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Star Student

People often ask if their donations make a difference to anyone, if we see improvements, if there's a way to measure what we do. Let me tell you about Noorsaba.

Her father had to be convinced to send her to school. He has six children - the two oldest have never set foot in a classroom. The eldest son who is about 17 years old, works sewing buttons on jeans at a small factory nearby. The oldest sister (about 16 years old) has been a mother to her siblings her entire life. Within the year her parents will arrange her marriage to a stranger. The second oldest sister sometimes attends a government school and the two younger brothers and Noorsaba were in line to do the same. Work is valued over school in families where food and rent must be paid from wages that don’t cover even life's basic necessities.

Noorsaba (Nashava) is proud of her school uniform and identification card.

In an endless sea of dirty, but happy faces, Noorsaba caught our attention. She was two years old, she rarely smiled, her face was spotted with white bumps and she was always dirty. We were worried about her health and the health and well-being of her five siblings. We became involved by taking them and their mother to the Foundation for Mother and Child Health. They were all malnourished. Their mother was counselled and prodded about easy ways to prepare food with more nutrition; the children were put on supplements and we coaxed the parents to allow the children to run and play outside, with us as guardians of their safety. Noorsaba started to smile; we held the baby so the oldest sister could play for the first time since she was a toddler and her brothers became adept at playing games with the other boys. The children were happier, engaged with other children and healthier. The parents trusted our good intentions.

Noorsaba in 2011 - almost 3 years old. Her nose was battered from a fall into the gutter.

When Noorsaba turned five years old we approached her father about allowing her to go to school. By then she was bright, engaged, funny and reasonably healthy and I couldn't imagine her life without school and a chance at a future better than her beleaguered mother, or for her to suffer the fate of her older sisters. Her parents are both illiterate with ingrained traditional views honed by village life in Bihar, India's poorest state, where they were born. They brought their family to Mumbai to find work on the advice of a brother who had already arrived in India's city of dreams. Noorsaba’s father, Asfaq, is a personal driver for an executive; her mother, Vaseema, is a maid to three households and works seven days a week up to fifteen hours a day.

Noorsaba at four years old - the year before she started school - 2013.

A paunchy, round-faced man with a trim beard, her father wasn't eager to hear our reasons or our pleas for why Noorsaba should go to school. Trying to convince him that school for her would be a good thing was difficult, sad and frustrating in a culture that doesn’t value girls. His wife had no say in the matter - it would be his decision whether Noorsaba might have opportunities he could only dream of or whether she would go down the road of staunch tradition and become a wife and mother and a slave to a stranger's family. His decision to allow her to attend school was reached when we agreed to put her slightly older brother Dinesh in the same school. We promised all fees and all school expenses for both children would be paid by Dirty Wall Project. We held our breath and waited. We finally got a nod of his head and we wasted no time enrolling Noorsaba in kindergarten and her brother Dinesh in grade one. We paid their school fees, bought them uniforms and books, backpacks and school shoes, and watched with excitement and pride when they entered Nandchhaya School for the first time four years ago.

Today Noorsaba is in the 3rd Standard at Nandchhaya English Medium School in the afternoon session. She's in the top five in her class of about seventy students. She loves the late morning ritual of dressing in her uniform, having her older sister tame her unruly, dusty hair with coconut oil and weave it into tight braids tied with white ribbons. She loves her backpack with the broken zipper, stuffed with stubby pencils, bits of eraser, and text books. She loves the auto-rickshaw ride - one of six kids stuffed into the cab with standing room only for the fifteen minute ride through belching, honking traffic - that delivers her to the school for her afternoon classes. She loves the stuffy air of the overcrowded classroom and the stern, no nonsense teachers. She is learning English, she can do math, read books and write in beautiful cursive letters. She is learning how to operate computers. She has a command of English, Hindi, Marathi and Urdu. She is learning she has a place in the world outside of her cramped slum home. She is becoming aware that she has rights and can contribute to her small world by doing more than washing clothes and cooking meals for her family of eight. She is becoming aware of her status as a low caste member and a female and what she can do about it. She is a star.

Noorsaba dressed to take part in a school dance performance - February 2017

Since witnessing the dedication Noorsaba and Dinesh give to their school work, their successful grades, along with the possibility of future opportunities for their family, their father has decided to allow their youngest brother, Rehan, to attend school. He is proudly paying Rehan's school fees. Progress is being made.

The streets of Saki Naka are full of children heading to and from school funded by the generosity of donors to the Dirty Wall Project. Their lives will be brighter if only because they can read and write. The world around them will take on a new meaning. They won't be left out or not know their rights. They will know they can have goals and achieve them. They will be able to articulate their needs to the government, to their parents and to the world. We hope they will be heard.

Noorsaba with her school friends at Nandchhaya Sports Day - 2017

We pay school fees for up to seventy children from the community every year. With pride and utter joy we attend their school performances, go to parent-teacher meetings, walk some of them to and from school, stop along the way to share in the ritual of samosas, chai and cane juice and take photos of their sports day achievements. We help them with their homework, take them to buy special paper for projects and sweat over exam preparation. Many of them attend Indu's Tuition Centre for help with homework and before and after school care.

Noorsaba at play in the community - 2016

They need your donations. A donation of any amount allows us to keep walking into schools to pay fees that will allow a child from a slum in Mumbai to achieve literacy and attain goals that would otherwise be unreachable. It allows the right to education that is unaffordable for most families in slum communities. You can easily donate online, or if you or someone you know find yourselves in Mumbai and want to pay a school fee, we’ll be happy to invite you to the community to meet the family of a child who needs your help, have a chai in their home, wander the community with us and bring you to the school where you can pay the fee and be invited into the classroom to witness first hand how your donation impacts their lives.

School fees: approximately $120 - $150 per year for each child depending on which school they attend.

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