By Sukhmani Singh, Womens Feature Service
Set against the grim statistics of the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, a saga of hope unspools in the bylanes of Delhi’s Muslim enclave, Jamia Nagar. Love and harmony is the predominant leitmotif in a nondescript three-storeyed building here, home to 22 slum children of the riots. For the children, aged six to 17, their ebullient warden, Asma Khan, 48, is mother, mentor and guide, one who is determined to prove that, “There is nothing greater than the power of love. It wins all. It can transform all. If you keep radiating love, you can even win over your enemy.”
Established in 2002 by a Muslim charitable organisation – the Zakat Foundation – to accommodate 27 children rescued from riot relief camps, it is now home to an equal number of slum children from Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Bihar. They all have a common dream – to shun violence and hatred, study hard and be successful.
For Khan, who left a comfortable job as principal of an east Delhi school to work here seven days a week, it is an all-consuming passion. Virtually nothing deters her – the over an hour-long commute from home and her own three children, or the diverse challenges she tackles in a day’s work. The lack of top-class facilities here is compensated by her dedication as a caregiver. “Children have two sides to them; they can be moulded to become either good or bad. I have transformed them through love and the right values,” she says, exuding an almost divine radiance.
The children follow a rigorous daily schedule. Enrolled in an English medium school in the vicinity, aptly called God’s Grace, where donors pay 50 per cent of the fees, evening is tuition time, plus an hour of religious instruction and another to master computers. Once a month they are taken on a picnic.
As a smiling Khan bustles around, tasting the food, tidying the rooms, supervising their homework, there are loud cries of Asma Aunty coming from all corners of the building. There is a spat to be resolved, someone needs help with homework, another a helping hand with a heavy bucket, a third just a lap to cry on. As mother and peace-maker, she is near omnipresent.
Says Najma, 14, the eldest and brightest of three sisters brought here from a Gujarat relief camp in 2002, “Asma Aunty has taught me what love is and how to solve the smaller children’s fights through love. I have learnt to be firm in my belief, never tell lies or harm anyone, help others, be independent and never lose sight of my goal.” Her goal is to teach Science, but her artistic talent has bloomed in the pretty wall hangings, innovatively crafted with empty egg trays and beads, which adorn the girls’ dormitory.
At least one parent of most children here is alive in Gujarat, but almost all have remarried and live in acute poverty with the rest of their children.. During an annual visit there every summer, the children feel forlorn and unwanted. With the parents hard put to give them a proper meal, they return looking starved. Tucking into a special Sunday lunch of ‘biryani’ (a delicately flavoured rice preparation with meat and spices) and stew, Najma shrugs, “No one has the time for us there, we feel lonely.” Add the others in unison, “We don’t feel happy there. We love Asma Aunty more than anyone in the world.”
Earlier traumatised, the boys are now forward looking and ambitious. Mohammed Farooq, 14, a wannabe cricketer, says, “I remember crying a lot when I first came. But Asma aunty solved all our problems. She treats us all equally and explains things to us.”
Adds Wasim Akram, 16, who dreams of becoming a doctor, “I never want to return to Gujarat, I feel insecure there. Coming here, I have truly understood the Qur’an. It teaches us to love everyone as our brothers. I don’t know why Hindus and Muslims fight with each other.”
Nurtured in a peaceful environment, where even toy pistols are taboo, there is no room for hatred or revenge in their hearts but just one overpowering desire – to become successful and build schools and hospitals for Gujarat’s poor.
But the journey from trauma to tranquillity has been a long and arduous one.. Khan recalls the hot summer day in 2002 when she first met the children, after officials of the Zakat Foundation arrived with them from Gujarat. “They were filthy, barefoot, some had defecated in their clothes, and they behaved like animals. The first thing the cook and I did was scrub them down with a hosepipe and shampoo.” Even though her husband was bedridden at that time, after meeting the kids, Khan felt impelled to take over. “As a devout Muslim, I feel that the most important thing in life is to help others. The children were in such a bad state I put aside my own needs for them.”
Mumtaz Najmi, joint secretary of the Zakat Foundation was one of the team that brought the children to Delhi. “It was completely spontaneous. We chose those in the worst condition, fearing they would become extremists if they stayed on. They were so starved they would leap on to the food in the crowded relief camps,” she recalls.
The first few weeks they were housed in two rooms in neighbouring Okhla. Beddings were hastily rented from a tent house and food was brought in from a hotel. Communication was a major problem, as the children spoke only their native Gujarati, so special Hindi classes had to be arranged for them in a Central Delhi school. From washing bottoms and drying tears to stitching frocks for the girls, Khan spared no effort to give the children a sense of belonging. Gradually the situation stabilised. A dry fruit merchant from the Walled City lent them their present home. Recently, the foundation purchased it.
Khan remembers some of the worst moments from the past. “They would all gather together at dusk and start crying, as most of their homes were burnt at night. One of them stayed underwater all night to escape the rioters and suffered nightmares. I would sit on the lawn with them till dawn, just hugging them.”
Many of the boys expressed their trauma through aggression, beating each other up in mindless violence. But Khan doggedly reformed them through love. Gradually, the children imbibed her own philosophy gleaned from the Qur’an, “Only people who lack humanity can hurt each other. No religion teaches you to fight or do ill to others. The world will become perfect only if you change yourself from within. It is your deeds that make you great.”
Perhaps Khan is a product of her own experiences. Growing up in the north Indian city of Kanpur, she gave tuitions to pay for her graduation in Political Science, English and Urdu from Delhi’s Jamia Millia University. With a natural affinity for children, she worked as a nursery school teacher for two years before marriage. As the wife of a printing press proprietor in central Delhi’s Daryaganj, the initial years of marriage passed by in a blur of peace and love, until her husband developed acute diabetes.
During the prolonged illness, which led to his early demise, his press had to be sold and she became the breadwinner. Financial travails forced her to shift her children from private to government schools, but they continued to perform well.
Today, Khan feels she is reaping the benefits of nurturing the underprivileged. “Ever since I took on their responsibility, my personal problems have ceased. God looks after my home.”