Sirsi is some 240 miles east of New Delhi, in Uttar Pradesh, about six hour drive. An impoverished community where basic education is a challenge for most, CAI supports the Bahman School just outside Sirsi town. CIA began with construction of 7 classrooms, laboratories and will soon embark on construction of additional 7 classrooms to enable students who sit under stairs and in corridors the proper environment to learn and prosper.
CAI has also constructed a beautiful and sturdy boy’s orphanage, Zahra Boys Home, nearby; 24 orphan presently live and flourish here with a decent education and a fighting chance for a better life. This orphanage will eventually cater for 50 boys, insha'Allah.
I meet Aarifa Khatoon at the orphanage during my recent visit there. A motherly figure, Aarifa is the manager of the boys. I observe her operate and can only marvel at what she does. On her feet almost 24 hours, Aarifa Khatoon balances the task efficiently, nimbly. I decide to talk to her, find out what makes her so good at being a mother of 24 children.
Here then, is Aarifa’s story in her own words:
I was born in Sirsi, child of very poor parents who had eleven children in all; I have six sisters and four brothers. Daily survival was a struggle so the easiest solution for my parents was to marry me off at age fifteen. She looks at me in astonishment when I ask her if she went to school, then laughs at the absurdity of my question. In a period of five years, I had three children, one slightly deformed boy and two girls. I was a widow by age 20, my husband died of illness we could not afford to cure at age 35 and my hardships went from awful to unbearable. She weeps then at the memories but quickly recovers. I worked continuously rolling bedis for which I got paid Rs.50 per day (about US$1.10). It was hard, very hard raising 3 children on Rs.50 per day; you realize how difficult that is Saheb? I remain silent as I have nothing meaningful to say. I then did the next best thing; I married off my daughters at the same age I married. Classical poverty cycle pattern amongst the poor and destitute.
I heard about a vacancy at the Bahman School about three years ago and was hired as a cleaner; life improved where I could at least take care of my challenged son. My fortunes changed again when this orphanage was built and I got a chance to work at what I do best, be a mother. Now I am a mother to 24 children. They are good children, hungry for love and affection but even more eager for any opportunity to excel. Sure they give me a hard time sometimes, whose children don’t? But they listen to me when I reason with them and guide them.
My day never really ends. I wake up real early and wake the kids for prayers after which time all hell breaks loose. While they brush their teeth, take a bath, iron clothes, make their beds and fight each other, I am busy preparing breakfast, listening to their many needs and trying to pay referee. I check them out before they head out to school, make sure they have ironed their clothes properly, ties knotted right, shoes shined glossy black and hair neatly oiled and combed. I relax a bit when they leave before I head home to tend to my sons needs. I am back before they return so that dinner is good and ready for them. I make sure they behave afterwards; playing, reading or going for extra tuition. My energy levels are maxed out by the time they are tucked in bed. I get to sleep about midnight.
I ask her how she would feel it if the boys go from 24 to 50 as planned. She thinks for a moment, smiles. Well, I’ll be a mother of 50 then, no?
As told to me on the morning of November 01, 2010 at Zahra Boys Home, Sirsi, UP, India.
Click here for picture of Aarifa and orphans / orphanage.