I don’t go to many movies. I find most of them too violent or crass for my well being but, I went to Lion recently and it moved me and motivated me to write this blog.
The main character in Lion, a small boy named Saroo, gets stuck on an empty deadheading train and ends up 1500 kilometres from his home. He survives a few months on the streets of Kolkata before being sheltered and then adopted. The story thus far is a true one but it is not a rare one. I won’t give away the ending.
In India the story of children ending up on the streets happens – for one reason or another – about 80,000 times each year with a cummulative 11 million children currently enduring their existence on the streets instead of having a childhood and chance at thriving not just surviving.
Last year I had the chance to take a City Walk of the Paharganj neighbourhood in Delhi with a guide who was rescued from a life on the streets by a Non-Profit Organization called Salaam Balaak Trust. Perhaps if I tell you what I learned on that walk, you might like to join the #lionheart movement launched by the movie producers to support a few of the organizations in India working to improve the lives of India’s street children.
Salaam Balaak (which means Hello Children) started in Mumbai after director Mira Nair made a movie called Salaam Bombay in 1988 to reveal the lives of street children. Her film won many awards and the trust fund and empowerment project was born out of wanting to have a lasting vehicle to help the children that were the subject of the movie. Over 50,000 children have been removed from street life since the trust’s inception. In Delhi there are almost 7000 removed from the streets and brought into the program each year.
The City Walks aspect of the program, is an outreach to help people understand the root causes of how children end up on the streets, what their life is like and what Salaam Balaak’s actual day-to-day work with the children looks like. What are the reasons you think lead to a child ending up on the street?
Running away from a bad situation? Good answer and yes, many children have run away from abusive parents or step-parents. Some have escaped kidnappers. Those two ideas may not surprise you but these other reasons might.
How about the fact that many children just get lost in the crowds during festival time. Festivals can involve millions of people. Families are large and hard to keep track of. If you watch the movie Lion, you’ll see it’s easier for a child to get lost than you’d imagine.
Some children actually leave home because they’ve seen Bollywood movies and dream their life will be like that when they get to the big city. Some want a chance at education. Some are running away from the education system. Some are victims of natural disasters that have left them orphaned.
I asked my guide how they do it? How do they survive? How do they make money?
He explained – very kindly and matter of factly – that many get jobs. They shoeshine, they rag pick and many become pick pockets. They can make up to 10,000 rupees (about $200 CDN) a day pick pocketing. Some children become prostitutes. This happens to girls especially.
Girls runaway for their own set of reasons beyond the ones I’ve already mentioned. Many are escaping (illegal but still persistent) dowry systems and child bride schemes. Many have fundamentalist parents who would not let them marry who they wished. They make 2-300 rupees each time they sell their body for sex and on average they service 12 – 20 customers a day.
What do these children do with the money they make?
They can’t save it. They’ve no where to put it. They can’t have a bank account because they’ve no identification or papers.
One thing they don’t spend their money on is food. There are enough Sihk langars (kitchens) with free food that they can always find a meal.
Spending money on the escapism drugs promise is an obvious temptation. On our tour we saw a few youth walking the streets huffing glue or sniffing nail polish on our walk. I would have missed it but the guide pointed them out.
Movies are the favourite thing to spend money on. Kids with a bit of money will go to two or three movies in a row. The theatres provide shelter for a bit. They can sleep or do drugs in relative safety.
Touring one of the shelters I met a classroom of teenaged boys. One boy read to them. Our guide was working on his high school diploma and had a dream of going to school to become a tourism industry guide. Through my friends in Delhi we were able to find him a place to “shadow” a guide.
After visiting the head office and dropping off piles of toothbrushes, toothpaste and school supplies that I’d dragged from Canada I felt a bit ridiculous when the administrator thanked me but said, there are days when she has lots of supplies but no money to buy food for the children. I won’t make that mistake again. Money would have helped more.
Fortunately, each year a portion of the profits of my partner companies in India, Indus Travels and Hi Tours, goes to support Salaam Balaak Trust. Each year when I travel to India, I choose an empowerment project to support financially and I did make up for the piles of toothbrushes before leaving the offices.
I am happy to learn that the people at Lion are supporting two other charities with similar ideals and goals: Magic Bus and Railway Children. Magic Bus educates at risk children and provides them with the life skills necessary to move out of poverty. Railway Children works with kids living on the streets and railways stations in order to prevent them from being exploited or abused. Follow the links to see how you can make a difference.
When the problem is big, if everyone makes a small difference it will add up. The most important thing is that just like little Saroo we must NEVER GIVE UP. Here’s Sia’s song, now the theme song of the movie, to help you feel that sentiment in your bones. Take it into 2017 with a lion heart of your own.