Father Thomas Koshy is executive director of the Navajeevan Bala Bhaven, or "New Life Children's Home." Here he talks with FRONTLINE/World reporter Gita Pullapilly about how the program to wean India's poorest children from a life on the streets got started. He also describes the realities, setbacks and ultimate rewards of working with the most vulnerable in society.
Father Thomas Koshy
Gita Pullapilly: Where did you grow up?
Father Thomas Koshy: I grew up in Kerala, which is where I came to know about the schools and institutions of Don Bosco. After high school, I wanted to get into the Don Bosco [order]. I was selected to join the preseminary stage [the apostolic school]. I was almost 15 at the time, and when I got there I was further impressed by the work of the order and its style of caring for young people. I must say there was no turning back at that moment. I was gripped by the love, family spirit, joy and optimism that Don Bosco was able to bring into the lives of young people and into mine. I became a Salesian of Don Bosco in 1969 at the age of 19. That's when I made it my profession and took the vows to become part of the Salesian order. I always wanted to do something for young people. The poor and downtrodden have always been in my heart. My friends have added to this inspiration and have become my great companions in the seminary.
When did you start working with children?
Later, as a student in theology, I was able to work with bonded laborers [people who work for no salary, in order to pay off a debt], and we were part of the team that helped release them from bondage. It was the greatest learning experience for me to be working with the poor. I learned a lot from them, more than what I could have learned from books and in classes.
What brought you to Vijayawada?
After my ordination, I worked in several places and came to Vijayawada in 1989. That was when the [city's] administration invited us to start working with kids on the street. They were impressed with how the Salesians were working with street kids in the city of Cochin. The mayor of Vijayawada had visited the Cochin project, and he was so enthused by what he saw there that he offered us a place to begin a shelter. So right from the start, we are working with the city and had support from other people around. That's how Navajeevan Bala Bhaven got started.
Father Thomas Koshy has helped more than 25,00 children get off the streets.
There are very few Catholics in Vijayawada. How much of a role does religion play in your organization?
I learned early on that everyone has to be behind this work if we are to make it a success. Therefore, I had to play down the organization I am part of. I said "OK, I am here; I was sent by the organization, but we want everyone to come together." There was no need to talk about the fact that I am a Christian, Catholic missionary. What was more important was to bring people from various backgrounds and religions into this work. It is not only working with street kids that come into the shelter that's important, it is changing the mindset of all people in the city. We needed to create awareness in everyone about the problems of the kids -- that they need to be kind and good to these children no matter how dirty they might look on the street.
But do you try to convert the children to Christianity?
No, not at all. This is not the place to do this. It would not be right at all. The welfare and well-being of the child is what we are all concerned about. We believe in bringing up the children in their own faith. But the care and concern is to give them a better, a new life -- a life where they can become better and honest citizens. If they become useful citizens, useful to themselves and useful to society, then we have reached our goal.
What are some of the dangers that street children face?
They could be victims of abuse by adults who are prowling around, waiting for someone to pick up -- some kid. Sometimes they can be sexually abused, assaulted by older fellows. Senior street kids can even victimize younger ones on the street, and they can lose the precious little they have gathered.
The number of boys on the streets generally outweighs the number of girls by 10 to 1.
Why are there more boys on the streets than girls?
It's easier for a boy to leave home than a girl. The boy feels confident he can survive outside, and he is more ready to take the adventure. But the girl, in the context of India, is aware that she is a lot more vulnerable when she leaves home. She could be sexually assaulted, she could be a victim of violence, and she could be trafficked into commercial sex. Those fears lurk in her and prevent her from leaving home. So you find the ratio is 100 boys to a maximum of 10 girls -- even that is on the higher side.
Can you describe how your organization works?
We have a very strong presence in the street here in Vijayawada. We started a group we call "peer educators" who go out to the city to find street children. We also have another team present on the street. They are social workers who meet the children, talk to them, and invite them to the shelter. Our idea was to make the streets a friendly place for children; so the social workers are trying to make sure no harm is done to the child in the first place. The peer educators and the street presence team are crucial for our organization. This has been successful in our experience so far.
Do you think you've changed the way people look at street children now?
The initial years were hard. The police were hostile to our social workers. But we fought our way -- taking a strong stand in favor of the child. There were times when we would confront the policeman for beating up a child. We would go to their superiors and file a complaint. Now, the officers understand what we are about, and as a consequence the policemen have become friendly. But it takes time. We're making progress. We're reaching out to street vendors, rickshaw drivers and others and asking them to work with us to protect street children. They can be our eyes, and if a child is in need they can reach out and help them and tell them about our organization.
The city, your staff and the children really connect with you and trust you. But I've also been told that some priests in your order see you as a renegade. Can you explain this?
Sure, some call me too liberal and too kind and so forth, raising the issue that I am overly kind and liberal with children in terms of the opportunities given to them. Which is OK. The model of Don Bosco, which has been a great inspiration for me, shows me that he [Don Bosco] was a renegade. In his time, he was thought to be a madman. His own priests wanted to lock him up in a center for the mentally ill. So if he were to be my model, then I am a renegade myself. His way was a way of love. He used three basic principles -- reason, love of God and loving kindness. These were the three pillars on which he built his system. And that is very deep in my heart too. I consider love and loving kindness as the most important aspect in caring for these children.
He [Don Bosco] used three basic principles -- reason, love of God and loving kindness. And that is very deep in my heart too. I consider love and loving kindness as the most important aspect in caring for these children.
Your staff says you don't turn any child away, no matter how many times they leave. Doesn't it frustrate you or upset you when they return to the streets after you've invested so much time with them?
I believe every time a child runs away and returns, he has taken a step forward. If he runs away again and comes back, he has taken a second step forward. He has made up his mind and is showing the desire and the will to come back. I would never judge a kid who goes away. I always have hope that he will come back and get on better in life.
But it must be hard when they don't come back.
It's a very hard experience to digest. You know, we try to give our best in emotional support. The child seems to respond and then, in a moment, the child is gone, back on the street or whatever. It used to drive me mad and literally depress me. But I had to find a way out of that. Being depressed was no good to anybody. So, I had to accept the reality. Ultimately, it is a choice we leave to a person, even a young person. I can't force anything on anybody. Even in the name of good. The most consoling feeling I have gotten out of this, even when there is a severe setback, is that when just a single experience for the child has been a good experience, he or she will never forget that in their life. Kids that come back, maybe after a year, have always recollected those moments. "Yes, I had a time when I felt happy here, felt wanted, accepted." That is a positive experience we have been able to share for that child.
Can you talk about how many children you have been able to reach?
In the shelter, we have received more than 25,000 children so far. Of these 25,000, we have been able to take home more than 11,000 children. That's almost 50 percent. We consider this one of our greatest achievements -- in that we've been able to motivate so many children to go back to their own families. We have educated and provided vocational training to almost 2,000 children so far. They are all settled now, living an honest life. There are also kids that have completed university education and [are] also well placed in life. These are small numbers, but still we think they are a model for what others could achieve if they want. We don't deny an opportunity to any child who has the desire to study and has higher goals in life.
Boys from the Navajeevan home.
Does that mean 25,000 children have lived at Navajeevan?
It means we've interacted with them. As I mentioned, we have helped reunite 11,000 children with their families. We believe first and foremost that if the home situation is safe, then it is best for the child to go back home to his parents. There are many cases where children leave home. They leave for reasons [that are] important at that moment but may not be really that serious. The earlier we are able to intervene and give them support, the faster [the reunion] happens and the better it is for the child.
Is it your goal to get all children off the street in a certain timeframe?
I wish that could be the case, but we must be realistic. There are strong economic reasons that tell us that this is not going to be easy in the years ahead because of the increasing economic disparity in the country. There are people who have become very rich with the advancement of information technology and computers, but a lot of people are becoming more and more marginalized. More children are going to be pushed out of their homes and villages. Life in the villages is not getting any better for the poor. We are now working to build this child safety net across the country, across every village. If this is done, then it's going to be a better deal for the children.
What is changing in the countryside?
The poorest man in the village survives on lending his hand as an agricultural laborer, working on farms. More and more of these farms are becoming mechanized. So, unskilled laborers lose a source of income, and migration to the cities becomes the only option for these people. Slums are going to be growing across the country and a steady stream of people [will be] moving into towns from villages. The first ones to be affected are going to be the children. There are already families who tell their child, "OK, find your own way, we are not able to look after you, we are not able to feed you," and he becomes part of the slum populations in the towns and cities.
What makes kids at Navajeevan so special? They all have such an air of confidence.
The kids feel they have chosen a better path because they have been performing at school pretty well -- not just academically but in general terms. When we send them to schools, the kids from Navajeevan become undisputed school leaders. They have already built their own skills from being on the street -- they are daring, bold, clear about their thinking and ideas, and it gives them an edge over the others from regular home and family backgrounds.
How does this make you feel?
I am so proud to be their father. We have many former children of Navajeevan who come back. They have shown they can be productive now. The tree that is Navajeevan has done its part -- now it is bearing fruit, not only for the tree to be happy but to serve others. These children feel proud that they are somebody now. They are recognized in society, and they show themselves as the fruits of Navajeevan and what Navajeevan has been to them.