The Irony of Relief Missions

Hayeem Rudy served as a Summer 2015 JDC Entwine-Gabriel Project Mumbai Fellow

In May, when I told my friends and family that I would be volunteering in a Mumbai slum as a JDC Entwine - Gabriel Project Mumbai Fellow, the reactions that I got bordered on one of reverence and sympathy. Reverence, because I was doing something adventurous, going into the ‘wild’, so to speak, in India – a place they perceived of as being ‘third-world’ and markedly primitive compared to our refined, modern life in New York City. Sympathy because it seemed to many that I was foregoing the long-awaited summer vacation between the completion of my college years and the beginning of my medical school career. These reactions influenced my perspective in the weeks leading up to my experience in India. Yet now, several weeks after coming back from Mumbai, what stands out most profoundly in memory are not the jarring scenes of poverty that I was fervently warned would rattle my emotional health in Mumbai (though they were very impactful), nor is it a sense of fulfillment and contribution that I was often praised for when I described what I would be doing as a volunteer in India. Instead, the pieces of the experience that are closest to my heart are those in which I was the observer, the learner, the one who benefitted.

The experiences that stand out in memory were those that arose from observation of the common, rather than being derived from sensational, emotionally-charged moments in time. For example, one came on a tired Sunday morning after our first two weeks in the slums. Having just celebrated our ‘settling in’ in India with a night out on the town, we were quite tired as we moseyed into the JDC headquarters to spend time with a group of kids from slums in Mumbai (not the one in which we volunteered). After brief introductions and a slew of morning activities, the kids were asked to line up for lunch. It is worth mentioning that many of these children eat one meal per day, and so I expected them to be ravenous and unorganized in this lunch process. To my surprise, the kids lined up in an orderly way and all was well except for the fact that one of the younger kids did not have a space in the line. This young one was a ball of sympathy; he peered haplessly out at the line with large, naïve eyes and a pair of matchstick legs jutting out awkwardly from his oversized shorts. I made to insert him into the line between two older boys, when one of them grabbed the little one and gently guided him forward in the line. The children in sequence followed suit, pushing the little one all the way to the front of the line, with the last child placing his hands on the young one’s shoulders in a display of responsibility and caring. I was blown away by the collective sense of responsibility that I witnessed from these young, hungry children.  

A similar sense of communal responsibility was also evident in our classroom when the older kids who had a better grasp of English would lovingly demonstrate support for the younger kids in the class who struggled with our lessons. One particular instance of this that stands out in memory was during an exercise in class in which we asked our students to draw a picture of their family members and label them in English. As the students concentrated on their paintings, a shy seven-year-old girl named Parvin tugged on my sleeve and indicated that she wanted to know the English words to label her family members. Hearing this question in Hindi, an older boy named Rahim leapt up from his drawing across the tin-walled classroom and yelled at the top of his lungs ‘Hayeem Teacher, No!’ and started to communicate emphatically with Parvin in Hindi. I looked up inquisitively at our translator, David, expressing my concern of Rahim’s sudden reaction: “He is afraid that she would not learn it the right way if you give her the answer, Hayeem Sir.” I looked back down to see Rahim and Parvin lying on the ground, stomach-down and giggling, now drawing the word ‘sister’ together above Parvin’s stick figure family.

These experiences highlight to me the irony of my trip, which is that I went to India looking to teach, but that I left India with the feeling that I came away with more than I was able to contribute. In relation to the Kalwa Slum in Mumbai, my experiences highlight to me the quality of relativity in matters of luxury, and served as evidence that supports the Jewish idea that ‘one who is rich is he who is happy with what he has.’ My time in the Kalwa Slum was remarkable primarily because of the spirit of its people – a quality that I believe would have been impressionable to me and most other people even in a vacuum that eliminated the circumstance of poverty from the equation. I will be forever grateful to my friends in Mumbai who helped me develop this hopeful perspective that I now turn to to inform my dealings with people both rich and poor in my everyday life.

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December 13, 2015 at 4:29 PM



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