Category Archives: Children

A ROOM OF THEIR OWN: LIBRARY PROJECT GIVES CHILDREN OF INFORMAL WASTEPICKERS IN BENGALURU’S BANSHANKARI NEW WORLDS TO PONDER

By SOWMYA RAJARAM, Bangalore Mirror Bureau | Updated: Jul 26, 2017, 02.36 PM IST

Just off the hustle and bustle of Banashankari Temple Ward and the metro station; in a nondescript lane around the corner, are colourful flowers and tall giraffes.

Offering them company are people such as Rani, who is afraid to go to school on the first day because she has no friends. Her pals – Shalini, Ajay and Jenny – are empathetic. After all, they’ve been there too. Together, they talk about how they will travel to school, and what they have to look forward to over there. Soon, everybody is chatting and laughing, and life on a boring Thursday evening seems considerably brighter.

Rani lives in a book and the giraffe is painted on the wall, but for the children of Buguri Community Library, they are real. So real, in fact, that despite the demands of school, vacations and practical challenges such as having to help the family fill and store water, they are here every evening, filling up a tiny 200sqft space with energy, enthusiasm, and the occasional notoriety too.

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Books and being

An initiative of Hasirusdala – an organisation that works for the welfare of informal wastepickers – Buguri Community Library is the first such initiative that came out of a desire to engage with the community in more sustainable ways. Since February 2017, programme coordinator Lakshmi Karunakaran, along with other volunteers and facilitators, has been conducting reading sessions with the children of about 200 families living in a slum. The idea, says Karunakaran, was to create a safe, non-academic space for children who crave just that. While Wednesday to Saturday is devoted to reading and storytelling, the space turns into an art activity centre on Sundays, where kids learn to paint, draw, and have even dabbled in theatre and beatboxing. The kids are aged between six and 16, and are divided into two groups.

They had lofty ideals to start with – it would be a space that influences children on a long term basis; a space where they would be exposed to a lot more than what they are exposed to on the streets; it would teach them how to think, speak, engage socially and so on. But the very first activity – painting the walls of this space – introduced a shift in their thinking, Karunakaran says. “Our first realisation was that, all our objectives aside, the kids were just happy to have a space. When we put out word that we were going to start a library, 20 kids came over on the first day. We just didn’t even have enough books! That’s when it hit me – they were just glad to have a space of their own. We decided to put all our agendas aside and let them just feel this,” she says.

Over 2,000 books – in Kannada, Tamil, Hindi and English – were raised from donors from across the world, including Goobe’s, the bookstore on Church Street, and publishers such as Tulika Books and Pratham books, among others.

Learn and grow

One of the first challenges they encountered was that many children couldn’t read (about 80 per cent in the younger group), while others were dropouts. While Karunakaran admits that they’re still working out ways to circumvent that (they might introduce a short-term reading fluency programme), they’ve dealt with it for now by becoming visual readers. This includes read aloud sessions and storytelling and discussion. They also open up the story – personalising and contextualising it to the conflict in the lives of the children, and asking them how they would react in a particular session.

A book of ghost stories for instance, led to a conversation on the existence of god, and from there to religion. Meanwhile, many non-readers are encouraged to pick up books and make their own stories, giving wing to their imagination. Karunakara cites the example of Lakshmi, who she describes as an “excellent” visual reader, who will go through five-10 books in one session; talking to the book and being dramatic. Volunteers work with specific children who seek additional mentoring. Vimala (15), for instance, likes to practise speaking in English. Stories are picked up depending on the dynamic of the class. For instance, to teach the kids about the concept of a community-led space, a volunteer read a story about planting a tree, around which a community grows. An art exercise followed that.

Lessons have been learnt along the way. For instance, the community has a huge issue with water, which has meant that attendance at the 10am Sunday sessions has dwindled. This, because Sunday morning is when the while family is roped in to fill up buckets. Attendance also fell during summer vacations, when the children were out of town, or, in many cases, forgot what day of the week it was, Karunakaran says with a laugh. “They know what day of the week it is when they have school, but forget during the vacations. In such cases, we’ve actually gone to the colony and called them,” she says. Another learning has been the need to adapt to their practical limitations. Giving the children lessons in cleanliness and asking them to shower regularly is pointless when they don’t even know what it is to have a running tap. Used to the structure of reward and punishment, the children are also taking time to understand the dynamics of this space – it can often be confusing and overwhelming. When a few kids misbehaved and tore up some books, for instance, they expected to be beaten up. Instead, they were kindly asked why they behaved the way they did. “We took a democratic vote and decided to cancel the membership of anyone who breaches the library’s rule of love towards each other and the books. That way, they learn to respect rules,” Karunakaran explains.

Looking ahead

Today, there have been subtle shifts. The kids clean up before coming to the library; the girls will pop in and come back after combing their hair. Older kids who can speak Hindi now translate for one of the volunteers, who doesn’t speak Kannada and Tamil. Then there is Vimala, who wasn’t inclined to help out at home (Karunakaran says her mother would complain that she would pretend to study and read all the time and was too lazy to help out at home) volunteers at the library. She even admitted as much in a presentation to DELL EMC (which sponsors the library), saying that she wouldn’t help out at home but after coming to the library, was “liking to help”. They are visible too. Dressed in a green salwar kameez, Vimala is a picture of polite confidence. Reading her favourite books – The Lion and the Chameleon, Swalpa Swalpa, among others – have enriched her vocabulary and helped her translate for others too. In fact, the book Word Festival, that she read at the library, was seminal in helping her put together a presentation on the meaning of festivals for a Social Science project at school. “I got 50 out of 50 for it,” she says, beaming.

In the background, Shalini and Ajay listen agape to the story of Rani, and tell the facilitators how they feel about school. Their eyes sparkle with curiosity and mischief. After all, children are children – they deserve a room of their own.

This article was first published on The Bangalore Mirror.

Creating a safety net for the mind

Over the years there has been an alarming rise in mental health disorders in the country. According to a study conducted by the National Commission on Macroeconomics and Health in 2005, nearly five per cent of India’s population suffers from common mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety. Children make a considerable chunk of that number. They have been at the receiving end of many socio-economic changes that our society has seen in the recent past – the breakdown of the joint family, peer and parental pressure, pressure of academic performance, sudden advancement in technology, and the need to ‘fit in’ has multiplied their risks of stress, depression and other mental illnesses.

Given this, the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) has specified the appointment of one counselor in each of its affiliated schools. While the mental health community has welcomed this decision, schools on the ground are facing the dearth of trained professionals. What adds to the problem is the lack of understanding of the role of counselors in school.

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Role of a counsellor
According to the Indian Institute of School Psychology*, school counselling is a profession which: i. aims primarily to improve the academic performances of the students. ii. provides vocational guidance. iii. helps in social and personal development of the students. iv. provides the much needed bridge between parents and students. v. functions in preventive, remedial and developmental modes. vi. functions to remove barriers to development if any, in the individual or in the environment. vii. works to identify, assess , evaluate, solve or refer, if necessary, problems of students which may be behavioural, emotional, social, academic or psychological. viii. Involves the team efforts of the teachers, the parents and other school staff.

While this definition seems comprehensive, schools have not yet been able to orient themselves to accommodate such a complex role in the system. Maullika Sharma, counsellor at The Reach Clinic, Bangalore, working largely with adolescents and young adults agrees “Schools in most cases are unable to utilize their counsellors. That is largely because there is a lack of understanding of the counsellor’s role. Most counsellors land up being just another teacher and are often burdened with teaching, arts and crafts, and admin work, because the school administration feels that the counsellor has no substantial work.”

Maullika believes that the counsellor, through his/her work in the school needs to engage with all three characters of the triad – child, parent and teacher, to be able to address the larger mental health needs of the school substantially. “Parents are often confused when they are unable to understand a child’s behaviour and if abnormal behaviour persists they don’t know where to go and whom to turn to. When they are faced with diagnosis of mental illness for their child, they don’t understand the implications and often don’t know how to react or respond to best support their child. They are often overwhelmed with their own anxieties and pressures that they are unable to be available for their child when their child needs them most. Teachers, like the rest of us, maybe struggling with life’s challenges as well. In giving them access to a safe space, the chances that they will carry the impact of their life’s struggles into their classrooms are reduced. It is important to help teachers deal with their emotional baggage so that they can be more emotionally available to the students they teach. Also, counselling helps them understand the impact of their words and actions on the lives that they are helping shape.”

Teachers, who for decades have remained informal counsellors at school, feel the pressures and demands of the current educational system, and the socio-economic changes equally. White Swan Foundation (WSF), a not-for-profit organization that offers knowledge services in the area of mental health is currently involved in a project that caters to the mental health and wellbeing of anganwadi teachers. Patrecia Preetham, who manages outreach programs at WSF says, “Anganwadi teachers work with young mothers, children and teenage girls. Our initial survey for the project showed that they knew very little about mental wellness. While our primary objective was to educate the teachers about being able to inform and counsel the children and parents on their mental well-being, we realized that most anganwadi teachers themselves need help. Many came from battered families, and faced domestic violence and distress in their own homes. Since then addressing the mental health needs of the anganwadi workers has become a key element of the project.”

Reaching out
The counsellor is an expert who addresses a specific area in the school system. While it is important for counsellors to be ‘different’ from other teachers at the school, it is equally important that they are visible and accessible to students. “It is important that students understand what issues to approach the counsellor for and how to seek help. Confidentiality is key. They must come to believe that if they visit the counsellor with a problem, the other teachers, or the principal, or their parents, and most importantly, their peers will not come to know about it,” says Maullika. “For this, it is important for the counsellor to reach out to as many students personally. I would visit every classroom in their free period. I would educate them about various emotions, and how and why it is important to express them. And, emphasize on how I could help them. And after each of these classes, my diary used to be filled with appointments that the children scheduled. At the start of the academic year I would give a questionnaire to every child asking them to list out the kind of problems they are facing. The objective was not so much to get the children to respond, and most of them didn’t, but to make them aware of my presence and how and when they can seek help.” says Maullika.

Anita Rajah, Consultant, Clinical Psychologist with over two decades of experience, agrees and adds “I believe that confidentiality issues are linked to the larger atmosphere that the school system creates. If the school promotes an environment of friendship, openness, and trust, between the management, teachers and the students, this should not be a problem. If there is an authoritarian, punitive approach to the issue, then one observes the children of such schools shy away from approaching counsellors and getting help.”

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Teachers as counsellors
To fill in the large gap that exists between the demand for counsellors on the ground, and the number of trained professionals, there is a growing need for teachers themselves to be trained in counselling skills.

Anita believes that this is going to be the way forward.”Personally, I believe that all teachers need to be trained in counselling. The teacher is the first point of contact and probably has the most power over the child. So to some extent, the day to day problems and mentoring needs can be handled by them. If there is a problem that is repeated, and the teacher notices a pattern, then the teacher should have the judgment to refer the case to somebody who is more professional. More than often, that is the point of dispute – When do you refer? So a teacher may have helped a child overcome certain issues, been very supportive, but identifying that the problem is intense and the child needs professional systematic help, comes with training and experience. This is where an untrained teacher can slip.”

And the cost of such slips, like Maullika discovered, could be quite high. “A student with suicidal tendencies approached a teacher that she trusted. The teacher counselled her informally, and she felt she was able to handle the situation. She didn’t refer the child to a professional until one day it was too late”.

To have teachers who are trained to work with the school counsellors and have an understanding of the ambit of their own counselling work is crucial. “At any point about 30-40 per cent of the children in a school face some problem or the other. The ones that really require professional help are about five to seven per cent of the entire population. So in a school with a 1000 children, we are talking about 50-70 children who need expert help. This group definitely needs to be out of the ambit of the teacher,” adds Anita.

The larger question
As we diagnose children and label them in terms of their mental health and needs, there is a call to understand and investigate the larger issues that trigger such behaviour.

In a recent facebook post I read a query of a three year old’s mother who was contemplating taking a drop year for her child, but was extremely worried if that would affect his age considerations for his IAS entrance. This left me shocked and disturbed. Are these the kind of pressures and expectations that we are exposing our children to? At such an early age?

When I mention this to Anita, she says, “Regardless of academics there is a much larger social issue where children are being victimized. One is the lack of physical space. This means that there is no place for children to move around. They do not get enough opportunities to step out and breathe freely or move about freely. Because of which, some children who are more vulnerable tend to become more restless. There are others who have different paces of learning and are unable to catch up to what the school is teaching. And since the teaching method is uniform, the child loses interest and slips away, developing a secondary learning disability. A secondary learning disability is when children are unable to follow the instructions in class, for various reasons, and are not motivated or interested. They finally experience fatigue. All these are the children who get labelled. In most cases the school does not have an answer, the counsellor doesn’t have an answer and the parents definitely don’t have an answer. So we have a whole group of children who are being labelled continuously because of a system they are unable to fit into. There are very few schools that remain open to work with the children, and not against them. This I feel is the real issue”.

Even the Indian Institute of School Psychology’s definition of a counsellor, the primary focus is on “’to improve the academic performances of the students”’, while the larger need is to focus on the mental well-being of the students. The children’s access to help is still largely controlled by teachers and parents, who themselves are, in many cases, unequipped to handle such situations.

As we fill in positions of counsellors in our schools, it’s becoming important to ask: How are we going to respond to the needs of children in our school? How do we address the larger question of their mental health? What is the path will we take?

*International Research Journal of Social Sciences Vol 3.(3)

The author is an educator based in Bengaluru. She can be reached at lakshmikarunakaran@gmail.com.

This article was first published on the Teacher Plus magazine’s March 2017 issue.

 

Rendering relevance through the arts

Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learnt in school. – Albert Einstein

It’s every educator’s quest to make education relevant and meaningful. However, the challenge of a rigid curriculum based system and the threat of information overload looms not only over our students, but also our educators. A significant disadvantage of the curriculum-based approach in education is its tedious uniformity. It fails to cater to the diverse needs of the children within the classroom and is either far removed from their immediate environment and socio-economical reality or its relevance and impact on the students is left unexplored. Arts education is becoming a medium to bridge this gap and is helping educators bring relevance and immediacy to the lessons they teach.

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“Our school books have nothing in them that reflect our environment and everyday context of life,” says Ms. Arundhati Ghosh, Director of India Foundation for the Arts (IFA), a national, not-for-profit, grant making organization that supports practice, research, and education in the arts in India. ‘Arts education enables students to understand who they are, where they come from and what relationship they have with the world around them. It also helps them ask questions and challenge their lived experiences – make them not good citizens but critical citizens of this democracy.’

IFA’s Arts Education programme is one of their oldest grant making programmes, and probably the only one in the country that offers grants to government school teachers. In its initial years, the program made a series of wide-ranging grants on a national scale to artists seeking to promote arts in classrooms. However, by 2008 the program was revised to place the ‘school teacher’ at the centre of the program.

Ms. Ghosh reflects on this decision, “It was felt that teachers are key change makers in the school system. They are the pivots. Ask anyone who has been the greatest influence in their lives, or who has inspired them and the name of some teacher in their lives many years ago will emerge. Teachers are the door openers of our minds in so many ways. Thus we felt that if we were to make arts education work, we must focus on the teacher – with training and grants. We need to equip them to do what they do best – make learning a journey full of the joy of curiosity.”

This thought led to the birth of the Kali-Kalisu program, a pilot project that showcases good practices and the larger possibilities for arts education within the schooling system in Karnataka. Over the last five years, the programme has focused its energies and resources on arts-based training for teachers from government schools and has been enabling interesting work to enhance project ideas at grassroots level. “Arts education fosters an understanding of the self and the other by collective experiences of making art. Especially in government schools that lack infrastructure, facilities, teachers and all other amenities, arts education can provide a semblance of spirited explorations into learning,” adds Ms. Ghosh.

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Apart from the grant, IFA conducts Master Resource Persons (MRP) training programmes across the state, covering 17 districts in South Karnataka and 17 in North Karnataka. “One of the main objectives of the program is to focus on local themes, folk art, and culture,” says Mr. Krishna Murthy, Program Manager of the Arts Education Program. “Interaction with their local community and the challenges the community is facing is another important aspect,” he adds.

Mr. Mallesha M, a grantee from Kalghatki, Dharward Dist, used the arts to create awareness about the social and cultural issues that surround the school and the community, with a particular emphasis on female absenteeism and child marriage. “While I worked with the children, I realized that it was important to get parents on board. In the previous years, we would go door to door and talk to the parents. We changed that. We brought all the parents to a common place. Through the grant and with the children in the lead, we started an awareness program in the village,” says Mr.Mallesha. He organized his students into a variety of art clubs, such as literature, drama, and cinema, and steered them towards gathering knowledge and information about school-related issues with the help of external resources. This was followed by the clubs working independently and with each other to shape art-based interventions, such as creating a script and staging a play, or screening a film, to directly engaging with the larger community through an arts camp.

Mr. Sadanand Byandoor, a teacher from Government High School, Kundapur, Udupi has been a recipient of the Kali Kalisu Master Resource Persons Training in 2010. Through the grant he took up poetry and through innovative modes, made studying poetry an experiential and sensory engagement that brings alive the essence and spirit of poetry. “I was always interested in working with children on poetry, but we government school teachers find very little financial support for such interests. This grant helped me realize this project.” In addition to the poems in the textbooks in Kannada, Hindi, and English which students have to learn, Mr. Byandoor drew up another list of poems in Kannada from across the years to give students exposure to the wide variety of and rich language traditions in Kannada. “We spent hours after school reading and discussing poetry. Initially, I realized that the children couldn’t connect or relate to many of these poems. The language was dense, the contexts were different. I then started to break them down into simple stories, connecting them to local happenings and characters that they could relate to. Soon, things changed,” says Mr. Byandoor.

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He invited poets, writers, singers, and theatre artists to conduct workshops on discussing, reading, and performing poetry in ways never done before in the school. “I am not sure how much poetry my students will practice in the future, or how many of them would become poets themselves or retain interest in poetry. But one thing is for sure, they have learnt to ask questions. They have learnt to think about what they read, and that skill, hopefully, is for a lifetime.”

The challenges are many. “One of the biggest challenges is in the mindset of most educators, who see art as ‘extra-curricular’, as something that is threatening to ‘real’ education. Reaching out to government school teachers, especially the rural areas is no mean task. That is why the trainings conducted in the various districts are important. During the trainings we sensitize teachers to this approach to teaching and learning and the resources that are available to them to take it further,” says Mr. Murthy. The lack of infrastructure and support is another ongoing challenge.

What after the grant period is over? Do the teachers continue the practice? Ms. Ghosh says, “The challenge is as always sustainability of the work that these brilliant teachers do. How do we ensure more support from governments? How can their work influence and transform the archaic ways of pedagogy of our schools? How do we ensure that arts education plays a role in the training of teachers? I am reminded of the famous Pink Flyod song here – how do we ensure that arts education frees us from creating another brick in the wall through our education systems?”

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Though the challenges are many, the applications for the grant have been steadily growing. “What amazes me is that with such limited resources teachers can transform learning and with that the lives of thousands of students. Their passion and commitment to their vocation will inspire even the most cynical. That understanding and learning about arts and cultural practices around us, in our communities, in our quotidian environment can be so enriching. That in the stories of our grandmothers and the songs of our ancestors, in our work fables and the ritual decorations of our homes, in our languages and our diverse cuisines – lay bodies of knowledge that can equip us to imagine our futures. That through arts education we learn to ask questions about our present lives, social injustices, economic instabilities and political motives. That through arts education we gain a sense of who we are, what our values are, the kind of lives we intend to live. We have also discovered that it’s a junoon once you get into the journey – there is no stopping,” says Ms. Ghosh.

Clearly, there is a need to take on board the fact that despite all hurdles there are government school teachers who are committed to their work, and want to enrich the lives of children that they work with. And that they are in need of support and guidance.

The author is an educator based in Bengaluru. She can be reached at lakshmikarunakaran@gmail.com.

This article was first published in the Teacher Plus Magazine’s December 2016 issue.

 

 

 

Who is your enemy?

This article was first published on Teacher Plus Magazine, March 2016

Faisal Abu Alhayjaa, speaks about his journey with Freedom Theater, the lessons he learnt from his mentors and how working with children has healed him.

It was in Germany last year that I first heard about the Freedom Theater. I was talking to Palestinian friends about the Intifadas, and the role of children in the movement of resistance. Their stories had left me shaken. I didn’t sleep peacefully for a many days.

Palestine has been under occupation for over 67 years. Children have been the most affected by the ongoing conflict. Arna Mer Khamis, through her unique initiative, Care and Learning, used theater and art to address the chronic fear, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder experienced by children in Jenin Refugee Camp after the first Intifada. Later she set up the Stone Theater for the children, which was destroyed during the Israeli invasion of the refugee camp in 2002. In 2006, Arna’s son, Juliano Mer Khamis revived her dream and set up the Freedom Theater. The theater aims to generate cultural resistance through the fields of popular culture and art as a catalyst for social change in the occupied Palestinian territories. Its goal is to develop a vibrant and creative artistic community that empowers children and young adults to express themselves freely and equally through art.

Early this year, I was excited to know that Freedom Theater was in India to collaborate with Jan Natya Manch, JANAM, India’s own radical theater group. As a part of this collaboration, they toured through the country performing their play, ‘Hamesha Samida’. After I saw their play in Bangalore, I spoke to Faisal Abu Alhayjaa, director and actor at the Freedom Theater.  Here is an excerpt from the interview.

Faisal, let’s start with your journey in theatre. How did you choose theatre, or rather how did theater choose you?

I like that expression ‘theater chooses you’. I believe art in general, not only theater, but also film making, writing, storytelling, dance, singing and so on, it’s the art that chooses you. My story with theater started when I first saw the film Arna’s Children, which is a documentary about a theater group in the Jenin refugee camp in Palestine. I think I saw it in 2004. While I was watching the film, I realized that one of the children featured in the film was my cousin – Ashraf Abu Alhayjaa. I was thrilled that one of my family members was in the film. In a scene in the film Juliano Mer Khamis, the director of the theater, asks my cousin “Ashraf, what is your dream?” And Ashraf replies “My dream is to be a Palestinian Romeo”. In the second scene of the film, I saw Ashraf being killed during the invasion of Jenin refugee camp in 2002. I was shocked. I knew I was not watching fiction. It was not a Bollywood or Hollywood film. This was reality. At around the same time, this thought was seeded in me – I want to be a Palestinian Romeo too but I don’t want to be killed.  So that is how I started to dream about being in theater.

Do you remember your first day at the Freedom Theater?

Yes.

 How was it like?

I remember it clearly. I was very scared to go to the theater. It was 2006 and we were still in the Intifada. All the talk around me was about martyrs. It was a time filled with pain, disappointment and hopelessness. And I remember, when the Freedom Theater course started, a lot of rumors had spread about it – that they will bring foreign culture, they will rape our minds as Muslims, they will change the values of Islam, and they will have men and women together on the stage. So it was not easy for me, to walk into the theater that day. Also, I didn’t have any experience of theater or performance. I had seen some theater on TV, but I hadn’t even seen a real play yet. I remember being very confused – should I go or not. Finally, I was brave enough to go.  There I met Juliano Mer Khamis, one of the founders of the Freedom Theater. I asked him “What is this place? What do you do here?” And he replied “This is a theater school. We also have multimedia departments, film making workshops, photo exhibitions, and we teach creative writing”. I was stunned. All of this was happening in the refugee camp that I had lived in and I didn’t know about it!

So I joined the school because I was in love with theater and acting. And through these years I have realized that I am not only an actor, I am also a fighter. I am throwing stones as a Palestinian, but not on the streets. My stones are my plays, my work, and my voice. The Freedom Theater became a place where I could express myself, as a child, as an artist, as a human being.

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Faisal talks to the audience in Delhi

Faisal, tell us about those people and moments in your life so far, that you feel, changed you completely as an artist, as a person.

Juliano Mer Khamis has had a very deep impact on my life. He was a very strong and charismatic teacher and artist. I remember this incident very clearly. Initially my family didn’t support me and my work. Juliano’s mother was an Israeli Jew, so there were a lot of speculations on the motives of such a program. And of course, for my family what I was doing was haram, forbidden. And then something changed when they saw me on stage. I remember, we were performing the play Animal Farm. It was the first professional production of the theater school. I was playing the horse, Boxer. We had adapted the play in the Palestinian context. It was a big production and there were many challenges. There was a lot of pressure and I used to cry a lot. We were pushed to deliver our best. And just before going on to the stage, when there was so much apprehension, everyone was on their toes, nervous; Juliano came to the back stage and said something that has stayed with me. He said “Faisal, the audience don’t know the play. So if you make any mistake, the audience will feel that it is the play. And you will still exist” This was life changing for me. Because sometimes as an artist we tend to worry about what other people think about us. We feel we are playing to an audience and we need to please them. But I realized that, when an artist becomes merely a audience pleaser, it will be his end.

So we performed the play, and it went very well. At the end of the play my brother came to me and said “You know Faisal, if we bring a hundred politicians to talk about Palestine, it would be so boring. They would give us a headache. But through your play, we were so inspired that we could see ourselves on stage” My family’s biases against me and my work, had changed in an hour, through a play! And that’s when I realized the power of this medium.

Juliano, he taught me another important lesson about time. Once, one of us came in late for a rehearsal. Juliano walked up to him and said “You know, we have been fighting through our work – we have been throwing stones, fighting to protect our camp, our city, ourselves. And you are the one who is responsible to protect our camp. But you didn’t come; you didn’t turn up on time, while the rest of us did. So what is your excuse for this?” That is when I realized that what I am doing is not merely theater. My work is connected with the resistance, and he showed me the importance of time and disciple. This has inspired me to give myself completely to the stage.

Faisal, you joined the theater as a young artist and over the past few years have been training other students on stage tell us about your experience of teaching children at the theater.

I think Freedom Theater, pulls the children out of their lives filled with violence. It gives them the space to look at themselves, from a distance.  When I joined the theater, I began to realize how important my work is. And I believe that it is important to feel what you are doing is important. And you have to find the reasons as to why it is important. I feel if you are affected by theater, then it’s your responsibility to send this message to the new generation.  Just like the way I was affected by Ashraf in the film. It was just the one scene in which Ashraf speaks about his dream. It changed my life. I wondered how many Ashrafs are there in the Jenin refugee camp? How many Ashrafs are there in Palestine? How many Ashrafs are there in the world? Ashrafs who have dreams, but they don’t have the power of choice – of the place and the situation.

The children at Freedom Theater…they are so energetic and also very crazy at the same time. They are very smart, and they understand everything. So I discuss everything with them, about the play, the stage and the entire process, while giving them examples from their own lives. I realize all the examples of their lives is of freedom fighters, of martyrs, of violence, of pain, of disappointment. But you need to give the child the space to look back and say “But here, in this place…things are a little different”.  We need to give them the space and time to look at other stories, from other contexts, other colors…other messages. In our curriculum in the school, the first year is spent with each student engaging with this question ‘ Who am I?’ It is about them discovering their identity.

I did this play with the children called ‘Who is the enemy?’ Children were asked to probe themselves and bring in material from their lives about who they thought were their enemies. The answer that we got after a very complicated process that involved writing, interviewing, discussions, improvisation, film, music – was that ‘I am the enemy’. I am my own enemy, for most limitations are rising from within me.

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Freedom theater members performing in India 

Faisal, you also mentioned that working with children has healed you. Tell us how.

A few years ago, I did this play called Tuwani. Tuwani is the name of a Palestinian village in south Hebron Hills. The circumstances are difficult in these villages. They are surrounded by Israeli colonies and there is constant tension and conflict. So the army has been pushing these people to leave. And they have been resisting this for a long time. The people of this area are mainly shepherds and farmers. Many times the Israeli army poisoned their sheep, destroyed their farms. I used to visit this community to perform plays. One such time the children narrated a story to me, an incident from their life that I would like to share with you.

One day, a few years ago, the children in Tuwani decided to have a summer camp. There were 30  to 40 children between the age group of 7 yrs to 14 yrs. But the children didn’t know what a summer camp was. The only thing they knew was that summer camps happen in beautiful places. So there was a mountain in front of the colonies and the children decided to have their summer camp there. Then they cleaned up the place, made it look nice, pitched their tents and brought a lot of tyres. In fact they brought hundreds of tyres and painted them with Palestinian flags. And so they prepared the space beautifully.

After some time, one of the Israeli settlers came and stole one of their tyres. The children noticed that. Then the children, without thinking, very spontaneously, had a demonstration through the colonies. And to enter the colonies in Palestine is very dangerous because there is security, there is army, there are bombs. But the children, marched fearlessly on the streets shouting ‘We want the tyre… We want the tyre’.   Soon their families heard the noises, and they came running to warn and bring back the children. But when they realized what was happening and when they heard the slogans, they joined them. Soon there were many more people marching and shouting ‘We want the tyre… We want the tyre’. Then the Israeli army came, with the police and the management. There were hundreds of soldiers, with guns. They started to say that Palestinian terrorists were attacking the colonies. But then they noticed that they were just children, demanding a tyre!

So after a lot of negotiation with the children, they tried to convince them to go back to their side. But the children stayed and shouted ‘We want the tyre…we want the tyre’. But the army refused. They said they don’t have any tyre. The children had noticed that the one who had stolen the tyre was a rather chubby man. And the children knew him well. So they started to shout again ‘We want the tyre. We want the tyre. It’s the fat guy, the fat guy, the fat guy, who has taken it’ The situation became almost comical, and a few people started to laugh. The officers became annoyed and they said “Guys, these are just kids, and they want a tyre! Give them any damn tyre!” So they brought out a tyre and gave it to the kids. The children realised that it was not the same tyre. So they said, we don’t want this tyre, we want our tyre with the Palestinian flag on it. So the chants continued ‘We want the tyre … we want the tyre’. Finally, the soldiers became tired and the children got their tyre back. Then the procession continued towards the mountain, with the tyre as the trophy. And the children chanted ‘We got the tyre back…we got the tyre back’

So when I heard about this story from the children, I was very amazed by this kind of resistance. I grew up in a refugee camp and I knew how dangerous this could have been.  I asked them “Why is this tyre so important for you? It’s so easy to find a new one on the streets. If you lost one, you have so many others. In fact, you have hundreds of them” Then one of the children replied “Today is the tyre… tomorrow it will be the mountain. Now they know that they cannot even take a tyre from us. So they will not be able to kick us out from here”

I was so inspired by this story that it became one of the main stories of the play, Tuwani. And I swear, every time we reach that scene where the actors shout the slogans, the entire audience is up on their feet shouting ‘We want the tyre’. So when you these children, who are in such tough circumstances of occupation, of prison, of death yet find the strength to fight for their rights… they make me re-look at my own life. And all my troubles and problems seem so trivial. For me they are my heroes. They heal me.

*******

Juliano Mer Khamis, Faisal’s mentor, and one of the founders of the Freedom Theatre was assassinated in Jenin on 4 April 2011 by masked militants. Faisal and his colleagues at the theater continue to take his vision and legacy ahead.

Note: This interview was first aired on Teaching and Learning Moments’ second season in March 2016. Teaching and Learning Moments with Teacher Plus is a program on education and various aspects of teaching and learning in and outside the classroom and it is brought to you in Collaboration with Bol Hyderabad, a  campus based community radio channel in Hyderabad Central University.

You can listen to the complete interview here

The Heartwarming Journeys of Two Single Mothers Who Adopted Daughters

This article was first published on The Better India Blog on 22 April 2016

On the outside, Suja Warrier and Malini Parmar have a few obvious things in common: both are single and successful women living in Bengaluru, they have had long corporate careers, and are passionate environmentalists and waste warriors. But look more closely and you will see how they have not only taken the road less travelled in their professional lives, but also in their personal ones.

 Suja Warrier and Malini Parmar are both single mothers to adopted daughters.

Suja and Malini mothers of adopted daughters

Suja and Malini speak candidly about their heart-warming journeys into motherhood, and how it’s high time that our society goes beyond the conventional definition of a family.

How the Journey Began

Suja: In 2004, after the devastating tsunami, I travelled to Nagapattinam with a bunch of volunteers. We were there to help out with the relief work. While most of my colleagues left in a few days, I decided to stay back alone. Eventually, I found many other people like me. It’s there that I met some of the finest minds. Something about that experience changed me forever. It changed my perspective of how I related to myself and others in life.

Since then, while working with the corporates, I built my life around social projects – largely what I call volunteer driven, zero budget projects. Through this time, I lived alone. At some point I decided to sponsor a child for her education. I started doing that and in sometime felt like it was not enough. I wanted to adopt a child.

At that point, I knew this was a radical decision to take. Knowing that I came from a very traditional family, I knew I would not gather support from them. But yet, I had made up my mind and my journey towards motherhood began.

Malini: I was about 26 years old when I heard about Sushmita Sen adopting a daughter. And she was a single mother. I was very inspired by this. I thought it was a wonderful way to build a family. Around the same time I started to volunteer a lot with programs that were benefiting children. So I was always in the company of children. But yet, I couldn’t take the next step. I struggled with the thought of adoption, but until I thought I was doing it as a favour to someone else, I couldn’t proceed. As I started reading up about adoption, about being a single parent, I discovered that I wasn’t doing any favour.  Adoption was my need. And that is when my adoption journey began. 

Becoming a Mother

Suja: I must say that my adoption journey was not an easy one. For one, I was a single parent and the processes were not as streamlined as they are today. Also, I lived alone and I didn’t have much support from my family. Given the situation, the adoption agencies recommended that I support a child who already lives in an institute. But I had made up my mind; I wanted my child to be with me, in my home. Finally, I met Ms Usha Pilla who helped me with this process. She travelled with me to Lathur, Maharashtra and that’s where the search for my daughter began. From Lathur I went alone to Udgir. Aftre a sleepless night I reached Udgir , visited many adoption agencies and met several children. Many of these children were not even available for adoption because the legal processes were not complete. I found my daughter there. And I called her Ameya – the boundless one. After a tough journey of over 24 hours in buses and trains, Ameya and I walked into an empty house.

The first few weeks were tough on both of us. Ameya did not connect to her new name and she held on to me all the time, fearing that I would abandon her. On the first day, I had left the house just for a few minutes to fetch groceries from a nearby shop, and when I returned she was crying loudly.

“I realized how she had trusted me, almost completely, though I was a complete stranger to her. Sometime in between all this, I realized that I had become a mother,” says Suja.

Suja Warrier and adopted daughter Ameya

Malini: I had been researching for three years; talking to my mother, sister, and friends, and preparing myself for the process of adoption. And then, in December 2008, I remember while meditating, I felt some one call out to me and say ‘Mama, come quickly’. I took that as a cue, and by April I registered for adoption.

I had decided to adopt a healthy sibling pair; girls between the ages of three and five. The agency said they had found a match and I left for Orissa. When I reached there I realized the children I came there to meet were already being adopted by someone else.  Initially, I was disappointed, but then I felt if they are my children they would come to me.

My daughters were the first children I saw and met at the agency. And I completely fell in love with them. I named them Tara and Lila. I spent over a week with them and the other children at the agency before bringing them home.

That’s when I realized that I had done a lot of research around adoption, especially single parent adoption, but had done none on parenting. I brought my daughters home in July 2009 and I stayed at home with them for 6 months.

“The initial days were tough, I had no idea about parenting, we spoke different languages, but we got through it pretty well,” says Malini.

Malini with her adopted daughters

Talking to the Children About Adoption

Malini: When I adopted my children, they were two and a half and four and a half years old. Every evening we would read stories and I would use fairy tales to introduce the concept of adoption. So it was revealed to them very gradually. Today, I see them as children who are open about their lives and in fact very comfortable with it.

Suja: I also started talking to Ameya quite early and introduced the topic gradually. Recently, there was a talk in class about adoption and Ameya came back from school and told me that she felt proud to be an adopted daughter. I think we underestimate our children. They are way more mature than us.

Breaking the Myths About Single Parent Adoption

  1. You can only become a mother if you give birth

Malini: My children are born from me; they are born from my heart, not my womb. I feel a great connection with my children, and the fact that we are together as a family today is a part of the plan of the universe. We were meant to be together.

Suja: I feel a very strong connection with Ameya. We both are so tuned into each other that we know what the other is thinking and feeling. It’s indescribable this connection. Yes, she was born from my heart- and it didn’t take nine months, but three and a half years.

  1. A family needs to have a father and a mother

Malini: I think the definition of family is changing as we speak. And we, as a society, need to accept this. We have had a history of joint families, but yet when we speak about urban families we consider it as a unit with father, mother and children. This is a very western concept. So when my children present their family tree it’s very different from the others – my mother is a part of it, so is my sister, and there are many others. So my children’s family trees always have many more members than their friends. And they are very happy and proud about that.

  1. Adopted children come with bad genes

Malini: I don’t subscribe to this idea at all. But sometimes I feel my kids have got better genes than me. Tara is a born athlete, I can’t run to save my life. Lila is a gymnast; I probably have the most inflexible body. They both are very competitive and we are hoping that they reach the Olympics. With my genes, that wouldn’t happen.

Suja: Ameya is extremely creative and very talented. And she can already speak six languages. I agree. Ameya definitely has better genes that what I could have given her.

     4. Adopted children go back to their birth parents

Malini: I have not felt threatened by these thoughts. See, I believe that my children’s family will grow. They will build strong bonds with many people through their lives. And I am only going to be happy about that. I want them to love and be loved.

Also, we have agreed as a family that when Tara is 18 and Lila is 16 we will go back and try and find their biological parents.

Suja: Yes, Ameya once told me that she wanted to go back and find her biological mother. And I told her that when she grows up she can, and I will go back to look for her biological mother. This thought has never worried me. Ameya and I share a unique bond. That I know.

Listen to the complete interview here: