Melissa's Travels

A Special City Walk in Delhi

“Why do you think children run away?” asked Noor, a 23-year-old man who had been a runaway himself and was giving our family a tour of the streets of Delhi and sharing his story.

“Poverty.” My fifteen-year-old son guessed.

“Violence,” said my sixteen-year-old daughter.

Noor nodded. “Yes, those are the reasons, but often, too, for girls it is because they don’t want to burden their parents with the cost of a dowry. For boys it can be because they want to star in a Bollywood movie.” It is estimated that eleven million children in India live on the streets. Most, like Noor, hop on a train in their rural village. (“Train collectors don’t ask kids for tickets,” he explained.)

“I got off the train in Delhi thirty hours later,” he recalled. It had never occurred to him that he would be unable to communicate because he only spoke his local dialect. His father and older brother had beaten him and his mother, so when he was ten years old, he left his job selling tea and boarded a train. Lucky for him a social worker with the Salaam Baalak Trust found him in the train station. Today, he speaks Hindi and English and is pursuing his higher degree.

Founded in 1988 by Mira Nair and her mother after the enormous success of the film Salaam Bombay, the Salaam Baalak Trust has been named one of the most effective NGOs in India. Salaam Bombay, which was nominated for an Academy Award, starred street children and proceeds from the film established the Trust, whose name means Salute the Spirit of the Child. It began with three employees and 25 children; today its staff of 140 assists 6,000 children. In Delhi the trust has five shelters, where children live and study in a safe space, and 19 contact points where kids can come in for medical care, counseling, education and recreation.

As Noor led us through the maze of streets near Delhi’s main market and the train station, he explained that most of the street kids earn their money collecting and sorting garbage. A day’s work usually nets them 200 rupees, roughly $3.50, which they cannot save because it will be stolen from them. They spend it on food, drugs or entertainment.

The police and gangs often beat the kids. “A lot of the kids use drugs,” he explained, “to escape their pain.” Sniffing glue is the most common drug. (After we left Noor we saw two boys huddled in a corner getting high.) Noor spent his earnings on the movies. Often he would stay in the theater and watch a film two or three times in a row. “I like Bollywood and Hollywood,” he said. “Forrest Gump is one of my favorites.”

The Salaam Baalak Trust tries to locate children’s parents but often the kids don’t want to return home; many resist going to a shelter but those who do are enrolled in classes and receive counseling and medical care. Those, like Noor, who do well in school, are supported to pursue higher education. “By law, you cannot live in the shelter past the age of 18,” he acknowledged. Noor lives nearby and volunteers at the Trust while he continues his studies.

We ended our City Walk with a visit to one of the Salaam Baalak boys shelters, which is home to a few dozen kids aged nine to twelve. Noor had taught us how to say, ‘What is your name?’ in Hindi but as soon as we entered the two rooms where the boys sleep and study, we were engulfed by smiling faces and English phrases. They kids were thrilled to practice their English. They asked our names and ages and where we were from. They played hand games and asked us to take photos, while they posed and giggled.

Noor had told us on the walk that he hoped one day to become a tour guide. A wall in the center is devoted to the success stories of Salaam Baalak kids who have won scholarships to study in the U.S. and now work for KLM or the Indian government. We asked him if he had been in touch with his family, who are back in the tea region of Assam, and he said that in the ten years since he first ran away, he has now returned to visit twice and that they are proud of his studies.

Of all the experiences that we had in India over a two-week visit, seeing palaces and forts and learning about Gandhi and the Moghul emperors, our afternoon with Noor will stay with us most vividly. The richness of India is in its palaces, its landscapes, the vivid colors of the saris and the chaos of the street life. But to me, its real piercing beauty lies in the constant flowering of hope or moments of resilience that emerge in brutality and desperation. Taking a Salaam Baalak City Walk, which is always led by a runaway who is on the road to a better life, is a way to experience the essence of India and to support the incredible work of the trust.

Read more about Salaam Baalak Trust.

Published onApril 10, 2015

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