My name is Mamoon Akhtar. I grew up, and still reside, in a slum in India called Tikiapara. It’s in Howrah, across the river Hooghly from Kolkata. I love this place, and the people in it, and I’m trying to do what I can to help the people here, especially the children.
My real involvement began in 1999, when I was 29 years old. A little boy came to my house asking for help. A druglord was beating his mother because she refused to sell drugs for him. My friends and I were able to get him to stop, then I asked the boy what he wanted to do. He said he wanted to learn how to read. So I invited him to come over to my house where I would teach him to read. When he showed up he brought five other children with him. And that was how it all began. With a lot of help from my good friends in the community and people like you, we have made a real difference, but what drives me on is that there is still so much we can do.
Samaritan Help Mission: Summary
Right now we have three small schools teaching over 450 students in the Tikiapara slums of Howrah District (near Kolkata), West Bengal, India. We are in the process of starting another school in a very poor district called Bankra, where the children all work making the paper rolls that thread is wrapped around. They don’t attend school at all, because there are no schools there. All of the children we help live in dangerous areas where there are drug peddlars and other criminal activities. Adults are rickshaw drivers, labourers, house workers and factory workers. Many children work in dirty, dangerous conditions with harmful chemicals and so on. Without education they have no future, or at least a very bleak future.
As the years went by, I began to realize that to help children you can’t just adopt the child, you must adopt the whole family. Recently, we started some programs for the local women, who would otherwise be forced to work in menial jobs, . We teach dressmaking, embroidery, fabric painting and cosmetology. We also teach computer skills (with donated computers) to girls and young women. All of our teachers are volunteers–students from local high schools and colleges, who are paid only for their expenses (though we hope to change this someday soon).
Teaching Religious Tolerance: Helping Each Other
One of the things that is very important to me at the schools is to teach children of all backgrounds and faiths to work together and support each other, and to help all of the women in the community equally. Our motto is to “help people on need, not on creed.” I am happy to say that, just recently, our school was recognized for its leadership with integration with an important award. The population of the community is 80% Muslim and 20% Non-Muslim (my background is also Muslim, though I support the great teachings of all faiths. At the core of all great teachings is compassion and caring for others.). In fact, we have had to face some resistance from the extreme side of the religious community. Not everyone supports secular teaching. Fortunately there are also many community members who do support our work. Education is important, because in the vacuum created by a lack of education, Muslim children are easy targets for religious fanatics. We want all children to join their neighbours, regardless of background, to build a better and more prosperous India together.
Why I Care: I Was Forced to Leave School at Age 14
One of the reasons why it’s so important to me to help children is because, when I was 14, I was forced to leave school. My father had lost his job so I couldn’t pay the fees. A year later my father died. I had to work in a shoe factory then an iron factory to support my family. And none of this was easy because I had polio when I was 12 and it damaged the function of my left hand. While working, I continued my studies part time and managed to eventually complete my grade 12. Still, I worked as a labourer until 1999. At that point I was very fortunate to be offered a job in a local library. The man running the school was impressed with my community work. This job allowed me to work only four hours per day, leaving enough time to also run the school. Of course, the pay was not much, but it was enough, and I used half my salary to run the school.
Our teachers are one of our greatest resources. They are local college and high school students who come to teach on a volunteer basis (we do pay a small honorariam so they can continue their own education). Without their commitment, it would not be possible for our schools to help as many children as they do! The Volunteers are from every caste, and have a deep love of the children.
Our mission is help every child we can to become educated and literate, so they will have a real future and be able to support their families and communities. Also, by educating all the children, we can slowly begin to eradicate the drug problem in these ares, that exist only because there are no other opportunities. We also want to help girl children in particular to have a strong future, and women so they will be able to care for themselves and their families with dignity.
We have achieved quite a lot in only a few years. But I have very big dreams! I want to help many more children, and many more in the community. I know this will not happen fast, but if we come together in different ways, through learning partnerships and other partnerships, I believe we can change the lives of many children for the better. I hope you will join me in this dream!