Monthly Archives: November 2017

#NoCountryForChildren – Including Youth In The Conversation On The Refugee Crisis

“Dear President Obama,

Remember the boy who was picked up by the ambulance in Syria? Can you please go get him and bring him to [my home]? Park in the driveway or on the street and we will be waiting for you guys with flags, flowers, and balloons. We will give him a family and he will be our brother. Catherine, my little sister, will be collecting butterflies and fireflies for him. In my school, I have a friend from Syria, Omar, and I will introduce him to Omar. We can all play together. We can invite him to birthday parties and he will teach us another language. We can teach him English too, just like my friend Aoto from Japan. Please tell him that his brother will be Alex who is a very kind boy, just like him. Since he won’t bring toys and doesn’t have toys Catherine will share her big blue stripy white bunny. And I will share my bike and I will teach him how to ride it. I will teach him additions and subtractions in math. And he [can] smell Catherine’s lip gloss penguin which is green. She doesn’t let anyone touch it.

Thank you very much! I can’t wait for you to come!”

– Alex, 6 years old

President Obama shared Alex’s letter, and replied:

“Those are the words of a six-year-old boy — a young child who has not learned to be cynical or suspicious or fearful of other people because of where they come from, how they look, or how they pray. We should all be more like Alex. Imagine what the world would look like if we were. Imagine the suffering we could ease and the lives we could save. Listen to Alex, read his letter, and I think you’ll understand why I shared it with the world”

Dear world, please listen to Alex, listen to those cries, those gunshots, those screams and don’t let your kindness and compassion fade away.

Listen to that girl, who was forced to stop going to school, because of wars. She wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer and help people when she grows up but her dreams were shattered to pieces just like her house. She is forced to live under the debris, and every time she hears a noise, a chill runs down her spine.

Listen to that small child, who has nowhere to go, and is asking her dead parents to wake up and who wrote “I miss you” near his parents bodies.

Listen to that young girl’s cries when she told you that she has no rations left in the warehouses she is hiding, and who has been raped more than thrice.

Listen to the sound of innocent blood on the road, listen to the desperation and listen to the sound of pain and suffering.

We have found a perfect way of tackling this problem. We turn a blind eye and say that this does not exist. We deny the harsh reality, we deny that every day people have to flee their home and children and teenagers are the most vulnerable and unlikely to survive;those who make it, have to live in poor conditions away from their parents with no proper sanitation and hygiene, and are more prone to infections and other health issues that may also cost them their lives. Others, who might get through this crisis, are forced into prostitution, child trafficking or become child soldiers.

We must value each life. Because, from these refugees, one might be President someday, another might be the next Nelson Mandela, or even Gandhi. But if they are stripped off their rights, they might never reach their full potential. They are children first, and they do not deserve so much pain.

If you are reading this article, and thinking, ‘there is no chance of this happening to me’, then let me first tell you that no one is immune, and if not during wars, then people are forced to flee their home because of natural disasters and for many other reasons. It might be hard to put ourselves in other people’s shoes especially if you are in bed, wrapped in cozy blankets, with a warm cup of hot chocolate and a good book, but our whole world can shatter in just one second, and change our status to a refugee. Dreams are broken, families are broken, hopes, hearts and aspirations are broken. Please just take a minute to picture that.

I can already anticipate that people might comment saying that the youth do not know anything about borders, the implications, the policies – it might be true…but we do know that we must all stand together as we are all part of one family- humanity.

We have many examples of how the strength of young people changed the stories of refugees. Yusra Mardani, for example, swam for 3 hours in open water along with her friends to stop their dinghy from capsizing, until they reached Lesbos. She later became part of the Olympian Refugee team.

The Youth is in no way, incompetent, or unaware of the global migration crisis, in fact they are integral to it. We just need the chance to be at the frontline of integration polices for refugees, and we hope that the situation will improve. It has to; we’ve already lost too many lives

#NoCountryForChildren – What It’s Like To Be A Rohingya Refugee Child In New Delhi

We all read the headlines. ‘X number of people displaced’ and ‘Y number of people dead’ in a mass exodus. Black-and-white, textured portraits of people with empty eyes and emaciated bodies of victims make for covers of several publications. The distressed ‘boat people’ cling onto their children, and the few belongings they have left. Many people have tried (and some have even succeeded) to understand why the Rohingya exodus challenges our notions of empathy to such a great extent.

Seeing them as vessels of pain and fear is the most common lens used to view them through, one that ‘outsiders’ insist on seeking. Is it simply too massive a problem to stomach? Are we unable to humanise people who aren’t being given the opportunity to tell their own stories? There may be some truth in all these rhetorical questions, but perhaps what remains universal is that it feels too far from home to be real. We have no access to the daily realities of these people. This, however, couldn’t be further from the truth for India.

The Rohingya crisis may only be making headlines now, but since as far back as 2012, a small group of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar have been surviving in a ‘settlement’ in the Madanpur Khadar area of New Delhi on a piece of land donated by the Zakat Foundation (an NGO in Delhi which utilizes charity for various social development activities). But while these 250 odd individuals (over 50 are children, many under the tender age of 10) may have been here for over 5 years, they continue to live in fear. With the uncertainty of the Indian government’s position on matters of immigration, the possibility of being deported back to a place where they will surely be persecuted, if not worse, haunts them. It is in these fringes of the city that I ventured into, for a first-hand account of a very specific section of their community – the children.

Unlike the adults, children have a way of simplifying even the most complex situations. So amidst the dangerously unstable jhuggies, the odour wafting in along with the flies from the camp’s surrounding garbage dumps, I sit down with Anwar Hussain (age 15), HasmatUlHaq (age 12) and Rabi Alam (12). As expected, they express multitudes within minutes of the meeting. The broken souls and streaming tears we’re accustomed to seeing are only a fraction of their actual lives. In reality, they have more clarity about their situation than most. Just like other children’s lives, their lives too are made up of all kinds of moments- they laugh, they cry, they play, they read and they learn. “At least we can go to school here!” Hasmat tells me in fluent Hindi, just one of the languages in his arsenal of abilities.

They are constantly distracted by either work (most contribute to our informal daily wages economy, mostly rag-picking and waste-picking) or play. Under the grey, smog-filled Delhi sky, the Rohingya children play on the road that passes right through the camp. Every now and then a vehicle passes through sending up a volcano of dust and the children skitter away to make way for the car to pass before returning to their games. They have clearly adapted to their surroundings, despite the obvious dangers and lack of basic facilities. Despite the horrors of the past, and the abysmal conditions they continue to live in, still, they retain optimism.

As I begin my conversation, I realize that big, eager stories come tumbling out of the littlest people. Tales that most people wouldn’t amass over a lifetime; Of journeys from one nation to another, life in a camp for refugees, integration with alien communities, the playgrounds they dream of, the food they miss, and the home they still yearn for, even after all these years. They are tales of the only life they have ever known.

(Excerpts from my conversation with Anwar, Hasmat and Rabi)

SM: “Do you remember your journey from Myanmar to India?”

Anwar: (Speaking in fluent English) I was two years old when I left my country. I came here in 2012. Before coming to India, I went to Bangladesh. I was a baby, so I don’t remember anything about the journey. [Switches to Hindi] This one, Hasmat will remember, it was more recent for him.

SM: “How did you come here?”

(Anwar looks to Hasmat for an answer, and responds in the Rohingya language)

Hasmat: We were just 8 of us – my family. We climbed a huge mountain on foot and after that took a boat to Bangladesh and then a bus to India. It was scary.”

SM: “Why did you have to leave Myanmar?”

Hasmat: We left the country because the Buddhists were troubling us a lot and killing the Rohingyas. We could not study there, so we came here. We are at least being able to go to school here.”

(Hasmat and Rabi are called away by their parents to collect water, as the water truck pulls in. I continue my conversation with Anwar.)

SM: “You lived in Bangladesh before this. How was it different from Myanmar?”

Anwar: My parents tell me that Bangladesh is a lot like Myanmar. We get all the traditional Burmese food in Bangladesh, but not here in India.”

SM: “Did you learn Hindi after coming to India?”

Anwar: “Yes. I learnt Hindi and English here in India. I can also speak in Urdu, Bangla and Rohingya.”

SM: “Why did you have to leave Bangladesh?”

Anwar: “The situation over there has also gotten really bad, and my parents said we would have no future there. So we came to India.”

SM: “Do you feel safer in India than you did in Bangladesh?”

Anwar: “It was alright previously. But now the government wants to send back the Rohingyas. If we have to go back, they will kill us there. We are waiting for the Supreme Court results and everyone is worried about what is going to happen.”

[The 15-year-old continues to explain the political situation, and why they are afraid of being deported to their homeland.]

Anwar: “Aung San SuuKyi says she wants to get the Rohingyas back. SuuKyi is not the President anymore and she has no real power. Even if she wants to change things she cannot. We don’t trust her at all. She has made false promises in the past as well. There was one situation when many Rohingyas went back believing in her power to protect them and they all were killed.”

SM: “How are you able to keep up with all this news?”

Anwar: “There is a news channel – RVision TV (Rohingya Vision).”

SM: “What are some of the problems you and other children at this camp face?”

Anwar: “We really miss having a playground. There is no space to play. The closest one is a few kilometers away and we need to have a vehicle to go there. There are no proper schools here either. The two schools close by are primary schools, only up to grade 5; the teachers there have only studied till grade 9. I study in Don Bosco and that very far away. It takes me an hour and half to reach school.”

(On asking about the prevalence of issues such as child labour and child marriage.)

Anwar: “Most of the children at this camp have to work to support their families, as they don’t have their fathers. That boy in the jacket who was speaking to me works in a godown close-by because his father is dead. As for child marriages, a few of them have happened. It is mostly the girls though. They are married off by the time they are 16 and usually to men who are much older!”

SM: “Do they get married to Rohingyas or to Indian?”

Anwar: “Mostly within the community, to Rohingyas, but sometimes to Indians also.”

SM: “You have lived in three countries. Which of these would you consider your own?”

Anwar: “Myanmar.”

SM: “Even if you never want to go back?”

Anwar: “Yes, even if I never want to go back. Myanmar will always be my homeland.”

#NoCountryForChildren – Refusing To Be Their Home

As of 20th October 2017, reports claimed that 1200-1500 children arrived in Bangladesh EVERYDAY fleeing violence, hunger and what sounds ominously like a genocide, in Myanmar.

It is difficult to forget the photographs that have come to represent the series of crises across the world, that have triggered waves of human beings seeking ‘refuge’. According to the UNHCR, A refugee is someone who has fled his or her country and cannot return because of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.

It is such a big, drastic word – driven from your home because you fear for your life. In that one word everyone seems the same – all those fleeing. Yet, even among those who flee, there are some who are better equipped to survive and deal with the extreme stress of the situation.

The able bodied younger men or women for instance, are likelier to survive than the old or infirm. What of those with disability? What of young girls? What of younger children, still so dependent for care on parents or caregivers? So even among those who are so terribly vulnerable, there are some who are far more vulnerable than the others – for whom simply surviving to get to the other side is an accomplishment. It makes me wonder – if 1500 children reach Bangladesh every day, how many don’t?

I think, sitting in our homes, with WiFi and our children safely engaged in doing homework or watching TV, we have no understanding of this phenomenon. Harsh Mander mourns in ‘Looking Away’ at the loss of empathy among the privileged in India. He explains the lack of rage at poverty and deprivation, by saying that middle class India simply refuses to see it. Because if we see, how can we but be enraged? It follows then, that if there is no rage, there is no seeing.

I think that’s how we’re dealing with the fact that so many children per day arrive as refugees in Myanmar. Or that children are fleeing Syria and losing their lives every single day. Or that across India, children are compelled to run from homes fearing assault, persecution. We refuse to see – it is unconscionable. Humankind, as we know cannot bear very much reality.

I am reminded of a conversation with a friend, Aniket… ‘It means ‘without home’ – a- niket’, he explained to me once. Then smiling, ‘not like a refugee. More like, ‘the world is my home’.’ This is how so many of us think now – that we can travel anywhere, settle anywhere, that the world has become closer.

But for hundreds of thousands of children, it is exactly the opposite – the world is in fact, refusing to be their home. They’re turned away from countries, seashores, borders simply refused a place to rest, eat. They’re chased from their homes because of one aspect of their identity – the faith they’re born into, their ethnicity, race…In terror, their families flee – and the child is uprooted just like that. What is worse is the subsequent search for a home – imagine traveling in the most difficult conditions – cramped, with no space to use for any bodily functions, with everyone just getting progressively more tired. How does a 7 year old mind deal with this sudden lack of space and people she can call her own? How does a 13 year old beset by insecurity anyway, engage with it? What does it do to a girl who’s just begun menstruating? Imagine the fear and fatigue. And to top it all, the many physical and emotional transitions and uncertainties in childhood.

In this movement, the focus is on shelter, food, water. Who has time for play, education, care and concern? Or patience to explain what is happening or to deal with a tantrum?

It’s not just about refugees from other countries by the way – look around. Those children under the flyover, where is their home? And the others rushing to get a bit of water from the dripping tanker, where is their home? And what of those who are shunted out to the periphery of the city whenever a new housing project is launched – where is their home?

You know what, we can do something about it.

  • Ask questions in whatever public forums you can – every question counts. For instance, in urban planning, ask questions about playgrounds. Ask where the space for the Anganwadi is, or where the municipal school (all the way to Class X) will be. Ask also about a Primary Health Centre.
  • Make children’s rights a priority – there have to be some of us who will always prioritise the rights of children. It is not enough to say that we work for sanitation for example. Open washing spaces (modis), the lack of clean spaces to change sanitary pads, toilets without doors are unsafe and unacceptable for children.
  • Commit to children – a child without the basic rights to a childhood is MY responsibility. Know about Children’s Rights and ensure you help uphold them.

Most of all, DON’T LOOK AWAY.


#NoCountryForChildren – How Art Interventions Can Help Displaced Children Cope

Children thrive on security and find comfort in certain predictable routines of life. Happy childhood memories often centre around mundane daily activities that the child does with parents or siblings such as walking to school every day, conversation around the dinner table or helping out in household chores.

What happens when this life and this world is turned upside down? People who are not affected by the crisis of displacement are not touched by the enormity of the situation and the gut wrenching feeling of leaving behind an entire life and the uncertainty of the future. A Syrian artist Mohamed Hafez recreated miniature versions of wrecked homes of refugees in suitcases. This art project called Unpacked: Refugee Baggage is an attempt to humanize refugees.

While the refugee crisis wreaks havoc on all those who are going through it, children are especially vulnerable because of the fact that they have practically no voice and hardly any notice is taken of what they think or feel. Art in itself is a neutral platform that can be used very effectively with children who are trying to cope with the realities of displacement.

Here we are in conversation with Priyanka Patel, a Storyteller, Psychologist, and an Educator who uses various art forms in her interventions with children.

Priyanka has been integrating Arts and Psychology for inner transformation since over a decade. She has worked extensively in educational settings including schools, NGOs, and shelter homes. Through her company, The Looking Glass, she conducts a wide array of workshops using Theatre, Music, Movement, and Visual Arts in therapeutic settings and for building Life Skills. She also performs regularly for Sounds of the Sufis.

What are the issues found in displaced or refugee children?

Children who have been uprooted from their lives feel the burden of suddenly having to cope with change as well as with a lot of shame and aggravation. If the child is obviously depressed it is easier to deal with than with those who have internalised the hate. These children might get into self-destructive behaviour. Even in every day circumstance adults don’t have conversations with children and don’t really allow them to express themselves. This gets worse in traumatic situations. Many times these children show psychosomatic disorders or other forms of physical illness such as allergies that are all linked to the trauma that they are facing. Behavioural issues are also very common.

What should be the focus of interventions with children who are displaced?

A lot of what the child thinks in these situation depends on the kind of conversations they are hearing around them. Victimisation begins with the ‘Them vs. Us’ conversation. The idea that they are pitted against an unfair world can become a Me against the world can become a way of life. The focus of any intervention is typically to encourage them to focus on the positive aspects of the current scenarios and move towards dev eloping an internal locus of control.

What are the different types of interventions done using art?

Usually the experiences the child has gone through and the background determines the type of therapy. I use meditation not in the religious context but as a means to focus on one’s breathing and body. This helps children pause and observe their body including noticing the various aches and pains that they are facing.

Music is very healing for body. However, I prefer to focus on instruments that are organic such as brass singing bowls, flutes etc., that create sounds that can be calming. Children respond very well to this. Children also like the experience the creating their own song. The process of experimenting with various sounds, rhythms and lyrics is an empowering process. Children often create a ‘go-to’ song that they can draw comfort from in a situation where they have little control.

Creating stories is a similar exercise of self-expression and empowerment. Children are in control of characters, events and the conclusion of the stories.

Theatre exercises are used where children enact different situations that affect them. This is a useful method of demonstrating how they can make changes in their lives. Children are encouraged to enact issues and then pause in the middle of their enactment to focus on what they are feeling in the moment and what they can do to respond differently and thus change the situation.

Drawing and painting are great methods of self-expression and a great way to explore what the child is thinking especially if it is a younger child or someone who is finding it difficult to verbalise feelings. The stress of the pencil on the paper, the colours used, the content of the drawing, the materials used, themes explored can all help in understanding the child.

How do children of different age- groups react?

One cannot really say that particular interventions are more effective or suitable for a particular age group. A lot depends on the child in question. Differences in socio economic status, background of the child in terms of urban or rural all make an impact on how a child can respond to stimuli in therapy. However, children in the 0 to 6 years are very adaptable and resilient. The way they cope is linked to the parents’ way of coping. Older children in the 10-15-year age group are more resistant to change and can be more traumatised by upheaval in their routine and their environment.

Is there a difference between displacement due to natural calamities and due to man-made reasons?

A man-made situation has a specific target to blame. Therefore, there is a lot more hatred associated with it especially if the child is listening to a lot of hate at home. The consequent anger issues have to be dealt with in therapy. On the other hand, a natural calamity can bring about feelings of confusion and betrayal as in a fatalistic society we are conditioned to believe that there are forces beyond our control that care for us. In both situations the feeling of victimisation is common and the desire to blame someone else is foremost. This has to be dealt with for recovery to be possible.

How can art therapy help children who are displaced?

The goal of therapy is to help the child reach their maximum potential in the current scenario given the resources they have and help the individual remove blocks and let go of inhibitions. They must move from victimisation empowerment. Art therapy helps express emotions and assists in breaking sown inhibitions. It helps children view their circumstances objectively and thereby build an internal locus of control and focus on how they can build happiness for themselves.


#NoCountryForChildren – 7 Instagram Accounts That Will Make You Look At The Rohingya Crisis Through A Child’s Eyes

As thousands of Rohingya Muslims have made their way to Bangladesh and other countries, photographers have gone to incredible lengths to document their harrowing journeys, as they search for safety and better lives. Many photojournalists and reporters have shared images daily, making sure the world gets a first-hand look at the struggles involved.

“You are there trying to do your job with a camera in your hand. And then your heart overrules your head. I had been in the camps, where everything was quite settled. But then I saw the real chaos and the refugees’ desperate situation. You hear about it. But seeing it is a completely different thing.” – said Hannah McKay of Reuters. And yet these brave photojournalists, describe the indescribable battle for survival of the Rohingya against the heinous human rights violations, because they need to remind us, through their visuals, never to forget.

Never to forget the countless children who left home and drowned on their way to safety, never to forget the children who stand in queues for countless hours just for a spoon full of food, never to forget the young girls being married off early and the young boys working to make ends meet, never to forget the children trying to make a new place home but being denied the right to do so, and never to forget that the reason our children live to see such days, is because somewhere, we forgot about humanity.

Below is a selection of instagram accounts to follow that allow you to look at the Rohingya Crisis through a child’s eyes.

1. Greg Constantine is a documentary photographer who works on projects that focus on human rights, injustice and inequality. In 2005, he began work on Nowhere People, that documents the struggles and plight of stateless communities around the world. He has received multiple awards for his work, collaborated with leading organizations like UNHCR and others that work with refugees, published numerous books inter-related to his Nowhere people project and delivered a Ted Talk too.

2. Ahmer Khan was previously, Communications/Photographer World Health Organisation, today, he is an independent documentary photographer and a radio journalist based in Srinagar, Kashmir, and covering social issues amongst other subjects across the world. His work has been featured in the leading publications like the Guardian, Vice, BBC and Aljazeera. Don’t miss A Textbook Example of Ethnic Cleansing: Photographs of the Rohingya in Myanmar by Ahmer and follow him on twitter.

Rohingya Muslim refugee children play football in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. An estimated 605,000 Rohingya refugees have flooded into Bangladesh to flee an offensive by Myanmar’s military that the United Nations has called the world’s “fastest developing refugee emergency” and a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. Of those who have crossed the border – 60 percent are children, according to the (UNICEF). The government of Bangladesh has said it will build 6,000 separate shelters for Rohingya children. Every day, more Rohingyas are crossing over to Bangladesh and the refugee population is expected to swell further. It is the largest refugee crisis in Asia in decades. Thousands are said to be stranded at the border crossing while hundreds of others are making the perilous journey on foot towards the border or paying smugglers to take them across in wooden boats. Dozens, mostly children, have perished after their boats capsized on the way to Bangladesh. Photo by Ahmer Khan. #photooftheday #rohingya #documentary #bangladesh #refugeecamp #reportagespotlight #picoftheday #photojournalism #instadaily #instagram #myanmar #muslim #portrait #onassignment #documentaryphotography #refugeecamp #southasia #coxbazar #natgeoyourshot #everydayeverywhere #everydayrefugees #children #childrenrefugees #football

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3. Burhaan Kinu, having grown up in Kashmir, started his career as a photo-journalist at the Kashmir Observer, where he documented the state’s conflict. He currently works with Hindustan Times and was recently awarded the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award for 2015 in the Photojournalism category. Burhaan’s main goal and focus is to effectively represent the world around him, to provide a space to marginalized voices and construct alternative visions. A glimpse through his instagram account will give you a peak at stories of Rohingya children living in refugee camps across Delhi.

4. Adnan Abidi is Reuters photo-journalist based in New Delhi. “In photojournalism you need to get beyond the visible and dig out a story within a story,” he says and does as he documents visual stories of the Rohingya community fleeing to Bangladesh. His story ‘Rohingya refugee boy works to support family’ is a heart breaking reflection of what childhoods look like in a crisis.

#Repost @reuters (@get_repost) ・・・ Twelve-year-old Nur Hafes would rather be in school or playing football with friends at home in Myanmar. Instead, he waits by the road in Palong Khali refugee camp in southern Bangladesh, looking for visitors who might give him money for his family. Sole breadwinner for seven younger siblings and his mother since they arrived at the camp in Cox's Bazar two months ago, Nur spends his days watching for Muslim clerics who distribute money collected at mosques for the refugees. Opening a brown umbrella, Nur offers to shade the visitors from the blazing sun, which can bring in a little extra cash for food and supplies. "Sometimes I get 50 or 100 taka and some days I come back empty-handed," Nur said, holding up a 50-taka ($0.60) note he received from a donor. Nur and his family are among the more than 600,000 Rohingyas who have fled to Bangladesh since August to escape a counter-insurgency operation by the Myanmar military after attacks on security posts by Rohingya militants. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi @adnanabidi #reuters #reutersphotos #rohingya #bangladesh #childhood #refugeescrisis #humanity

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5. Kevin Frayer, Canadian photojournalist, interested mostly in Climate Change and the “Ethnosphere”, noted for his wartime work in the Middle East including the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, and Afghanistan, is narrating stories of the Rohingya Crisis too. Almost synonymous with broken childhoods of the Rohingya crisis, Kevin Frayer’s iconic black and white documentation of their lives makes the crisis come to life for many of us far away from these harsh realities.

A young Rohingya refugee boy cries as he climbs on a truck as he and others crowd and struggle during a food distribution by a local NGO near the Balukali refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. More than half a million Rohingya refugees have flooded into Bangladesh to flee an offensive by Myanmar’s military that the United Nations has called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. The refugee population is expected to swell further, with thousands more Rohingya Muslims said to be making the perilous journey on foot toward the border, or paying smugglers to take them across by water in wooden boats. Hundreds are known to have died trying to escape, and survivors arrive with horrifying accounts of villages burned, women raped, and scores killed in the “clearance operations” by Myanmar’s army and Buddhist mobs that were sparked by militant attacks on security posts in Rakhine state on August 25, 2017. What the Rohingya refugees flee to is a different kind of suffering in sprawling makeshift camps rife with fears of malnutrition, cholera, and other diseases. Aid organizations are struggling to keep pace with the scale of need and the staggering number of them — an estimated 60 percent — who are children arriving alone. Bangladesh, whose acceptance of the refugees has been praised by humanitarian officials for saving lives, has urged the creation of an internationally-recognized “safe zone” where refugees can return, though Rohingya Muslims have long been persecuted in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar. World leaders are still debating how to confront the country and its de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who championed democracy, but now appears unable or unwilling to stop the army’s brutal crackdown. #gettyimages #rohingya #myanmar #bangladesh @gettyimages

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6. Patrick Brown, Australian documentary photographer, has been represented by the prestigious agency Panos Pictures since 2003 and continues to cover social issues that are often forgotten by the mainstream media today. Patrick’s impressive volume of work, faultless in the portrayal of the human condition, hopes, and disillusionment, the everyday and the extraordinary are captured in almost all his photography. Patrick’s coverage of the Rohingya crisis, and a focused emphasis on children is visible across almost every publication covering stories of Rohingya Muslims.

7. Danish Siddiqui, an award winning photojournalist with Reuters. Danish has covered several important and breaking news stories all over South Asia. His work has also included covering the war in Afghanistan to documenting the living conditions of asylum seekers in Switzerland. He has also briefly worked in London on a photo documentary on Muslim converts. “While I enjoy covering news stories – from business to politics to sports – what I enjoy most is capturing the human face of a breaking story,” says Danish. His narration of the Rohingya crisis is telling of his passion for the medium and his desire to tell their stories.

#NoCountryForChildren – Waiting Their Turn

Yes I am a Rohingya
Yes I am from Myanmar
But I too am Human

– Ali jar

Between reasons quoted by different countries on why they do not want to provide refuge to the Rohingya Muslim Community – security, safety, violence, and terrorism – those who remain caught in the crossfire of this crisis are harmless, innocent children.

60% of those who have fled Myanmar after violence broke out are children, says the UNICEF Child Alert: Outcast and Desperate Report, with at least 1,100 separated from their parents. Many more continue to cross the border everyday. With such large numbers of children at risk of exploitation, abuse and violence, the likelihood of a catastrophe looms over humankind.

From queuing up, fighting for food with others as hungry as them, scrambling through piles of donated clothes, helping their families fetch water, living in lamentable, life-threatening conditions, susceptible to illnesses and diseases, tending to their siblings, finding sanctuary in temporary schools, battling unpredictable weather and being vulnerable to harmful situations that visuals cannot capture, these photos represent only a single moment captured in the strenuous, burdensome lives of children, waiting their turn to the most basic rights, instead of living an untroubled childhood.

Girls reach out for food handed out by a volunteer organization in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh. (Photo – Tommy Trenchard/Caritas)

A Rohingya child sits amid piles of donated clothes at a refugee camp in southern Bangladesh. (Photo- Tommy Trenchard/Caritas)

Rohingya children walk to their tents after fetching drinking water at a makeshift camp near Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh (Photo- AP)

A Rohingya refugee child washes utensils in the Balukhali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh (Photo- Reuters)

Desperate living conditions and waterborne diseases are threatening more than 320,000 Rohingya refugee children. (Photo- India Today)

A Rohingya refugee girl carries a baby while walking in a camp in Cox’s Bazar (Photo- Reuters)

A Rohingya girl gestures while reciting a poem at a makeshift school at Balukhali Makeshift Refugee Camp in Cox’s Bazar (Photo- Reuters)

A Rohingya Muslim girl, waits for her mother as she takes shelter under an umbrella after collecting food aid as it rains in Balukhali refugee camp, Bangladesh (Photo- Dar Yasin/ AP)


#NoCountryForChildren – In Conversation With Two-Time Pulitzer Prize-Winning Photojournalist Muhammed Muheisen

Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, Muhammed Muheisen needs no introduction. Having photographed the capture of Saddam Hussein, the funeral of Nelson Mandela and Yasser Arafat, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Yemeni revolution amongst other defining moments in world history, most recently Muheisen has focused his lens on the refugee crisis across Europe. Born in Jerusalem, he joined the Associated Press as the Chief Photographer for the Middle-East, Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2001, and resigned after 16 years in 2017. 

No stranger to conflict himself, Muheisen’s work stands out like none other. His images reflect his compassion, his commitment to the art of photography, and his unwavering engagement with the lives and the issues that surround him. “Children are the real victims of conflict,” he says, often capturing the innocent cheer and simplicity of his subject’s life, staying away from cliches that such scenes often present. Muheisen’s outlook to conflict, children and his desire to tell honest stories, awaken humanity and change his narrative entirely… “Wherever there is a war, there is life right next to it. If there is a funeral on the right, you can have a baby just born on the left. This is the theme of the work that I do.”

1.Tell us about yourself, your life as a photographer/ photojournalist. When and why did you take on this profession? How and why did everydayrefugees come about?

Muhammed Muheisen: My passion for photography started since I was young, the environment where I was born and raised, under conflict, and my ambition as a child to grow up and be someone who can help. Though my professional career as a photojournalist traveling from one place to another, they all shared one thing in common: the conflict. The people were always the victims of these conflicts, especially children. Most of my work as a professional photojournalist is focused on refugees, internally displaced people, minorities and education that reached the heart of the public, created awareness and a lot of questions from the public came back to me. On top of the questions was always ‘how can we help the people you photograph?’ And this is where me and my partner Rosanna Wijngaards, the other founder and Managing Director of Everyday Refugees, decided to make it happen with the Everyday Refugees Foundation. The reason was to show images though our social media platforms that can create awareness that leads to an actual help and at the moment Everyday Refugees is a Dutch based non profit organization, our coming project will be in Serbia to help stranded unaccompanied minors.

2. Makeshift schools, water pumps, bubble-blowers and balloon sellers … tell us what it’s like to live and work in the world’s largest community of refugees. What was that decisive moment that tilted you towards documenting the lives of refugees?

Muhammed Muheisen: Working in these vulnerable communities in Pakistan was a real challenge, I had to spend a lot of time walking and talking without even speaking the language, to gain people’s trust, to become invisible and become part of their landscape. Trust and respect were the most important elements to be able to show a window of their daily lives. These people can tell if you are a friend or a threat, getting to know their culture, and respect their traditions…these were the other reasons that I managed to document their everyday lives. It’s not a 100 meters but a marathon and I worked almost 4.5 years to be able to show the world part of their lives and if learned something, I learned what I have and how lucky we are. After witnessing all these children happy from nothing and finding creative ways to play from the minimum recourses they have got, I realized we need nothing to be happy.

3. Everyday Refugees primarily documents the lives of children. Why did you choose to focus on children? 

Muhammed Muheisen: I personally believe that children are the real victims of any conflict, children all over the world share the same things in common, they seek fun, joy and happiness. Children do not get to choose where they were born, or the circumstances around them, that’s why I always find my camera focusing on children. It’s not only a picture, it’s a message from a child from one part of the world to the other part of the world and it is my responsibility as a photographer to make sure to carry and deliver this message.

4. You’ve been witness to the refugee crisis across Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan amongst others. According to you who is the most severely affected in their life as a refugee? And how?

Muhammed Muheisen: Refugees all over the world are affected in all ways, being uprooted and having to flee from war, violence, poverty, famine.. nobody wants to leave their home unless they are forced to. You don’t get to choose to be displaced, to be stripped off all your belonging to leave all your memories behind. Being a refugee is unimaginable unless you are a refugee and I do my best to show a window of the struggle they face and pass through.

5. Could you tell us a little bit about the everyday life of a child in a refugee camp.

Muhammed Muheisen: Children all over the world, whether they are in a refugee camp or not, are children. They want to play, have fun. However, in my personal experience I witnessed children who live in vulnerable circumstances who manage to fill their time with happy things from nothing. Like children playing with stones or a balloon which gives the biggest smiles on their faces or skipping a rope etc. I noticed from nothing they are able to create something.

6. In an interview with the Time Magazine you said, “Their tough life makes them look older and react as elderly people, but their innocence is right there in their eyes.” Please share your encounter with one such child.

Muhammed Muheisen: Their rough life is so obvious on their skin, and through their eyes I used to feel the difficulties they are living in that’s why I always come close to show in a portrait what is it to be a child refugee. The eyes could never lie, it is the door to the soul and through their eyes I try to show their lives. Hamagai Akbar, a five-year-old refugee from Afghanistan whom I have seen amongst other children growing up in front of my eyes through the years I spent in Pakistan. Every time I used to see them growing so fast, not by age but by appearance. Their beauty got mixed with the hard conditions surrounding them and their families.

7. Children expend a spirit of humanism even in the most dire cirumstances. Tell us more about what you learnt from children during your visits to refugee camps.

Muhammed Muheisen: I learned from children that everything is possible, there is no limit to what a human being can do when they believe what they can do. Someone who has nothing and doesn’t complain, a balloon or skipping rope a piece of robe or playing traditional games used to make these children laugh, heard from a distance and used to drag me all the way with my camera to capture those moments that used to cheer my heart and make me see and feel hope. If I wish something for all these children I wish them peace and a better future because they taught me to feel lucky, to be honest and be a better person.

8. Children all across the world share something in common – the right to a childhood. How would you describe childhoods in refugee camps?

Muhammed Muheisen: The tough life and the harsh conditions turned them into young men and women. Their priority is to survive so they no longer act as children, but as young men and women. That was the saddest thing I used to witness when I was surrounded by these children.

9. “Children are the real victims of any conflict.” In refugee camps, what do you believe is the most pressing concern for the safety and protection of children? And why? 

Muhammed Muheisen: Education is the key to everything, with education you guarantee a future to any child. I remember while working in a makeshift school for Afghan refugees and internally displaced people in Pakistan, that children didn’t have much choice. They all had to work to help their families and being in school was a luxury and to compare between a child who went to school and a child who didn’t, there was a big contrast in hygiene, manners, confidence.. Education is the key to have a better future for any child.

10. What are the dreams and aspirations of children outside of a refugee camp? Tell us about them. 

Muhammed Muheisen: Simply your question makes me smile. It took me straight to moments when I asked a child from Afghanistan, Syria and Eritrea: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” the answer was always: “I just want to grow up”. No high expectations, but the fact that they want to grow up. A lesson I learned while working in camps, in slums and in poor neighborhoods was that the expectations are low, however, they are happier than other children fortunate enough to be born in a peaceful country.

11. Photographing children comes with a responsibility. Trust, compassion, privacy, protection are words that come to mind instantly. How do you believe you have fulfilled the role of a child rights ambassador by telling stories of refugee children across the world?

Muhammed Muheisen: I was a child who was born and raised in conflict myself, so I am not a stranger to all the people that I photograph. Sensitivity, respect and honesty are the keys, children can’t lie or fake it and through their eyes I try to show what they passed through. I believe as a photojournalist it is my responsibility to be out there to tell untold stories, to document issues been forgotten and children are the real victims of any conflict that’s why I always give a fair amount of my photography to photograph them.

12. You’ve said across various interviews that children are voiceless, and photos help give them a voice. How do you believe that photos/ visuals impact change? How can you use images as an advocacy tool to impact refugee/immigration policies across the world?

Muhammed Muheisen: I personally believe if something happened it has never been documented, it never occurred. What I mean is, by focusing on some issues and putting it out there the least that could happen is it will open people hearts and minds, create awareness and sometimes change stereotypes. In my personal experience as a photojournalist some of my images managed to help the subjects. I was approached by several people from different parts of the world to help the people I have photographed. We live in what I call the digital period, in a second, through social media platforms, like Instagram, you can reach hundreds of thousands of people. There is a straight contact with the public so these images become messages, become voices that I hope it can leads to change and help our theme at Everyday Refugees Foundation.

Little Humans of M-East Ward- Faizan Khan

Like most millenials, this 16 year old uses his smart phone like an extension of his body. His swiftness with taking and showing photos extends itself to gathering proof of before and after actions achieved through the Bal Panchayat.

Pulling us to the side, as if to share a secret, he starts ‘Hum hain na, mera dost Shahnavaz aur main, gandagi pe kaam kar rahe hain!’ Street no 19 and 20 in Indranagar, Ward 2, were terribly dirty, he opens out his phone to show evidence of his work done.

So we put a letter at M East ward, got the number of Abdul bhai who told us everyday ‘Kal ayenge, kal ayenge! Yeh kehte kehte ek hafta ho gaya!’ The place was infested with smells and deadly mosquitos. Then we got the number of Hasan bhai who actually helped us. He came and got the whole place cleaned. ‘Dekhiye!’ he says with pride.

Mission 24 is a civic initiative, aimed at bringing basic amenities to people in M-East ward – amenities without which a life with dignity and self-respect is unthinkable. As we know, of the total 24 wards in Mumbai, M-East ward is 24th, right at the bottom, with regard to all human development indices.

Little Humans of M-East Ward- Rizwana

She’s shy and reserved, but 16 year old Rizwana has a lot to offer to the Bal Panchayat with her behind-the-scenes work. The youngest member of this group, uses her thirst for knowledge and numbers for fact finding, before she suggests action on any issue.

 Main paani ke mudde pe kaam karti hoon,’ she starts, holding evidence of her hard work in her hands. No one knew what went into getting a legal water connection in our community, especially the expenditure. To fit one pipeline, you need a minimum of 5 people working to set it up. You also need an Aadhar card, ration card and voting id to get started. And all the people who request this connection, need to be living on the same street. Also, the tap for the pipeline cannot be on one person’s name. We have been doing a survey to find out details on this. Firstly, I am finding out the difference in cost for setting up this pipeline both legally and illegally. So an illegal connection costs 21,000 rupees and a legal connection costs 11,000 rupees. Be it ration card, gas connection, electricity or water, there are a lot of middlemen who come and do the work and charge extra for it…that’s the prevalent system. Aren’t the officials aware of it? Illegal ones are money-making prepositions. Is that the reason why legal connections are hard to come by? Who all are benefiting from this racket?

I want to create awareness amongst the community so that we can raise the money for a legal water connection.

Mission 24 is a civic initiative, aimed at bringing basic amenities to people in M-East ward – amenities without which a life with dignity and self-respect is unthinkable. As we know, of the total 24 wards in Mumbai, M-East ward is 24th, right at the bottom, with regard to all human development indices.


Little Humans of M-East Ward- Dilnawaz

His crisp white shirt and somber demeanour are telling of his turning into a young man. To 17 year old Dilnawaz, his analysis and action taken through the Bal Panchayat mean serious business.

‘Main chawl development pe kaam karta hoon,’ he immediately cuts to the chase. The chawl is filled with kichad, stone and dirt, where children play and fall sick all the time. In chawl no. 40, lights don’t work at night, so I have written to the people at M East ward, and called them multiple times to resolve the issue. I shall continue to follow up until they come and work on it.

My plan is to approach the Masjid too, to get things cleaned up and remove all the garbage and dirt. ‘Jab Maulana ka speech khatam ho jayega, tab mein yeh letter lekar unse baat karoonga.’ I am also going to involve the Corporator, to develop this place more and to show them the filth we live in. The space is so little that ‘koi mar jaata hai, toh us jagah se procession bhi nahi nikal sakte.’ The Corporator gets a fund in his bank account, for various things. Based on the requirement he disburses the money, and…. ‘Hum RTI file karenge is bare mein.’ The people of the basti want to know whatever happens to the fund meant for the development of our area. ‘How many times does it come in a year? When was the last time it came? Does any audit take place?

The youth in M East ward have many questions. Someone should have some answers, at least.

Mission 24 is a civic initiative, aimed at bringing basic amenities to people in M-East ward – amenities without which a life with dignity and self-respect is unthinkable. As we know, of the total 24 wards in Mumbai, M-East ward is 24th, right at the bottom, with regard to all human development indices.

Little Humans of M-East Ward- Kulsum

A resident of Indranagar, Kulsum is articulate, mature, self-assured, despite being one of the few children who doesn’t attend school. For this 16 year old, the Bal Panchayat is a place to learn, imbibe and find her own ground.  

Here is the letter I drafted. I have been taking it back and forth for 4 days now. I work on the gutters in my area, and finding a way to clean it up. The overflow of the dirty sewage from the gutters, finds its way into the homes. As per the Dattak Vasti Yojana that is to assist slum dwellers, they are to keep these gutters clean for us. Yet, they come and collect money, Rs 20 per family, to clean it up and still never show up. ‘Paisa leke, aadha kaam karke, aur aadha kachra chhod ke, who chale jate hain!’ I then took my letter and went to the BMC, who gave us a number to call on. The number turned out wrong. After follow ups with Jadhav Sir from BMC, he gave us a number of someone at M-East ward who came over to take a look. He said that if anyone tries to get into the galli they will get stuck, and only one person can go at a time. So their suggestion was, all the garbage should be collected from the back entrance of each person’s home, instead of making way through the narrow lane. We went to each home and tried to convince them. But there was so much piled up, that this method was impossible. All the community members have started asking us why this hasn’t been done yet, because they face many issues in cooking, cleaning and bathing due to the overflow of sewage. Repeated follow ups give us the same answer, either the officials are busy or avoiding our calls. ‘Sab mujhpe chillate hain..tum toh kuchh karo!’ Now I am going to start taking all their signatures before I take the letter again.

‘Aur doosri taraf, woh log gareebon ke ghar todkar office bana rahe hain!’ They face a lot of problems. Many people live in broken homes, with no bathrooms. They have to go into the jungle to use the loo, and to top it off girls like me get harassed. ‘Raat ko ladkiyan bahar nahin nikalti, nahin toh kuchh chhed-chhad ho jati hai.’ The government claims that this is their land, while these people have documents that prove that the land belongs to them.. they are being told that the documents are illegal. I do not know what the agenda they want to get rid of all the poor people living there?

Mission 24 is a civic initiative, aimed at bringing basic amenities to people in M-East ward – amenities without which a life with dignity and self-respect is unthinkable. As we know, of the total 24 wards in Mumbai, M-East ward is 24th, right at the bottom, with regard to all human development indices.

Little Humans of M-East Ward- Sufiyan Ansari

Sufiyan’s face reveals his innocence, but conceals his age. This 17 year old has a glint in his eyes and a power in his sing-song laden voice that he modulates at the speed of light. His childlike mischief and enthusiasm to get things done, make him a valuable member of the Bal Panchayat.

I am Sufiyan Ansari, I come from Shanti Nagar, I study Commerce in the 12th grade in junior college,’ he rattles off. I recently joined the Bal Panchayat. So recently the pipe burst in the toilet near our homes, with dirty water gushing all over, and children playing in that. The first thing I did was come to our centre and learn to write a complaint letter. After writing it, we went to M-East ward, where we were told ‘Tum pehle apne Nagar Sewak ke paas jao!’ So we went to the Nagar Sewika, Saira Shaikh who said we haven’t received any fund yet, so I cant help you. ‘Par yeh funding hota kya hai? Aur saal mein kitni baar aata hai?’ we wondered. So we wrote another complaint letter and took it to the M-East ward’s BMC office ward to get answers. We waited for a few hours. After which we were told that the concerned authority was at lunch and a while later we were told that he was on holiday. We then went and took a stamp from a room below and were told to return post Diwali. When we came back, the official was still on leave and we were put in touch with another person, who told us to come back on the following Monday and tell him about our concerns, only then would he give us a contact number that would help us.

‘Fir hum bade commissioner BMC officer sahab ke paas gaye, jo humara sab jaante hai. Hum apna address aur sab unko diye.’ After sharing all the details, the Commissioner BMC officer put us in touch with 2 people in charge of dealing with this, at the ration office children visited Sanitation office which is located inside Ration office. They made us wait for 2 hours, before they took details from us, including photos etc, sent them to the Commissioner BMC officer and said they would come the next day for a vigilance check. When the Nagar Sewika saw that people from the ration office Sanitation office had come to take a look, she said that she would help clean the chali up, but still didn’t have funds to repair the pipe. This Sunday, 2 people arrived to clean up the place, so I called the Commissioner BMC officer to check, but he mentioned that his people don’t work on Sunday so I figured that the Nagar Sewika had sent her people. ‘Lekin kuch safaiye nahi ki.. sirf upar upar se..!’ They just wasted some time and said once our time is done we will leave. Today, the gutter is as dirty as before…its just covered now.

We called them again. They said they would send someone the next day…who came, saw and left. After calling them thrice they said, we are not the people to make a new chali for you, so you will have to contact the ration office Sanitation department in BMC office for that.

Today, we’re still waiting on them, and will keep going till it gets done.

Mission 24 is a civic initiative, aimed at bringing basic amenities to people in M-East ward – amenities without which a life with dignity and self-respect is unthinkable. As we know, of the total 24 wards in Mumbai, M-East ward is 24th, right at the bottom, with regard to all human development indices.

Little Humans of M-East Ward- Ibrat

This 11th grader of Indra High School has the confidence of a Ted Talker and the zest of an activist. She has answers to every question, and solutions to every problem. She’s quick, clever and empowered. This young girl battles gender barriers at home and outside, but nothing diminishes her spirit to take on the road less traveled. Ibrat wants to grow up to be a journalist and report stories from ground zero.

When I joined the Bal Panchayat I had no idea what it stood for and what is was. ‘Yeh Bal Panchayat hota kya hai? She thought. Slowly when I started attending meetings and the training in particular I became open to things like body parts, life skills, the Indian Constitution. My mind started opening. Earlier I wouldn’t even pay attention to things like this. But now I want to know more, I spend time ruminating over it analysing it, understanding it and only then I take action.

Right now I am working on the issue of violence. ‘Look at this list!’ she opens out a scrolled up chart with boxes and text marked in different colours. It talks of all the different kinds of violence faced by girls and women here. The reason I chose to work on this topic is because in Shivaji Nagar this is extremely common. A girl walks in broad day light and get teased, still people on the streets watch on and don’t do anything about it. ‘Ghar mein maar-peet hoti hai, biwi ye kehkar reh jaati hai ki yeh mera pati hai, uska haq hain mujhe maarna!’ I want to work on this to decrease the prevalence of this is my community.. this shouldn’t be happening! ‘Meri soch hai ki jitna haq aadmi ko diya ja raha hai, utna haq aaurat ko bhi diya jaana chahiye! Yeh jaroori nahi hai ki ladki aapke saamne chale toh chhedna hi chhedna hain!’ It’s also being said in the community that those girls who wear a burkha/ head covering will not be harassed, but those who don’t will be! Not that this is real either… every girl gets harassed anyway. That’s the reason I want to address this.

This has happened with me too. Once I slapped the boy who misbehaved with me..and he didn’t do anything after. While this has stopped happening with me, when I went and told my brother about it, his reaction was ‘Naqab pehen ke ghar se nikal, toh kuch nahi hoega!’ I retorted by telling him that this happens irrespective, with out without a Naqab. Touching a girl, trying to hold her hand, calling out names… ‘Yeh chhed-chhad nahi hain, yeh VIOLENCE hai!’ Ibrat moves on to quote sections under the IPC used to address these issues – Under section 249, one gets jail time upto 3 months, but if he repeats the offence he can get upto 3 years time.

Earlier in my house, it was the same. It was best for the girl to sit at home and not get out of the house. My mother told me, its pointless for you to participate in these Apnalaya activities, where you run from here to there. But I told her, this is not meaningless work, changes are happening for us! Slowly I convinced her and she lets me come now. She looks at the work I do and gets convinced to let me continue. Most girls in the community think ‘Jo family bole, woh hi sahi hai!’ But that’s not how I think.

There was a case of a man who was beating his wife up everyday. And everyone in the neighbourhood knew about this, but didn’t do anything saying ‘Yeh unke ghar ka mamla hai!’ Today he is in jail, but still many people think in the same way. I did too. After enrolling with the Bal Panchayat I understood – ‘Yeh violence hai, aur iske upar action lena hi lena hai!’ I am currently planning a street play that addresses this issue, and we will enact it in those places where harassment is most prevalent like barah number road, 14 number plot aur Indra nagar mein. If I go to each home and talk about this, no one will understand. ‘Sabko lagega ki faltu hai!’ An act will help gather groups of people to listen and understand that harassing girls is not okay. But you know..whenever I have an issue and I complain, no one help me. I help myself. But if it goes out of hand, I have one brother who I go to. ‘Lekin main khud ke bhai ko nahi keh sakti kyuki woh samaj ki soch ke saath chalne wala hai..aur mummy papa bhi.’ But after my mind opened and I joined the Bal Panchayat, I have slowly been able to change the thinking of my parents too. I believe if I continue working harder, one day I will definitely see a change in their views.

Mission 24 is a civic initiative, aimed at bringing basic amenities to people in M-East ward – amenities without which a life with dignity and self-respect is unthinkable. As we know, of the total 24 wards in Mumbai, M-East ward is 24th, right at the bottom, with regard to all human development indices.

Little Humans of M-East Ward- Arbaaz Shah

Dressed in all denim, with hints of gold streaks in his hair, and a silver bali on his left ear, this boy has swag like any other 17 year old in Mumbai city. Meet the lead volunteer of the Bal Panchayat in Sanjaynagar, M-East ward, whose way with words, keeps you hooked.

 I am 17 years old. Besides being in the 11th grade at Narang School, Chembur , I also look after the Bal panchayat in Sanjay Nagar. From the issues that prevail in our community, we have collectively selected the issue of ‘toilets’. Where we live there is an approximate population of 2000-2500 people, and not even one toilet! Some time ago, there used to be one toilet, which was broken down under the pretext of it being illegal. This causes serious issues for us. ‘Humare ma-behen ko toilet jaane ke liye bahut door jaana padta hai, road ke us side par, aur kafi problem hoti hain.” Small children don’t know where and how to go, so they do it wherever they are.

To deal with this issue, on 6th October, we decide to run a campaign, by speaking to people of the community to know how many of them agreed on having a toilet built within our vicinity. When we started collecting signatures, we got 1390 of them! When we asked them why? They too revealed many problems they faced around not having access to a loo.

Armed with signatures and determined to take this initiative further, on 9th October, we went to the M-East ward and spoke to the concerned Adhikari in charge about our problems, asking him to help us with a solution. He heared us out and asked us to return in a week. Eagerly awaiting our next visit, we promptly reached the office hoping for an answer. The Adhikar told us to call and meet BMC Officer, who would come and inspect the location, to see how and where a toilet could be built. For 2 days we tried his number, but couldn’t get through. On the 3rd day, he picked up and we explained our situation to him. Thereafter, everytime we called he would ask us to call back the next day. This went on for sometime, where he evaded our questions and kept promising to show up the next day. 2 weeks ago when we called, he said ‘Diwali aa rahi hai’ and he was on leave, and to contact him only after it was over. On 26th October, we called again and pleaded him to come. He finally showed up! We then took him to a predecided location assigned for the toilet that was of convenience to all in the neighbourhood, but he insisted the toilet would be built near the ‘gutter’. ‘Jaha bhi banana ho, banaiye…lekin, banaiye!’

‘Aapka kaam 10-15 din mein chalu ho jayega,’ he said with a lot of confidence. It’s already been 12 days and there is no sign of it. After numerous follow ups he said it will still take 15-20 more days to take some action. ‘Sir, please hamara kaam jaldi shuru karvadijiye, hume bahut problem hoti hain!’ to which he hung up mid sentence. Despite trying his phone multiple times, Rathod sir continued to cut our calls. This is also the treatment we get everytime we go to M-East ward. They only allow few of us in, the rest have to wait outside. We’re shunned around and asked questions about what we are doing there and who we have come to meet. We don’t like this at all.

We are desperate for this issue to be resolved soon. At night when we want to use the loo, we go over to the dumping ground, which is dark and dangerous. There are hoards of people doing ‘nasha’, people flash lights on you when you use the loo, and abuse small children too. There was recently a case of a small girl who got abused by the goons who hang around at the dumping ground, when she went to use the toilet…and noone can identify who these people are in the dark. We only use the dumping ground because we have no choice.

Mission 24 is a civic initiative, aimed at bringing basic amenities to people in M-East ward – amenities without which a life with dignity and self-respect is unthinkable. As we know, of the total 24 wards in Mumbai, M-East ward is 24th, right at the bottom, with regard to all human development indices.

The Little Humans of M-East ward

The city of Mumbai’s well kept secret, opens up like a can of worms when you step into the M-East Ward, Mumbai. It reveals how little it fulfils the dreams of people, who have to busy themselves with making real their most basic rights, quite contrary to its epithet of ‘city of dreams’.

A 2 km walk to the toilet on the other side of the road, or finding a corner to defecate at the dumping ground, boys doing nasha and ganja in shady by lanes, young girls preyed upon at every crossroad, overflowing gutters and heaps of waste making their way into every home, dirty drinking water, diarhhoea, malnutrition, and a recurrent cycle of illnesses, inadequate medical facilities, slums, settlements, 100 sq ft homes and the looming threat of eviction, school drop outs, low literacy rates and no avenues for secondary education, labourers, drivers, tailors and dismal livelihood opportunities, a place where child marriage, gender inequality and everyday struggle is the norm.

Buried in a cycle of poverty, M East ward confesses the poor picture of Mumbai’s unequal development.

“M East ward has been a place where people don’t demand their rights. They have resigned to their realities and make no attempts to change it,” says Hasina Shaikh who has spent her childhood at M-East Ward and is now a field officer for Apnalaya. “But things are changing,” she adds and looks rather optimistically at the little humans in the room.

At the Apnalaya Centre in Shivaji Nagar, a common space where children of the community gather, a group of 10 boys and girls sit ready to meet with us. These children are part of different Bal Panchayats, an age-old concept created across societies to encourage participation, involvement, self governance and their own development. This democratic platform allows children to engage directly with duty bearers in order to elicit their attention and action on issues that concern them.

Ranked 24th – the last among the 24 municipal wards in Mumbai – M-East Ward lies at the bottom in terms of Human Development Index (HDI), leaving upto the Bal Panchayats of M-East ward to address a multitude of issues. Comprising 73 adolescent children, each member of the 2 Bal Panchayat has an equal say in selecting issues of priority and planning action towards it. They maintain records through charts, and dated notes in their dairies, tick marking as they move forward in each task. What makes these Bal Panchayat’s stand apart is the enormity of problems they deal with, the perspective they lend to handling each problem and the ripple effect they create by their enthusiasm and zest, in changing mindsets and not giving up until they see results. ‘Shayad hume bhi karna chahiye,’ say parents and community members who see the younger citizens of M-East Ward leading the way to a better life.

Today, the strength of the Bal Panchayat have grown from 30 to 73 members, making it the go-to place for any issues to be solved. Today, it stands for much more than a children’s parliament encouraging their participation, but for galvanzing the most precious resources of this community and making them self-assured, thinking and contributing members of society, something they had never imagined. While some issues in this community have seen success, and many remain unresolved, the spirit of these young Mumbaikar’s remains unbroken.

Meet the bandwagon of 17 year olds, at the cusp of their adulthood, serving the poorest and most under-served Municipal Ward in India’s wealthiest city and building hope in a once hopeless place.

Mission 24 is a civic initiative, aimed at bringing basic amenities to people in M-East ward – amenities without which a life with dignity and self-respect is unthinkable. As we know, of the total 24 wards in Mumbai, M-East ward is 24th, right at the bottom, with regard to all human development indices.

#Storiesfromthefield – A Day Does Not Begin in Eastern Maharashtra without Kharra

Every once in a while one chances upon instances of Indian ingenuity, colloquially known as ‘jugaad’. But in a perverse take on this ability to subvert challenges and find solutions, villagers in Eastern Maharashtra are participating en mass in the production, sale and consumption of a highly addictive substance, locally known as Kharra. It is a powdered concoction containing Betel Nut (Supari), Tobacco Flakes and Calcium Hydroxide (Lime/Choona). It is prepared using a jagged edged wooden contraption. All ingredients are ground and crushed together and then sold in pouches. The name Kharra in fact comes from the grinding sound made during the production of the powder.

I discovered Kharra on my first trip to Nagpur and Yavatmal region a few weeks ago. What caught my attention was that this ubiquitous wooden contraption was present at all paan stalls not just along the highway or in rural areas, but also inside Nagpur city! Paanwalas could be seen hard at work grinding the Kharra and it got sold within minutes! It begins early in the morning in the villages. I was taking a walk in Yavatmal and the entire neighbourhood reverberated with the KharrKharrKharr grating sound of Kharra being manufactured. Freshly ground kharra was selling like hot cakes!

Apparently freshly ground Kharra is in high demand. The heady mixture is known to give the consumer a ‘high’ and is highly addictive. So strong is the lure of Kharra, that even women and children haven’t escaped its temptation.

However, while there is a ban onpaan masala and gutkha, curiously kharraremains outside the purview of the ban and is easily available to even children and teenagers, many of whom have grown addicted to it. This is disturbing as the law is quite clear on the subject of protecting children. As per a 2015 amendment to the Juvenile Justice Act (Sec 77), “Anyone giving a child any intoxicating liquor or any narcotic drug or tobacco products or psychotropic substance, except on the order of a duly qualified medical practitioner, is liable for seven years of imprisonment and a fine of Rs 1 lakh.”

What’s worse is that Nagpur is the Oral Cancer capital of the world! According to data with regional cancer registry in Nagpur, more than one third of total cancer patients suffered from oral cancers or Tobacco Related Cancer (TRC). According to a study by Indian Council of Medical Research, 50 per cent of cancers in men and 20 of those in women can be directly linked to tobacco use. Over 10 lakh deaths occur due to tobacco in India every year and Maharashtra accounts for 10 per cent of that figure. Experts say about 4 lakh new cases of tobacco related oral cancers crop up every year in just Central India with a majority of those being reported from Nagpur and adjoining areas.

My visit to the region was related to NGOs who are working in the area of child protection in rural/tribal areas, there we had chance to interact with the villagers and members of Village Child Protection Committee (VCPC). When I asked them if anyone in their village suffers from any kind of addiction or ‘nasha’, initially people declined as to them addiction is only related to alcohol or other drugs. Kharra is not considered a narcotic substance or drug by them.

I persisted and went on to ask those around me how many consumeKharra. Shockingly, most of the people raised their hand and accepted they chew Kharra. They keep it in the mouth or chew it for long time and the juice gets absorbed through the fine membranes of cheek, inside the lips and under the tongue. After chewing for anywhere between a few minutes to a few hours, they spit the residue. There were tell-tale reddish brown marks on walls everywhere.

Now, it is important to note that it’s not as if Kharra or similar substances are not consumed elsewhere in India. People in Mumbai and Gujarat are known to consume Mawaa, a version of kharra that is not ground, but rather crushed between the palms after wrapping it in polythene. Even Khainithat is popular in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and parts of Eastern India (and Nepal), is prepared by rubbing it together with lime, but without the Betel Nut.


This article was first published on Sabrang India on October 18, 2017 and has been republished with due permission.