I have been going to the community center in New Friend’s Colony (NFC) in Delhi for the longest time. It is right next to Jamia Millia Islamia, where I am currently pursuing my Ph.D. Every college student frequents the community center. I was always greeted with a “didi” by the kids living on the streets in the area whenever I visited the place. They would ask me for colour pens or repeat their usual requests for food. I gave them neither. Yet, the conversations continued.
A Master’s degree in social work and endless interactions later, I still could not muster the courage to engage with the children beyond these small interactions. According to general opinion, working with children is easy. They are adorable, easy-to-like and return your affection almost immediately.
And street children are no different in this regard. But it can’t be denied that their stories are different. During their childhoods, they are forced to fend for themselves and for their families. Their parents can often be abusive, verbally and physically, depriving them of the emotional security that every child deserves. And this, of course, has repercussions. These experiences make them doubtful, critical and skeptical towards any warmth that is extended towards them. And that makes it doubly hard to retain their attention.
It was during the third week of interaction with the children that I finally decided to start working with them. They would often ask me “Did you bring notebooks today, didi?” And their disappointment was evident every time I responded with a polite “No”. And that made up my mind to engage with them professionally. I was already associated with the Bucket List, an organisation that works with street children, at the time, and decided to take my volunteership forward.
Honestly, they do not understand the purpose of what I do with them. Usually, I tell them a story when we meet, play some games and leave. On the good days, I am able to retain my audience till the end, when I am not disturbed by parents hurling abuses at their children. On bad days, only half of them can stick it out till the end.
It’s easy to get discouraged in this line of work. For instance, recently, I had prepared a Hindi version of Jack and The Beanstalk for the children. When I started narrating the story, some of them listened intently, while others fidgeted away with their coins or shoes. During the narration, I was joined by more children and onlookers. The story ended. And I thought it to be a good time to raise the question.
“What did you think of the story?” I asked.
“Nothing.” echoed the answer.
“Well, what did you think the story was all about?”
I was definitely very disappointed. Had my story, my attempt to teach the children something, not been of any use at all? I felt discouraged.
The next day was a Sunday and I went to the market to buy groceries. That’s when the kids came running to me.
“No padhai (session) today. I have come for my own work. It’s a Sunday!” I said.
“Don’t you have a story to tell today, didi?” they asked, their eyes twinkling.
It was at that moment that I realised that the magic of stories was working. Somewhere, even if they didn’t realise the full import of it, the children were learning from the stories, the stories were making some kind of impact on them. Needless to say, I went home a happy woman that day.
Working with street children is a lot harder that way. They are unpredictable and make for a tough audience. They do not rationalise in situations and mostly act on impulse. This is where we come in.
How many times do we really stop to look at these children with kindness at the traffic lights? How many times do we ask them about their day? Don’t we normally prefer rolling up the window, accelerating our cars a little further ahead or pretend to be busy on our phones to avoid any interaction? We even rationalise it by saying, “Not today. I’m running late.” We look through them, almost as if they are invisible.
And really, who are we to judge them for their lack of manners? No one filters their conversations around a child roaming around on the streets. No one thinks about “appropriate” behaviour in front of a child who is begging. Obviously, the children end up picking up on these behaviours subconsciously: smoking, abusing and even alcohol. They internalise these behaviours and thus the vicious circle continues. The cycle never breaks.
With my brief experience with street children, I have come up with a way of working with street children which I like to call the HELP. While many might differ with me on this, I believe that physical warmth immediately calms a child down. So if you believe a child is has a short temper, Hold their hand. Always try and Empathize with the child, try to understand where is he/she coming from. Let go when you need to, do not force them and more importantly, and be very Patient with them. Give them the time to come around.
With this, I’m sure we can effect a positive change in their lives and change their circumstances for the better. But of course, we need to be able to care first. We need to be able to acknowledge street children as children and as people. And then bring in the intervention they need.