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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Reaching the Young ‘Untouchables’

In India, a home for boys sparks a quiet revolution

It could be any traditional house in Kerala: an unremarkable single-story building with a slanted, tiled roof and narrow veranda. Scarlet flowers fall from a nearby flame tree, drifting past an open gate leading to the front door.

For dozens of young people, that door is an entryway to more than just a house. A sign in English and Malayalam, the local language, says it is the “Malankara Boys’ Home.” This is a place of possibility.

A low building in the front houses a library, sick room, kitchen, pantry, work area and classroom. A path paved with red and black tiles, chipped and broken in places, leads to a four-story building where children study, sleep and play.

Between the two buildings — each in need of fresh paint — lies a small lawn with a statue of the Virgin Mary inside a large lotus, the national flower of India, fashioned out of concrete. Here, children pray before going to school.

In this home in 1996, the Syro-Malankara Catholic Archeparchy of Trivandrum began a plan to deliver children from a vicious circle of poverty, squalor and despair.

Seventeen years later, the Malankara Boys’ Home counts more than 175 extraordinary young men as success stories, part of a growing effort to spark a quiet social revolution among southern India’s Dalits.

Dalit, a Sanskrit term, denotes the former “untouchable” groups in India’s multilayered caste system that segregates people on the basis of birth.

Although Mahatma Gandhi called the Dalit “harijan” (children of God), and the Indian constitution bans caste discrimination, those people once identified as untouchable continue to lag behind socially and economically.

But thanks in part to Malankara Boys’ Home, that is beginning to change.

“Our children have brought hope to those who are dismissed as social scum,” says the Rev. Jose Kizhakedath, a priest of the archeparchy who started the home and guided its first seven years. It is a hope that is slowly but perceptibly changing the lives of some of Kerala’s young people most in need.

It all began with priests who were appalled by what they saw in Dalit enclaves, or colonies, in the archeparchy. Dalits make up about 10 percent of the Syro-Malankara Archeparchy of Trivandrum’s 220,000 Catholics, many of them converts from decades of intense missionary activity in the region.

As the number of Catholic Dalits grew, the archeparchy decided to open several parishes for them — mostly in the far-flung and remote areas in which they lived, explains the Rev. Varghese Kodithara, who took over as the home’s director in early 2013. But when priests arrived to work at the parishes, what they saw of the Dalit way of life shocked them.

Most of the homes were single-room huts surrounded by open sewers and with no running water or latrines. In many families, parents slept in the same room with the children.

“It was worse when the fathers were alcoholics,” says the Rev. Mathew Kadakampalli, who has spent his half-century as a priest living and ministering among Dalit people.

Father Kadakampalli says children from these families often drop out of school after the third or fourth grade. “They get jobs in restaurants and other places, but soon take to drinking, drugs and bad habits that eventually ruin them,” he explains, adding that many also join gangs.

Most parents, who themselves have little education, earn barely enough to feed their families. And in those cases where fathers spend most of their earnings on alcohol, starvation and malnutrition prevail.

“You understand this drudgery only when you work in those missions,” Father Kadakampalli says. Any change, he adds, could happen only through good education and not by doling out money. The priests also realized the futility of opening schools near the enclaves that would keep the children in the same environment.

“To recover such people, a place like the boys home was needed,” says Father Kadakampalli, who bought the parcel of land where the boys’ home is located. Father Kizhakedath added another plot of land after the establishment of the home.

Father Kizhakedath says the priests devised a plan in which they would take one or two boys from the colonies, starting at age 10, and put them up in “a family atmosphere” to help them study and develop their talents.

The priests drew their inspiration from their late major archbishop, Cyril Mar Baselios, who had successfully implemented a similar plan among tribal people in northern Kerala before he became the head of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church. He envisioned assisting certain children in becoming role models for their families and neighbors.

Over the last 17 years, that is exactly what has happened at the Malankara Boys’ Home.

“The changes are quite evident in our Dalit parishes,” Father Kizhakedath says. Graduates are active and many now teach classes in their parishes. Some have been able to move to better homes or have built new houses entirely.

The priest cites the example of a boy named Saju. “When he came to us he was in the fifth grade but did not know how to write or read,” he recalls. But the discipline and support transformed him. A bright student, by the 10th grade Saju was scoring near-perfect marks on his exams.

Seeing the changes in Saju, the boy’s father was motivated to stop drinking. Eventually, he was able to build a new house and took an active role in educating his younger children. Saju himself now works as a computer engineer in Dubai.

“The atmosphere in the family changed,” Father Kizhakedath says, and soon others took notice. “Seeing them, their neighbors also started sending their children to school.”

Father Kizhakedath admits that not every child who walks through his front door becomes a thrives. Some of the children are unable or unwilling to adapt to the environment, and some leave. However, he is proud of those he could reach, pointing to young people such as Lijo Joy, a 22-year-old young man who still considers the priest his mentor.

“Here is one of our success stories,” Father Kizhakedath says proudly, during a visit with Lijo.

Lijo’s father was diagnosed with AIDS when the boy was in second grade. Out of despair, he committed suicide. By the time young Lijo arrived at the home nearly a decade later, the boy was deeply troubled.

“I was depressed,” Lijo admits. “But Father Kizhakedath and others spent lots of time counseling me.”

Lijo says he might have turned to substance abuse or crime if Father Kizhakedath had not helped him. Although the Malankara Boys’ Home admits boys only up to the 10th grade, the priest relaxed the rules for Lijo. “He allowed me to stay in the home and prepare for the two-year senior secondary school course,” he explains. In return, the teenager had agreed to work at the home doing chores. All that, he says, ultimately helped prepare him for life. His depression lifted. He found purpose and direction.

Another young man who found new focus is Saju Kumar, who spent four years at the home — up to the completion of 10th grade in 2002. “Hardly any of my childhood friends have completed high school,” he says. Lacking ambition and hope, many of them now spend what little they earn on alcohol, he adds.

Mr. Kumar says the Malankara Boys’ Home has taught him the value of hard work. “It also instilled in me a spirituality that keeps God as the center of all my activities and a sense of social responsibility to help those less fortunate,” he says.

The 26-year-old is now a social worker at an addiction center.

For having helped him change his life, he now plans to support the boys’ home in whatever way he can, so it can “continue to serve more people like me.”

Although he is no longer in charge of the home, Father Kizhakedath continues to raise money for it, enabling his successors to focus on the children. Father Mathew Charuvukalayil, who joined the establishment four years ago and now assists the director, says children still arrive with obstacles to overcome. “Some come with a desire to study, but the rest are really confused.”

In most cases, he notes, it is the mother who brings the boy; often, the father is preoccupied with an addiction.

“The mother wants her son to escape the fate of his father and friends,” says the priest.

In light of their removal from their familiar setting, the priority is to provide the children “a real family atmosphere.” Helping the priest in this is a married couple, Shobhana and Joseph Lalibhawan, who serve as the home’s cook and gardener, and who also act as surrogate parents for all the boys.

“The boys go to them whenever they require something. They treat them as if they were their own children,” Father Charuvukalayil says.

Shobhana came to the home five years ago and her husband Joseph joined her two years later, after their own children were grown. Joseph, who had worked earlier as a catechist in Dalit missions, says he and his wife closely observe the children and offer them timely advice and guidance.

Father Charuvukalayil says they organize regular talks on values, ethics and social behavior. The children also participate in the life of the local parish. They take part in parish activities, attend catechism classes, join organizations and assist as altar servers.

Such experience is even leading to vocations. Two older boys have entered the seminary; one is studying to be a priest for the archeparchy and another has joined the Bethany Fathers, a monastic community of the Syro-Malankara Church.

The home is steeped in Christian values and Catholic teaching. But as with much of Indian society, it dwells side by side with other faiths — literally. The home is located between two family homes, one Hindu the other, Muslim. D. Vijaya Kumaran, the Hindu neighbor, and Nazim Ibrahim, the Muslim neighbor, have been associated with the home from the beginning, with Mr. Kumaran’s two sons and Mr. Ibrahim serving as tutors for the boys.

Mr. Kumaran, a retired bureaucrat, describes the Malankara Boys’ Home as “one of the best institutions in the area.” Mr. Ibrahim, a Kerala State Transport Corporation official, hails it as a “model” for those trying to help the poorest of the poor.

Mr. Kumaran says he has seen an amazing transformation in the home’s children.

“When they first arrive, they are timid and withdrawn,” he says, noting that such behavior is to some extent culturally instilled in people coming from backgrounds with lower social standing. “But by the time they leave, they are ready to face any challenge in life,” the 69-year-old upper-caste Hindu explains. He commends the home’s priests for giving individual attention to the children.

Through tutoring the children, Mr. Ibrahim has become well acquainted with the environment.

“To be honest, I am jealous of these children,” he says, noting that the home provides them with “good food, good sleeping facilities and every type of entertainment” that even his middle-class family could not afford when he was a teenager.

The two neighbors say one sure sign of the Malankara Boys’ Home’s vitality and importance to the community is something you do not notice until summer vacation. The village, they admit, becomes quiet when the children are away. “They are the life of this area,” Mr. Ibrahim says.

This year, 11 boys are attending high school, which is made up of grades eight to ten. The rest are in upper primary school, grades five to seven.

The boys today follow almost the same routine Father Kizhakedath devised nearly two decades ago, a schedule designed to instill discipline and order in boys who may have known little of either.

Their day begins as early as 5:30, and follows a regimen of study, morning prayer and breakfast. The dining hall has four tables and eight benches for the children, while priests and guests sit on plastic chairs at a corner table. After each meal, the children come to Father Kodithara to show their empty plates. “We continue this practice for some time until they learn not to waste food,” he explains.

The rest of the day consists of prayer and study. Evenings include tea, games and homework before going to bed no later than 10.

This strict routine has helped the boys to excel. “They are in the forefront of all school activities,” says I.R. Leena, a teacher in the upper primary school. According to her, the students from the boys’ home are “so clean and disciplined” that “nobody would believe they are from very poor families.”

Surveying the achievements of Malankara Boys’ Home over the last 17 years, Father Kizhakedath knows there is still more work to be done — that the home’s mission is far from finished. “It would take 50 years or more for our plan to impact society fully,” he says.

But thanks to the support of CNEWA’s benefactors, he continues to hold out hope that his vision will be realized, and that more boys will walk through that open gate in Kerala, finding their way to a future that once seemed untouchable.

Jose Kavi writes about social and religious issues in India from New Delhi.

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