September 23, 2019

From the Streets of Delhi: The give and take of learning with India’s street children

“Have you ever been to the Jama Masjid?” The little girl looks up at me with bright, intelligent eyes, the yellow of jaundice and malnutrition already receding from around her irises, a brightly colored scarf hiding the long, curved scar rising up from just behind her ear. She is one of our newer girls. She had arrived two weeks earlier while I was out of town, and we had just met.

The little girl was sitting in on the English class of her own volition. Like all new children during their first month at Dilse, she was in her adjustment period and had not yet been assigned to any specific learning group. As we worked on alphabets, she watched everything with squinting, critical eyes. Then she began tracing the letters on her worksheet with the loving reverence of a devotee, as if carefully and repeatedly writing out the holy names of God.

Soon we had learned two letters and their corresponding sounds, and we began blending — articulating the sound of each letter as I pointed to it, and slowly putting two letter sounds together to make a syllable.  Back and forth, back and forth — “A, T, T, A. Ahhh, Ttttaahhh — AT,” “Ttttaaahhh, Aaahhh — TA!” The little girl’s eyes widened when she saw the connection. We started clapping in time to our voices and adding on different consonants to our base syllable, “AT.” And suddenly the girl was reading. “Hhh-AT, HAT! Ffff-AT, FAT! Ccc-AT, CAT! FAT CAT!”

When she realized that the sounds she was decoding were actually words with meaning, she looked up at me, startled. Peels of her laughter ricocheted off shoulders and elbows and danced in the air above our heads. She jumped up and ran in circles around the group of us sitting on the mat in the yard, singing in a singsong voice, “Fat cat! Fat cat! Fat cat!” pointing her fingers up at the sides of her head like pointed little feline ears. The child before me had just had her first taste of what it means to be literate — she had decoded the letters into words, and the idea of what they represented had come alive to her.

Jewish tradition has always placed great value on education and literacy. In addition to encouraging us to explore our own frame of reference, we are taught to learn with others, that knowledge acquisition is symbiotic. The very format of rabbinic literature instructs us to actively engage with both material and fellow learners, to debate, question, analyze and wrestle with the matters at hand. I have always felt that Judaism presents learning as a means toward attaining a more present and involved existence. We are encouraged to be mindful and aware of how our actions in the everyday fit into the larger scheme of things, and we are pushed to always learn more and actively widen our worlds. When letters came alive and became words for her that day, the little girl with the head scarf got a taste of how wide the world can be, and her appetite was whetted.

Children from Ummeed Aman Ghar for Boys in Qutub Minar, Delhi, enjoying a moment of leisure. Photo courtesy of The Dilse Campaign, New Delhi.

A few minutes later, we moved on to a new activity — words that start with the letter “S.” The little girl was equally engaged, chattering on incessantly about every word she could think of that started with an “Sssss” sound. Yet in midalliteration, she looked up at me suddenly, her mouth still open in a tiny “o,” and she asked again, “Didi (older sister in Hindi-Urdu), have you ever been to the Jama Masjid?” The Jama Masjid, or Friday Mosque, is the biggest mosque in Delhi, in the heart of the old city, and I had been there numerous times in the previous few months. Surprised, I answered, “Yes, I have.”

“Do you ever go there to take pictures, and do you ever wear a headband over your hair?” The headband is a trademark feature of mine, but today, my hair is loose. Taken aback, I again answered in the affirmative. “But how do you know that? Did you used to live there?”

The girl nodded her head vigorously, pushed back her scarf in her excitement, and continued with her questions, “I saw you first during Ramzan (“Ramadan” in Urdu). Does a bhaia (older brother) go with you, and does he have a very big camera?”  And during Ramadan I had gone to the mosque with my friend, Marti, who uses a large reflex camera. At my answer, she erupted again into giggles, and I shook her hand warmly, unable to stop smiling, “Nice to meet you again, Fatima, it has been a long time!”

Fatima had been one of the little street urchins who run in packs around the grand mosque steps and into the surrounding lanes spidering out into the old city. When she saw me, she was one of hundreds of children competing to stake their claim over the wide swaths of city streets — bartering, making deals, and scavenging for food and recyclables according to unwritten codes of law I will most likely never be able to understand. At one point, she was living with her mother and older sister, both of them hooked on “solution”—the mix of cleaning and whitener fluid often sniffed along with glue — and working migrant construction and day-labor jobs. Often they spent their nights at the Old Delhi Railway Station or, during the cold season, in the tent camps outside of Meena Bazaar, the busy marketplace behind the Jama Masjid. Fatima is about 8 years old, and several months ago she saw me, a foreigner, entering her territory in the big mosque. Perhaps I spoke with her, or perhaps she only saw me from afar. Now somehow, thanks to a talented and committed field team, she is living and attending classes at one of our schools at the Dilse Campaign, where I have been developing education programs for the last year and a half.

Growing up in Los Angeles as the daughter of two rabbis, living walking distance from the synagogue of which we were members,  and attending Jewish day school, summer camp, youth group — the works — I was part of a very tightknit Jewish community. At the same time, l lived side by side with people of all different backgrounds and ethnicities in one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world. Be it tearing through the neighborhood on roller skates or scooters, playing basketball or getting to know fellow dog-walkers and runners, I was taught that worlds and realities of these different communities are all fundamentally linked. We all eat much of the same food, breathe the same air, compete for many of the same jobs, get pulled over for the same traffic law violations, and when we seriously err, we get sent to the same jails.

Likewise, benei adam, human beings, in different parts of the world, different communities and different religions often suffer from eerily similar issues — economic disparity, unfair working conditions, unequal distribution of goods, lack of awareness on how to access basic amenities such as good education, comprehensive health care and much more. And I was always taught that a major part of Judaism’s commitment to tikkun olam, repairing the world, means engaging with other “people groups,” working toward making everyone’s olam a better place.