Here is a writeup by M. Khalfan who joined me with friend Sarfaraz in one part of my recent India trip. Enjoy, especially the photos!
I first meet Ali Yusufali (YY) in Florida while attending the funeral of a close family friend. As we discuss CAI’s worldwide projects, YY suggests I visit some of them, promising me it’ll change my life; I am very interested. He mentions Afghanistan and India in May and I ask him to keep me in the loop about the final schedule. I have no stomach for Afghanistan, but India sounds great.
I get an email with some dates a week later. Take your pick. I suggest May 15/16/17, YY writes. Arrive New Delhi on 15. I will have you picked up at the airport and you can join me at Sirsi. I look up Sirsi on Google Maps and come across a small village east of New Delhi, no more than a few streets, including Karbala Road. I tell YY I would meet him there and he arranges a driver to pick me up.I convince my close friend Surfaraz to join me; it is reassuring to have someone who speaks Hindi with me. We land in Delhi late Wednesday and are setup to meet YY the following afternoon in Sirsi, as he is coming from another village where CAI has a possible school project.
Google maps say the drive is three hours, but it actually takes us six, thanks to Delhi traffic and a quick lunch stop along the way. We arrive at Sirsi complex around Magrib when all the orphan boys are at the adjoining Masjid for prayers. The campus, which is across 11 acres, contains a hospital, school for 1,400 students (children from a 20km radius take a bus here), a mosque and the boy’s orphanage. The caretaker welcomes us and we are shown to a humble room that will be our home for the next two days. The large building is single floor, cafeteria/kitchen, boy’s dorm, study room, guest room and bathrooms. YY is still on the way, so we begin to unpack and settle in.
The boys return from prayers smiling, happy to see new faces. They prepare for dinner and we take the opportunity to get to know them. Ranging from 3 - 17 years old, there are about 33 boys huddled around the dinner table with their plates ready. We immediately notice their remarkable mannerisms; the younger ones sit first and elder ones help serve. They each get one spoon full of curry and a paraatha, followed by more after they finish; I notice how orderly and organized the entire process is; what a difference from my house! The boys eat quietly and stare at us, smirking. I pull out my iPhone to check emails, as the workday has begun in New York. It’s frustrating, with only 2G (EDGE) data in this part of India. I look up a few minutes later and realize I am the focus of everybody’s attention; I pack up my phone; I forget I am in a remote village in India. I must look like an alien to these kids; dressed like an American, cannot speak a word of Hindi and busy on an iPhone. What a wake up call.
The boy’s watch a bit of TV and the caretaker Zakibhai lets them stay up a bit more as they are excited that YY and AR are coming. Their 8-hour drive is going to be more like 12 hours, so the boys eventually go to bed. Friday is chutti, meaning holiday; school is closed on Fridays and Sundays, so Zakibhai has been lax than usual; the boys go to brush and bed without a complaint. Again, something alien for an American father of four. Even the 17 year old did not complain and all are asleep by 10pm.
A van with YY and his entourage pulls up a few hours later. I am introduced to Aliakbar Ratansi (AR), CAI’s eyes and ears in India. A warm hearted and personable man, thank God he speaks perfect English. Not knowing Hindi is starting to weigh me down. We have dinner and I am informed about different CAI projects all over India. Jetlag kicking in, we prepare for bed. There are three beds and four people in the guest room. Surfaraz and I offer to sleep on the carpeted floor but AR would have none of it. I always sleep on the floor, even when I come alone, he says, I prefer it, please, this is our way. After a brief debate, we finally sleep around 1am.
A few hours later Zakibhai wakes us up for Fajr. All the boys are at the mosque nearby. Since there are killer mosquitos out there, we decide to pray in our room. I am quite paranoid about getting stung; I wear a repellent band I found on amazon.com on every limb! Everyone is back to bed after prayers. I cannot sleep; the buzz of the trip gets the better of me. Seeing this, AR stays up, offering me a cup of tea. The boys return and gather by the door and start reciting duas in chorus; AR and I go to listen. AR explains this is a daily routine after Fajr. It is beautiful, possibly the highlight of my trip. I record a short clip, though the video is dark; I play the video whenever I want to remember my time there. I am torn and in tears inside, looking at these young boys. I feel so sorry for them but realize they are happy with the little they have. They have no father / mother, yet their supplications to Allah is so sincere and appreciative; I am taken back and a reality check sets it. After their duas and a quick cup of tea we go to bed. I have to say it is with a heavy heart, as I cannot stop comparing my life to theirs. YY starts waking us up around 8 am, by that time the boys are already up and done with breakfast; we get ready for our day.
The first stop is a new housing project for the poor a few kilometers away. We hop in a car and but AR is having trouble getting it started. Some guys start pushing it; the clutch pops and we are on our way. Each house is barely the size of my bedroom at home; it includes a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, and an open-air living room. Some of the homes are already populated with families of up to six people. One family invites us for a tour; it is humbling to see how they live. I snap some pictures of the kitchen and WhatsApp them to my wife who is dreaming of a new kitchen (ain’t happening). The little that makes these families so happy makes me feel privileged; spoiled even. YY and AR push the contractor to finish as fast as possible. We get in the car (which needs another pop) and head back to the main campus. The kids are enjoying a game of cricket and AR joins in, much to the glee of the attention starved children.
We visit the school and hospital that are on the same campus as the orphanage. CAI has helped renovate and add several classrooms to the school, which now has over 1,400 students. The school is in great shape and boasts a computer lab, chemistry, physics, biology labs and a library. The school has been awarded the Best District School honor.
Across from the school is the hospital, one of a few in the area. While I cannot compare it to US standards, it is heartening to see a few patients who have completed cataract surgery and are resting in the ward.
We head back to our room to get freshened up for dinner at Sakeena Girls Home, a CAI undertaking, where we are guests of honor. I am really looking forward to this part of the trip, since I have daughters aged 7 and 4. Meeting these girls will help me relate to my girls, since I miss them dearly.
When we arrive, I notice WELCOME written in chalk in the alleyway. The girls are standing in a circle, holding hands when we enter. They recite salawaat a few times and are clearly very excited to see us, but AR in particular. Seated around us, they show off recently learned sooras from the Holy Quran, Imam’s names and even the names of the Imam’s mothers! Each time they finish a recital, AR rewards them 100 rupees; AR’s wallet is empty in no time. He really has a talent that makes the girls feel special; I pray I can make such an impact on humanity someday. AR visits these children frequently and takes time and effort to be here. These girls are almost like an extension to his family.
I am right, meeting the girls make me remember my own girls and it is heartbreaking; they are all so beautiful and innocent, craving attention, just like my girls do from me. I ponder about the importance of a father in young girl. What have these girls done to deserve separation from their parents and how will they develop without a father? The building is very cozy, more so than the boy’s orphanage.
Dinner is served; the elder girls wait until the little ones are done eating. There is amazing sense of unity amongst them; they really look after each other. We tour the rest of the building, including the bunk beds on the upper floor. We then head back after goodbyes; tomorrow is visiting more CAI projects.
I start feeling anxious and guilty about leaving, though my family and work are waiting for me. I feel as though the children are happy when AR and YY are here. I wonder how they would feel after we leave. Next day, we see the boys before they leave for school; they look sharp and confident in their uniforms as they blend with their peers from school. We meet the principal of the school and say our final goodbyes to our wonderful hosts.
We stop at another project in Phandheri; an all girls’ school and another girl’s orphanage. It seems like there is so much work to be done in India. YY has a lot more traveling to do in India before coming home, including Mumbai and Kargil; CAI has projects all over the country.
YY is right about this trip being life-changing. I see poor children everywhere in India and feel for them. But when one gets to see the amazing projects CAI donors have funded, one finds a way to give back. I have uploaded photos and videos of my trip here.
I pray to the Almighty that he bless YY, AR and all the people that bring meaning to the lives of these children. It is so easy to forget about them a world away. We are so busy with our lives / families / work; get attached to things that are meaningless in the grand scheme of things. I really applaud the CAI team for the work they do. I tell YY that the donors in America have it easy; they just have to cut a check. The hard part is being on the ground in these countries, where the work needs to get done. I realize why Allah puts so much emphasis on the care of orphans and widows after my brief experience with them. These children would be lost without Allah’s guidance and the hard work of CAI and others in the region.
M. Khalfan - NY