Project India: The Comeback Kids

Family Portrait: Rizvan, Rihan and Faizan with their parents before leaving for school.

Dehradun, India

Rizvan Praveen is a charmer. He may be too young to be fully aware of his allure, but his irresistible smile, warm brown eyes and happy disposition could take this sweet-natured 15-year-old a long way in life.

Or maybe not.

Rizvan faces formidable challenges in becoming successful in life. His family, which includes younger brothers Rihan, 12, and Faizan, 10, live in the worst slum in Dehradun,

Rizvan often smiles when he pleases his tutor.

a city of 575,000, located six hours north of New Delhi by train. All the boys are about two years behind in school, their father is unemployed and the family’s only income comes from a part-time job their mother holds cooking lunch for local government bureaucrats.

The family lives in a two-room house built from loose bricks, largely stacked without mortar and held together by gravity and a prayer. The roof is made from plastic sheets and one room has a dirt floor. The family of five all sleep in one bed and there is no electricity or running water. Like many people in their neighborhood, they live on the banks of a river that provides polluted water for drinking, bathing and waste disposal.

To be sure, the brothers are at risk of falling hopelessly behind and being condemned to life in the slums. But there is a silver lining of hope for the Praveen family that comes from a local non-governmental organization (NGO) called Astitva. The NGO has been successful in getting the boys enrolled in public school and is providing an intensive tutoring program so they can get caught-up with their peers.

Astitva’s intervention stands as an example of the plentiful good-news stories many non-profit organizations have to tell about their worthy deeds. Identifying stories like this one and using strong photography and multi-media resources provide powerful tools that NGOs like Astitva can use to show their donors and other constituencies that they are fulfilling their mission.

Whether an organization is raising money or trying to influence policymakers, its staff cannot just talk about what they do. The group needs to have an effective communications strategy that shows real-life examples of what it’s doing.

Astitva is not a rich, multi-national NGO with a sophisticated communications staff. Far from it. But it does have Preeti Kirbat, Astitva’s director, who understands the power of

Astitva's Preeti Kirbat

photography. “Our donors are always saying, ‘Show us more pictures,'” she said. Kirbat was keen on hosting me for the better part of a week during February to shoot photos at Astitva under the auspices of a program sponsored by the Momenta Workshops of Washington.

I spent two weeks in India working with two non-profit organizations, creating a portfolio of images for each of them to use in their communications work. It was during my time at Astitva that Rizvan’s charming smile jumped through my camera lens and gave my heart a big squeeze. After I spent some time photographing him working with his tutor, I learned two of the other students were his brothers and that’s when I knew we might have a special story.

Kirbat’s association helps women from abusive homes become more confident and take control of their lives by helping them improve their economic standing. She found out about the family when she was approached by the mother who had heard of Astitva’s program for helping abused women.

While Astitva’s focus is on being an economic incubator for women, the organization also provides family support services so women can invest time in a job or start a small home-based business. And for the Praveen family, that meant intervening to rescue the boys from a free fall. “We have enough schools here,” Kirbat said, “but not all children are going to school.”

In addition to supporting the women, Kirbat sees Astitva’s work with children as an opportunity to end the cycle of abuse that is handed down from one generation to another. Through its youth programs, Astitva also reaches out to boys to show them they do not have to adopt the violent behavior of their fathers.

The Praveen family came on hard times a little over three years ago when the mother was hit by a car while walking alongside a road. A surgery and other medical care wiped out the family financially. And with the father out of work, they decided they did not have money to send the brothers to school and pulled them out of classes for three years.

The brothers are probably at a critical juncture in their lives. If things do not go right, they could fall further behind in school or even drop out. Kirbat worries that Rizvan is getting old enough that his father might be tempted to pull him out of school and make him work to support the family. “There is a lot of pressure to drop out of school,” she said.

The father examines his latest haul of scavenged tools.

But the things I saw were encouraging.

The brothers work hard during their tutoring sessions, each bursting into smiles each time they please one of their teachers. They seem to enjoy learning and the tutors said they are reasonably smart and learning fast. “We like English,” said Rizan, who often acts as a spokesman for his younger brothers. “Math is interesting, but it is very difficult.”

Their economic situation and standing in school have not been lost on Rizvan. He seems to understand the hard work he faces. Asked what he likes to do after school, he responded: “We have no time to play. We wash clothes and help our parents.”

Once the boys get caught up, Kirbat hopes that she can get them enrolled in a private school. That would cost about $15 a month for each child, but for the Praveen family, that is a fortune. Kirbat would like to raise scholarship money, but for now, does not know how that will happen. There also is hope the father, a mechanic, will be able to find a location to open an auto repair garage. He currently scavenges tools, keeping the best ones and selling the others.

On a recent frosty February morning, I accompanied the boys’ tutor from Astitva on her weekly visit to the family home. The Praveen family generously welcomed me so that I could take photos of the brothers getting ready for school. And even though they have

Elements of style: A shared comb and an auto rear view mirror.

little in this world, they still insisted on brewing chai tea and offering little glazed doughnuts.

The brothers start their day helping their mother with household chores. Then they each take turns washing their feet, faces and hair. After drying off, they get dressed, sporting western-looking jeans and other garments with fashionable logos. Economic circumstances aside, they are like youth the world over in wanting to look sufficiently cool in the eyes of their peers.

And so, in a final act of grooming, each of the boys takes a small pour of corn oil kept in an old plastic Coca-Cola bottle and rubs it thoroughly into their hair.

And with that, we’re ready for the walk to school.

The brothers take turns washing up before getting dressed for school.

The morning sun pours into the small home as the boys get dressed for school.

The brothers insist they take turns carrying their two backpacks. But today, it seems Rizvan pulled rank on the younger ones.

Rihan, center, puts pressure on his older brother Rizvan to produce an answer for their tutor's question.

Youngest brother Faizan is deep in thought as he seeks an answer to his lesson.



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