I met Noman and his older brother Rizwan at Bal Ashram, while filming at the home for boys rescued from trafficking and slavery in Rajasthan, India. They had just arrived from Delhi and were still in a relative state of shock at their new surroundings. They looked dazed and were very quiet.
When the police rescued Rizwan, he had been working for 20 hours a day making earrings and necklaces for tourists to buy in Delhi. His trafficker, who'd kept him captive never allowing him outside, fed him poorly twice a day and would awaken him for work after 3-4 hours of sleep by burning his hands with a lighted cigarette. Rizwan's family, promised money by the traffickers, never received a cent and lost track of their son because Rizwan was never paid for any of his work.
Rizwan's little brother, Noman was brought to Bal Ashram directly from his village in Bihar, one of the poorest regions in India where farmers struggle with plots too small to support their families. Noman had not been able to go to school but worked outside the family at a neighbor's farm for 40 rupees a day, about 50 cents. His employer would beat him regularly until he was rescued by Bachpan Bao Andolan and brought to Bal Ashram.
Before a child can enter Bal Ashram, a judge must grant permission for Bachpan to move forward with the rescue. If the child has been liberated in a raid, the police will try to locate the employer who will be charged in court for violating child labor laws and forced to pay back wages to the child. This money is put in trust for the child's future. When they return home from their residency at Bal Ashram, as most of the students do, they will have some money set aside to help them adjust to a new world, they also will have an education, be schooled in ethics and know their rights... they will spread what Bal Ashram has given them as they move through life.
In Noman's case, his parents gave Bachpan staff permission for their young son to come to Bal Ashram because they wanted him to have a chance to get an education, something that was out of their reach, but that they value as the only way out of poverty for their children.
On the very first day, the first order of business is a complete medical assessment of the health of the child. In many cases where boys like Rizwan have sat doing handwork 20 hours a day for years at a time, their muscles are so weakened they can have trouble standing or walking normally. There also injuries from beatings and abuse, that leave a mark on the inside as well as the outside of a child.
At Bal Ashram, I met a remarkable woman, Alpana Rawat, who is the counselor to these children. She lives at the Ashram and while she may meet with a child privately 20 times in her capacity as a trained child psychologist, her real job revealed itself as I watched her with the children, day and night, eating with them, playing with them, helping with studies, smiling encouragement, radiating approval, offering a gentle touch.
"I want to see a smile on their faces, they have a right to smile, a right to freedom, a right to a good education."
Alpana is a magnet for these boys, most of whom haven't known maternal love. Her unconditional love made them feel safe and slowly Rizwan and Noman began to relax into their new daily routines. Their faces changed, smiles began to appear.
With 57 boys from 8 to 18, Bal Ashram starts at dawn and roars through the day with a schedule that would exhaust anyone at any age. I lost twelve pounds just filming it, let alone participating.
It starts each day with morning meditation and prayers at 5am followed by yoga and exercise, daily chores, informal schooling to prepare them for public school, cricket, music lessons and art. There is also free time, meals served with crisp efficiency and half the residents will leave each day to attend local public schools.
Bal Ashram moves to a Bollywood beat. Dance can break out at any moment and so can staff "abuse." These boys feel so safe and loved they will attack their mentors and bury them in a flesh pile, screaming and howling with laughter.
At Bal Ashram, newly arrived members of the family are celebrated at the Hawan ceremony. It begins as a ritual of fire and blessings, prayers and meditations and is led by Sumedha-Ji, the wife of Kailash who founded Bachpan with him 40 years ago and who has adopted each child here as her own.
So, on this special day as the entire family of Bal Ashram watches and cheers, Rizwan and Noman are singled out and given gifts. All present sing "Happy Birthday" with a delightful Hindi accent and flower petals fill the air. It is the day chosen to mark their birthday, the first day of their new life. It has nothing to do with their actual date of birth; it has everything to do with love and hope.