A 22 year old student from Amsterdam, changing the lives of India’s lowest caste

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.

 

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 the 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.

If you would like to get involved in changing lives of street children and their families: subscribe at: www.sonapushkarproject.com

Jaira Sona
I’m a 22 year old student born and raised in Amsterdam. I’m finishing my Law bachelor at the University of Amsterdam, besides studying International Studies at the Leiden University. With International Studies I specialize in South Asia and mainly India.
I strive to eventually being able to make a change in the field of Human Rights and Children Rights in India.
I’m a mix of different origins: Indian, Dutch, Surinamese, Chinese, Portuguese. I tend to travel and explore a lot and I live life to the fullest. I love snowboarding, surfing and going on road trips chasing new horizons. I believe the joy of life comes from encounters with new experiences. As a globetrotter I’ve been to many places, but India captured my heart.

What do you seek in life?

Never judge a book by its cover… With this idea we approached him, the strange, confused man that was kicked out of the Starbucks we were just standing in because of his wild rants and uncontrolled shouting. He was sitting there, just outside the same Starbucks on Times Square when we approached him and asked him that one question: “What do you seek in life?”

At first he was skeptical. He didn’t trust us, thought we were maybe from the police. After we gained some trust, he opened up to us. He explained that he sought liberation. He sought to be liberated from the police. He believed that we are controlled by all that we see. He elaborated on his answer by using mice, science and the New York ‘system’ as his examples. “We are all slaves of the society…”

Although his answer was pretty odd, it was unlike anything we expected. He was truly interesting, and we would’ve never said so. He was someone who had a story to tell, someone who needed to express his thoughts. Of course, he was mentally incapacitated to a certain extent, but he wasn’t taken serious by anyone. He was a book, constantly judged by its cover.

I hear you thinking: Why this question? Well, we had been philosophizing the night before and we (jokingly) concluded that we considered this question the most interesting one to ask. A question that captures your personality and makes you think about yourself. Once we heard this man shouting in the Starbucks, we knew we’d have to ask him. And so we did. But it did not stop with only this man…

We decided to move on with it, ask more people on Times Square. We got the most beautiful answers that night. We got so surprised and inspired by all the wonderful things that strangers had to share that I knew I wanted to continue with this. I brought the question home and wanted to explore the thoughts and ideas of one of the most open-minded, culturally diverse and crazy cities in the world: Amsterdam. And that is how Declenimo was born.

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Declenimo derives from the old Gaelic word ‘Declan’, which means ‘Full of Goodness’. We changed it into Declenimo in which we indicate a moment that is full of goodness, referring to the small talks we have with the strangers. I approach complete random strangers and ask them what they seek in life. The idea is to get inspired by an answer or inspire one to think of an answer. At first, I would keep the interactions always short. I would take the answer and then thank them for their time and that’s it. But as I progress in this project, I have longer and longer conversations with the strangers. I get to know where they’re from, what their story is and every now and then I even make new friends. I’ve learned many life lessons from the strangers that I meet. And it is not (only) the white-collar high-end people that taught me valuable lessons, but people from all over the society. From students to homeless people to street artists. Everybody has their own story and we learn from our own experiences and memories. Sometimes, the most inspiring words come from the people that you would expect the least.

The goal is to ask 101 people in Amsterdam what they seek in life. I know, why that number? Well, the idea is that I ask 100 strangers what they seek in life. At the end of the adventure, I will be asking myself as the 101st person what I seek in life. This project has already changed my view on people and my life so much and I can’t wait until I have all the answers collected and to read them back, thinking about what I seek in life.

“So, you just approached them and like… ask them?”

“I wouldn’t know how to talk to someone just like that…”

“Wouldn’t people sometimes get angry? I think it’s scary to just go and talk to a stranger…”

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All I need is another stranger and around approximately 15 minutes. That’s all it takes. Nobody gets angry if you ask them for their time. What is the worst that could happen? They say they don’t have time for you and you leave them alone. Obviously, you always need to be careful when it comes to people you don’t know. It’s a learning process and you’ll teach yourself how to approach strangers and how to talk to them. If you’re standing somewhere on a busy square, to almost everybody around you, you are a stranger too. A stranger is a stranger until one of the two says hello.

It took quite some courage for me to approach the first few strangers in Amsterdam. The weird thing is that once you ask these people and you start to have an actual conversation, it feels so natural. It feels so comfortable and normal. And then you realize that he/ she is just a human. You realize that this interaction between human and human has nothing to do with race/ nationality/ skin color/ sexual orientation/ hobbies or whatever. It is just one stranger, telling their story to another stranger. And after you talk about their story, discuss certain elements and perhaps share a good few laughs, you are suddenly no strangers anymore. This warm feeling of connection, kindness and humanity. That is what we mean with Declenimo.

All the stories (so far) are published online. The difficult thing is that no matter how hard you try to document a conversation, it never gets as close as the real experience. You can’t describe accurately enough how the emotion on their face looked like, or how the cracking in his voice sounded like or how beautiful the smiles on their faces are. Life is beautiful, and so are the people. There are so many stories out there and all we see are the covers. Never judge a book by its cover. So ask yourself, or even better; ask someone else: What do you seek in life?

Declenimo

 

So far, I have asked 35 strangers of the goal of 101 in Amsterdam. Be sure to follow the progress on www.declenimo.nl. Ask a man a question, and he’ll think for the moment. Make a man ask you a question and he’ll think for a lifetime.  

 

Nour
Graduating student International Business and Management. Interested in marketing, football and tech but interested the most in people and asking them what they seek in life! Lived in Canada for a bit and planning on studying in France after my bachelor’s. Currently on an adventure to discover the beauty behind anonymity of strangers in Amsterdam. Follow the adventure on www.declenimo.nl.

How we founded a NGO in Uganda next to our studies

“What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.”

– Nelson Mandela

Inspired by the saying of Nelson Mandela, my friend Laura and I founded the organization Health for Uganda/Africa e.V. in 2014 with the purpose to share our knowledge about health in order to increase living standards in Africa.

In December 2013, I met some old school friends in a local café to talk about everybody’s stories and happenings of the past six months. A lot had changed since we went off from school. I started studying geological science after few months of traveling and working in the UK. Laura, who was about to start studying medicine, went to Uganda, Africa. During that time, she did a voluntary internship in the dispensary of Bugema. She asked herself during this time, “How would doctors in Germany be able to work and improve without access to electricity?” She was sure that if she wanted to be a good doctor someday, she would have to know how to work without electricity and technical devices that help us to perform daily tasks. Within a few weeks, she had extended her six week stay to almost three months.

It was incredible to talk with Laura and our friends about their experiences. I honestly never thought about that issue until I heard her personal impression. Laura said, “The work in the dispensary was incomparable, and I learned so many interesting things. I was welcomed by everybody so kindly. For me, it will always be my second home, the place where I feel welcomed and comfortable.”

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Lauras stay in Bugema in 2013.

After our conversation in the café, I couldn’t stop thinking about Laura’s stories. We wanted to do something!

Laura had the idea of setting up a charity organization. Laura and I, her friends and family members, and others interested around our town, decided to establish a Non-Governmental Organization called “Health for Uganda/Africa e.V.” We had to write a statute, open a bank account, and finish all the paperwork before we finally got the approval to become a charity organization in March 2014.

(If you would like to know more about Laura’s time in Uganda, please click here)

What I took away from starting this NGO was that it doesn’t really matter how old you are or where you come from; it is about the dreams that you should follow. We are a diverse team representing many ages, yet we all have the same mission in common.

The mission of our organization is to optimize living conditions of people in need. This includes both preventing diseases and helping to promote health. We plan to achieve our mission through the use of medical supplies, treatment, water supplies and enlightenment on the subjects of infectious diseases, hygiene, and nutrition. For us, capacity building in the communities is very important. The organization’s projects have to be sustainable, and they have to be able to continue without our presence in Bugema.

My experience was that it doesn’t really matter how old you are or where you come from; it is about the dreams that you should follow.

After funding the organization, many questions arose, such as what are the main constructs? What is the best way to achieve our dream together with friends and people in Uganda? What is the best way to contact and communicate with people around the world? How should we collect money? How do we best structure the organization? Everything seemed overwhelming! But we had to get started…

After funding the organisation, many new questions arose, e.g. what are the main rules? What is the best way to achieve our dream closely with friends and people in Uganda? What is the best way to contact and communicate with people around the world? How should we collect money? How is the best way to structure the organisation? Everything seemed overwhelming! But we had to get started…

Over one and a half years ago, we structured the teams and organized different kinds of events in order to raise money for our projects in Uganda. The organization is spread into three working groups: promotion, health and hygiene, and water and technical supply. Laura is the contact for the health group, and I am the contact for the water group. I realized that this kind of group dynamic is successful only if everybody works together and performs their tasks. When it comes to communication, being open-minded yet critical are the most important factors for an organization working closely together. It is great to go to fairs, talk with people about your mission, have fun with your friends in the organization, and collect money for the projects. You have to love the work, otherwise it will be hard.

The first trip began in 2015. I had never been to Africa, and I was excited to meet people in Uganda and learn about their opinions, feelings, challenges, and visions of life. We had been preparing projects in Germany for almost a year by collecting money and trying to broaden Laura’s network in Uganda to implement our projects.

So the first trip started in 2015: we prepared projects in Germany for almost a year, collected money, and tried to broaden Laura’s network in Uganda to implement our projects.

Laura and I flew from Frankfurt to Entebbe, Uganda, on October 2, 2015. We implemented our “Hygiene- Project.” The German working group “Health” (which includes nurses, medical doctors, paramedics and hygiene and nutrition specialists) spent a lot of time writing a Hygiene-Handbook for the dispensary of Bugema. The organization “Health for Uganda/Africa e.V.” equipped every toilet on the campus ground with a soap dispenser and liquid soap. We also printed posters that said “Wash your Hands!” and “Disinfect your Hands” for the soap dispensers and toilets around the campus

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At the Health Centre Bugema.

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At the Health Centre Bugema.

Moreover, we printed posters saying “Wash your Hands!” for the dispensary and the toilets around the campus, and also printed posters saying saying “Disinfect your Hands” for the dispensary. The organization “Health for Uganda/Africa e.V.” equipped every toilet on the campus ground with dispenser and liquid soap. The dispensary was equipped with liquid soap, disinfection for patients and staff members.

Not far from there, the solar project at the Health Centre in Bugema began. We wanted to ensure that a possible electrical breakdown would not damage the vaccine by creating a break in the cold chain of the vaccine. By setting up an efficient solar system and buying a new fridge, the vaccine remained safe and cold. It took us almost the whole month to fulfill the project with the help of the University Bugema. There was always something unexpected happening, and it was a really exciting time. I learned that everything will work out at some point; you just have to be patient.

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Installation of our second project “Solarpennals” with the team and engineers.

After talking with interested members of Bugema University, the Local Council, and the Health Inspector (who were all a part of committee for our organization), we made the first decision about the water supply project for 2016 during the last week of October.

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Looking at a borehole, which is not functioning close to “Baps” Primary School.

A special day

During mid-October 2015, we walked with the Local Council to two primary schools in the area of Bugema. I saw for the first time the real nature and villages of Uganda’s bush land. We met head teachers that showed us the school ground and inoperative boreholes, and they explained to us the water shortage situation. In the beginning, it was hard for me to understand that the inoperative boreholes meant there were many people without access to water.

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A meeting about disease prevention and health promotion

We learned a few more details, for example the fact that one borehole was drilled on a hill and the water aquifer was too deep to pump up the water. After our eventful morning, we visited the Hope Orphanage Centre, where there are around 500 orphans. Because we had heard stories from others about the orphanage, we knew to bring food and hand it out to children at the “Hope Orphanage Place” in Kiwenda with family and friends of Bugema University. Representing “Health for Uganda/Africa e.V.”, Laura and I gave them a short lecture about how to wash their hands. The orphanages were happy about the food and very interested listening to our presentation. We got a thank-you letter saying the children still remember it well, and they are now washing their hands before eating. It really motivated us to keep going to fulfill our projects and work in the organization.

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At the “Hope Orphanage Centre” in Kiwenda.

We were sad to leave Bugema in November of 2015, but we had a wonderful time with the community of Bugema University. We flew back to Europe highly motivated and with many new ideas for our projects. We are looking forward to working together with the committee at Bugema University in the future and returning to Uganda.

Now, it is easier for me to understand different cultures and opinions. I’ve learned to approach all things with consideration and to take everything in stride. It was a lovely journey with ups and downs, but also with wonderful people who made it prosperous and a lasting memory.

Returning to Germany, motivated with our experiences in Uganda, we met with members of our organization and shared our experiences. Right after we returned, we participated at many charity events and markets in November and December of 2015 and began planning the next projects for 2016.

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At the source of the river Nile (Victoria See) in Jinja, Uganda during a day trip with friends.

I am really amazed at how much things change and how fast our organization is growing. I am grateful for the support and encouragement from all of the people around me, and especially Laura. It is fascinating to see how interested people are in our projects, but at the same time how hard it is to find more new members and sponsors who are committed to our mission.

Our mission right now is to expand our organization and take the next steps. I am looking forward to working with our team. Working with something you are passionate about is fun, keeps you going, and broadens your horizons and skill sets. Don’t dream about tomorrow, do it today! After all of my experiences, I recommend to reflect on the old and have courage for the new! And to try your best at all times. 🙂

Don’t dream about tomorrow, do it today!

Thank you for reading my story about founding the organisation “Health for Uganda/ Africa e.V.”! If you got curious about our project, please feel also free to contact me in person e-mail: evaflorina.kaminsky@yahoo.de.

Best,

Eva Kaminsky

Co-founder of Health for Uganda Africa e.V.

Health for Uganda/ Africa e.V. Email: info@health-for-uganda-africa.org Homepage: www.health-for-uganda-africa.org

Bank account: IBAN DE65830944950003291111 BIC GENO DE F1 ETK Ethik Bank

Eva
Studying geology and co-founder of the NGO “Health for Uganda/ Africa e.V.” (www.health-for-uganda-africa.org). A culture & science interested and open person.