he would be married at the age of 15, he would stop school without a chance of a proper job, caring for his family without any money before the age of 18. His older brother helped me with persuading their parents. He got married out at the age of 13. He was forced to quit school. His dream was to finish school and attend college. He told me that his life was finished when he got married and that his life would have been so different if he wasn’t married at the age of 13. He is now 25 and has to take care of his family with 4 kids, lacking of a proper job and income. This is how the intergenerational cycle of poverty keeps on existing. I am relieved that his brother will have a different, free life, filled with opportunities. Now everything is possible: “sab kuch melega”.

Help needs to come from your heart

The problem will not be solved by just offering practical help; it is also of great significance to make a fundamental difference to have a profound effect on making a change. In my opinion, the best help will come from your heart and it needs to be unconditional. A small contribution for us Europeans can have a big impact on the lives of poor families. I learned that it doesn’t require a lot of money to make change. But it is not just money that will change lives. Being involved personally and a 100% wanting to invest a lot of your time and effort, is of most importance and requires the most of you.

Most people go on in their privileged lives without being grateful and aware of the fact that life is very easy for us compared to a lot of people in the world. Why are we overloaded and spoiled while so many children are born with nothing. Why do so few of us take the energy, time and effort to make a change. A small contribution for us can have a life changing impact. I never expected that I would be able to make a real difference, but it is possible for a 22 year old student to change lives. I believe that when you really want something, the universe always conspires in your favor. These children have aspirations like you and me, expectations of what life could be. Giving them a chance in this world is the most beautiful, selfless thing to do.

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