Published in Sunday Tomes of India
August 7, 2005
By Sumati Yengkhom/TNN
Howrah: Eight-year-old Urmin looks older than her age. At this tender age she knows what’s brown sugar, the drug her father peddled for a living.
Bubbly Sabina hated the uncles who thronged her house. They wanted to buy the “stuff” from her mother. The reluctant seven-year-old helped her widowed mother wrap brown sugar and heroin in paper packets.
Hundreds of children like Urmin and Sabina have been driven to peddling drugs in Tikiapara, a slum in Howrah.
Now, however, they’ve found an alternative. For perhaps the first time in their miserable lives, they are even beginning to smile. And they owe it all to their “Mamoon” (uncle). Mamoon Akhtar has brought a slice of paradise into their hellhole of a world.
Samaritan Help Mission teaches slum kids that there is an alternative to selling drugs for a living
“If it was not for him, I would have never emerged from the hell i lived with my children,” said Sabina’s mother Reshma Khatoon. She stopped drug peddling and works as a domestic helper after Akhtar persuaded her to opt for a decent livelihood. Sabina studies in the school run by Samaritan Help Mission (SHM), a non-government organisation floated by Akhtar and his friends. Urmin’s father too has given up drug peddling and sells fruits.
Akhtar grew up in the very Tikiapara slum and was exposed to the same miseries. An incident six years ago changed his life. And that of so many others.
“One evening in February 1999, a boy came to me saying his widowed mother was being beaten by a man for refusing to peddle drugs,” he said. Akhtar and his friends rushed to the spot and got the man arrested. Sensing Afzal’s desire to study, Akhtar began teaching him. That is how SHM was born.
His friends helped him collect funds and build a room on a 600 sq feet plot he had inherited from his father in the slum. More than 400 students study here in three shifts.
SHM also provides vocational training like tailoring to girls, organizes literacy campaigns, conducts awareness programs against drug abuse and HIV. Akhtar also campaigns for family welfare.
If Akhtar has become a messiah to many, he has also earned the wrath of fanatics and local maulvis for his secular teachings and attempting to propagate family planning among women. Anti-socials have also threatened him several times for trying to cleanse the slum of drugs.
Akhtar donates whatever he earns as a librarian to the organization. Individuals donate books and stationary. Former US consul general George Sibley and his wife Lee Alison were among those who offered him monetary and moral support.