Few places in the world embody a contrast starker than India, with its vibrating colors, rich culture, legendary temples, forts, and luxurious hotels…and dilapidation and poverty. On my recent trip, which started in Delhi, this contrast was evident from the moment I landed. The following two weeks would expose me to many awe-inspiring moments, from stepping inside the Taj Mahal to feeding elephants, but what impacted me the most was just a few little faces in one of the biggest cities in the world during a tour that very first day in Delhi.
Nine children go missing a day in Delhi, a city of 20 million people. Some cases are accidental- at the crowded train stations, buses, and markets. Due to the dense population and rapid movement of large crowds, it's a common reality for children to be separated from their families. Other children are abandoned because of medical issues, sexually exploited or run away. It’s foundations like Salaam Baalak Trust that give hope to what sounds like a hopeless epidemic.
The work of Salaam Baalak Trust (SBT) started with 25 children in 1988 and now cares for 6,600 children a year. SBT has six centers throughout India, four homes for boys and two girls homes, one of which is solely for victims of sexual abuse and exploitation. 70% of the children return home at their will, while the rest are cared for and educated at SBT’s long-term centers.
In addition to providing safety and education, SBT trains the teenagers to become tour guides of their own backyards, building their confidence, improving their English and teaching them to earn a living.
On that painfully humid, sunny afternoon, our guide, Ejaz, confidently walked us through the dirt alleyways of Old Delhi, past stray dogs and produce carts, educating us on the daily lives and stories of the locals. Alongside him walked a timid guide-in-training, Pav, whose smile caught my eye and innocence won my heart.
We walked side by side and I began asking about school, life in India, and his family. The young man – no more than 16 – spoke of studying like it was a privilege, a gift he was so grateful to be given. He smiled a little wider when he told me he plans to return to his home country of Nepal and his sister.
We ended the tour at the center where a dozen boys flocked us. They sang twinkle twinkle little star and took turns taking center circle to show off their Bollywood-inspired dance moves. They were completely enamored by our iPhones and were antsy waiting for us to snap photos as they posed in our sunglasses.
And then a simple, heartfelt answer to a question a man in our group asked Ejaz: “What do you want to do after this? Your aspirations, goals?”
“I want to be a good man.”
I start to tear up from his honesty and gratitude for all he’s been given, which is nothing in a Westerner’s mind. (Had I not just complained about the weather?) The outlook Ejaz and the other boys have on their future, how much they value each other and SBT, and of course their smiles marked my memory forever.
After the walk and visit to SBT, our guides took us back to our bus. We boarded, waved through the window at their royal blue shirts shrinking down the street as we picked up speed past the teetering rickshaws.
That was probably the last time I’ll see Ejaz and Pav, but I’m confident they have bright lives ahead of them, including the big screens of Bollywood.
Salaam Baalak Trust is funded from a combination of government, international agency and tourism donations. For more information on booking a tour and visit, go to the foundation’s website.