Several studies have warned that orphanages fail to cater to the psychological needs of orphan children
Rehana has no memory of her father who is not more than an image from a few photographs and stories she has heard from her relatives. Six months before she was born, her father, Abdul Razzak, was killed in a gun-battle with the Indian Army.
Razzak, a militant commander from Handwara, was killed in his hometown in 1996. After his death, the responsibility of his wife and three children fell on his old father who could no longer support his daughter and her three children from his meager income as a laborer. Rehana ended up in an orphanage.
In that same orphanage, 18-year-old Kousar Yousuf’s most prized possession is an old cassette that carries the voice of her dead father. Kousar’s father, Mohammad Yousuf, loved music and sang with a lilting voice. Before he was killed in his last gunfight with the Indian Army soldiers in 2004 – when Kousar was seven—he had recorded religious and nationalist songs on the cassette. For Kousar, who remembers very little of him, far away from her home, that cassette and the voice is the most intimate contact with her father.
From all over Kashmir, from small houses of forgotten tragedies, these girls have found a home away from their homes. Though they have left behind their families and relatives, they have embraced the possibility of a future which will be lit bright by education and also by the darkness of their histories.
In Gulshan e Banaat, more than 110 Kashmiri orphan girls live and study together. As a home to little girl children still learning to construct proper sentences to the eldest 19 year olds who articulate their fears, ambitions and responsibilities with determination and frankness, Gulshan e Banaat is one of Kashmir’s best organized orphanages.
The orphanage, run by the J&K Yateem Trust, was established in 2002 in Chadoora district’s Gopalpora area. What began as a modest project with mostly the funding of Austrian Kashmiri Social Project (AKSP), an NGO founded by Late Arshid Nabi Shontoo, a Kashmiri businessman who was based in Austria, today is housed in two large concrete buildings, one of which serves as the school and the other building is for boarding purpose.
The number of orphans has multiplied since 1989. According to figures from Save the Children, there are more than two lakh orphans in the state, out of which about 35 percent children have lost their parents in violence.
“There was a surge in the number of orphans in 1990s and there was no proper structure to take care of these children,” said Sharief Ahmad Bhat who works with Save the Children.
According to their 2010–11 report, only 15 percent of the orphans found place in the handful of orphanages that exist in the state.
While most of the orphans in the state live with their families, according to a study by the Department of Sociology in Kashmir University, around 57 percent work in the handicrafts industries, seven percent work as domestic servants, nine percent as shop salesmen, four percent as waiters in hotels, and five percent as automobile conductors.
The focus on their education, according to the study, is almost negligible. The families send their children to these orphanages hoping for their better future.
“My mother gave us bath and dressed us in nice clothes. We were excited to go to Srinagar, but our mother kept crying,” Rehana remembers.
Rehana was five and her brother was seven-year-old when they were sent to orphanages. While she was sent to the newly established Gulshan-e-Banat orphanage for girls, her brother was put in the boys’ orphanage in Makhdoom Sahab, Srinagar.
“I was lonely here. My mother rarely visited and always asked me to make something of myself. At home, we had very little money, but she would put up a smiling face,” Rehana says.
Then one day a relative visited Rehana and informed her of her grandfather’s death; he re-appeared a week later and took her along for a visit to home.
“When I reached our two-room mud home, there were mourners in the courtyard,” she recalls. “My mother was lying dead in the courtyard. I felt completely alone, completely.”
Rehana’s older sister never went to school and lives in difficult conditions, her brother teaches at a private school while she herself studies in class XII. She belongs to the group of the eldest girls at the orphanage and all of them are afraid to move out of the orphanage to face the cruel world outside.
The patron of the orphanage, Zahoor Ahmad Tak, whom all the girls call ‘Papaji’, hopes that all the girls find the ground beneath their feet, enroll in professional colleges, and make a respectable living for themselves and their families.
“If we keep them here and put them in academic colleges, the girls will take lot of time in building their careers. That will be harmful for them. How long will they stay away from their families?” Tak wonders.
Both Tak and the eldest girls are afraid what lies ahead as they finish their class XII. While Tak does want them to live in the sanctuary they have made, he knows that he can’t keep them away from the world for long.
He is aware of the ill effects that experts have brought to light about keeping children at orphanages for longer periods. A recent study from Psychiatric Disease Hospital conducted by Dr. Syed Karar Hussain on the mental health of orphans in Kashmir has revealed that 65 percent of the children living in orphanages have “40.52 percent prevalence of psychiatric morbidity”. The study advocates the need of emotional and psychological support for orphans and pitches for raising them at their respective homes by providing financial support so that they do not live a secluded life.
“My biggest worry is their segregation from the real world. These girls don’t know what it means to travel in local buses, shop in markets, or stand in queues. It will be difficult for them to face real life challenges,” Tak said.
Several studies done in the past have also warned of the consequences of short-term solutions like setting up of orphanages which fail to cater to psychological needs of orphan children. The alternatives, the experts suggest, include sponsoring children without displacing them physically and letting them learn from their own experience.
“I don’t dare to go out of the campus alone. I can’t even buy a small thing without having someone along. It will be difficult once we are out again,” said Kulsoom Dilawar, another girl at the orphanage. Kulsoom says the last time she travelled alone from her home she was so scared that she felt she was in an alien world.
(The story is done under a Panos Project)