Getting ahead in India when you are from a family of beggars and of the untouchable caste is a major achievement. Growing up in a slum with alcoholics, little food and shelter and probably a daily beating or two can either make or break a child.
Buddha’s Smile School, in Varanasi, India has produced many winners since it began in 2003. One of them, pictured left, is Samsher who as a long time student of BSS has now gained entry to the NCC, India’s prestigious National Cadet Corp.
Samsher might find he has to spend the next few years waking early and studying hard, but thanks to Buddha’s Smile School and his own hard work, his future, released from the unhealthy lifestyle and poverty of the slums, is assured.
You wouldn’t think it, but most BSS children look forward to going to school each day. Priyanka, who has been a student at BSS since 2006 and is now 14 yrs old and studying in class 5, is no exception.
In 2013 Priyanka had to drop-out of school for two years because her mother was pregnant and Priyanka was required to work as a maid, earning money for the family. Priyanka’s mother and father now have three sons and being the only girl in a poor Indian family, Priyanka is inundated by many responsibilities.
“She is an intelligent girl,” Rajan said, “and when she was able, Priyanka enrolled again in BSS in hopes of fulfilling her dream to become a nurse. Priyanka and her mother were put under significant pressure from her community to ensure she got married,” Ragan added. “Their community created this very bad situation and Priyanka became increasingly depressed. It was intolerable,” Rajan said.
“One day, while Priyanka was at home doing her homework, one of her neighbours barged in and tore her homework into small pieces to try and dissuade Priyanka from continuing with her education. The pressure continued and Priyanka’s depression became worse, making her sick with bad headaches.”
“One night at about 10 pm, while we were eating dinner,” Rajan said, “we heard a loud voice calling us and someone knocking frantically at the school door. It was Priyanka. She was crying and asked us to help her.”
“I don’t want to marry,” she told us. “I just want to study and become a nurse one day.”
“Like many children at BSS, Priyanka has hopes and dreams of living a life away from the slums,” Rajan said.
The day after, Jagdish, the BSS headmaster took Priyanka back to her parents. The next day, Rajan’s husband Sukhdev visited members of her village and some of the older boys who attended BSS and asked them all to support Priyanka in her efforts to study and remain at BSS.
“Things have settled down somewhat,” Rajan said. “Next year our new female dormitory will be built and we will offer Priyanka a place so she can grow strong, study and live with less turmoil in her life. She loves going to school at BSS very much and she shares all her problems with us. Her father drinks too much and her mother has health issues and difficulty working. Fortunately, Priyanka’s mother is able to earn enough to feed her children at least one meal a day.”
Varanasi is a colorful but impoverished metropolis overflowing with cultural significance yet haunted by the many hundreds of thousands of untouchable children. Children who are forced to beg, living their lives in poverty, ignorance and abuse.
Buddha’s Smile School (BSS), founded and directed by teacher Rajan Kaur, feeds, educates and nurtures 350 of Varanasi’s untouchable children, providing them with a chance to break away from their poverty-stricken lives and merge into Indian society as vital, confident participants.
BSS takes children as young as six years old and looks after their day to day medical, food and educational needs. It encourages them toward attaining a higher education. Currently more than 60 children have moved through the BSS program. Some find work and others are able to extend their education via additional sponsorship. Currently there are several dozen children attending middle school and high school.
Leaky make-shift lean-tos, flooded for a large part of the year due to the monsoon is home to these children and their families. Malaria, rats, rabid dogs, lack of food and basic hygiene are their constant companions. They are spurned by others as unclean and untouchable yet loved, hugged and nurtured by Rajan and her teachers. BSS is their oasis, their lifeline. They arrive eager to learn because they understand knowledge is their way out. It’s their path to a life without begging and abuse. A better life. A healthier more independent and rewarding life.
Buddha’s Smile School feeds these children with more than food. It heals them with more than medicine and it enthuses them with more than dreams. Rajan’s husband Sukhdev runs the family restaurant attached to BSS. He cooks for the children, provides fatherly help and advice and his small business adds to the school’s significant funding needs.
Some parents paint circles of soot and oil around their children’s eyes to ward off evil. For BSS warding off the evil is a never ending financial and emotional battle. An increase in malaria this month, a raft of broken bone or a desperate parent trying to sell a daughter for food or save a son from a rabid dog-bite. Through all this Rajan and her teachers teach maths and English, dance and painting. They fight superstition, discrimination and hate and very month they visit the Dalit communities spending time with each family and ensuring the children are being cared for.
BSS always need financial help. The problems are massive and Rajan is constantly trying to juggle the medical, food and educational need of BSS to ensure the best outcome. Sometimes, like now, her juggling act becomes desperate as a major increase in malaria strikes her BSS children.
With the end of March came the end of one class and the start of the next across India. For us at BSS, this meant that seven of our students are about to begin the twelfth grade! We can hardly believe that our seventh graders have grown up so fast. As they tell Rajan, they could never have accomplished so much without the support and hard work of BSS’s teachers and supporters. Instead, like their parents, they would be married or soon-to-be-married, and career options would include labouring in the fields for less than $2 a day, pedalling a cycle rickshaw, or doing housework.
Now their world has expanded. In the Indian school system, students specialize in their high school years. The students in 12th grade have selected “streams” of study, which include Arts (History, Social Sciences, Music); Science (Physics, Chemistry, Math, Biology); and Commerce (Management, Accounting, Business Studies). Three of the 12th graders have chosen Arts, three are in Science, and one is studying Commerce. The Arts stream includes Pankaj, Shiv, and Balwant. Balwant has decided to use his education to pursue a career in hotel management. When school is out, he spends time in the Sarnath Cafe with Sukhdev, who has taken him under his wing, to learn about working in and managing a restaurant. Continue reading…
Sarnath Cafe & Saini Guest House, a social enterprise owned and operated by the Saini family and located next to BSS, was renovated last year for three months and re-opened in August. While the menu remains the same, the restaurant and kitchen underwent extensive upgrades. As a socially focused business, the profits from the restaurant (as well as its kitchen facilities) help support the school. We hope that this investment will contribute to BSS’s long-term sustainability. While we’re certainly biased, we believe that it’s the best restaurant in Sarnath (and possibly one of the best in Varanasi).
What’s in store for the future? Four guest rooms above the cafe were finished this past month and are now ready for business. While simple, they are nicely appointed; each has a bath, hot water, and AC in the summer. The rooms are intended to host both BSS volunteers and visitors.
In January of 2012 Brooklyn, NY artist Erica Harris was welcomed to Buddha’s Smile School in India to teach art classes and take photos of daily activities at BSS. Thank you also to Erica and her friends who raised over $6,000 for BSS middle school scholarships. We invite you to take a look at Erica’s beautiful photos of our BSS students
Over 20 performers of contemporary classical, jazz, and world music will present a concert to support Buddha’s Smile School at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music on Saturday December 10 from 6 to 10 PM!
Lara Allen, soprano
Michael Brofman, piano
Julian de la Chica, piano
Jade Conlee, piano
Hui Cox, guitar
Anna Dagmar, voice/piano
Andrew D’Angelo, bass clarinet
Fingers DelRey, piano
Joanna Dionis, mezzo-soprano
Ezra Donner, piano
Steven Gerber, piano
Stephanie Griffin, viola
Sara Holzshue, vocals
Julieanne Klein, soprano
Maki Kobayashi, piano
Beth Levin, piano
Jon Liechty, piano
Christine Perea, flute
Mariel Roberts, cello
Michael Rose, piano
Ivan Rubinstein-Gilles, vocals/guitar
Mia Theodoratus, electric harp
Deborah van Renterghem, soprano
Maria Wagner, clarinet
Photos by John Gurrin
Please help support BSS by attending this wonderful event and do please tell your friends!
Tack (thanks!) to the 29 students of Ostteg Elementary School,Umea, Sweden and their teacher Christer Rosenqvist for holding a successful flea market and bake sale which raised $1,000 for Buddha’s Smile school. Thank you, students, for caring so much about the BSS children in Varanasi.