Educating Children in The Slums of Howrah, Samaritan Help Mission
Updated: Aug 4, 2019
Samaritan Help Mission is an initiative that was started in Tikiapara, a slum in Kolkata, West Bengal by Mamoon Akhtar. Samaritan Help Mission is committed to work for the emancipation and empowerment of poor children of the area who previously have been involved in various nefarious activities and local women who lack opportunities to join the main stream of life through education and vocational training.
The Tikiapara Howrah falls under Kolkata. A once thriving industrial zone which has now become a belt of feeble economic activity and unchecked population growth. The low literacy and high unemployment rate of the area has been driving the younger generations to earn a livelihood by any means possible.
Since its inception the Samaritan Help Mission has remained strongly focused on its mission. The mission focuses on providing children vocational training, higher education and health facilities. They want to help the children to grow up to be healthy and educated citizens who will rise above the narrow considerations of caste, creed, religion or language and help build a stronger nation.
“To provide developmental opportunities to the poor and needy slum children with emphasis on young girls. To train them for secured livelihood so as to lead productive and fruitful life with self-esteem and self-dignity and to rise above the narrow consideration of caste, creed, community religion or language and to build a strong nation”
Mamoon Akhtar, the man with a mission is the key driving force behind the cause. He has opened up a world of opportunities for the Tikiapara community by bringing education and health initiatives.
Since childhood Mamoon found a love for the English language and wanted to gain a mastery over it. Due to family income, Mamoon the youngest of six children was taken out of an English medium school in the 7th grade. His dream to learn English was shattered when he was sent to an Urdu-medium school where he completed his education till 12th grade. Mamoon continued to consider English as a tool of success.
It was the passionate appeal of a child wanting to go to school that prompted Mamoon to start teaching in his own house in the Tikiapara slum. In 1999 he set up a non-profit, Samaritan Help Mission, to run a learning centre. Classes were held in the morning and evening. Children were asked to bring old newspapers and other waste items from their houses, that were then sold to arrange money for the books. Mamoon took a very negligible amount of Rs 5/- as tuition fee as he felt people don’t value things that come for free. When the number of students increased, Mamoon sought donations from the residents of Tikiapara. The donations went towards buying seating mats, books and stationery for the children.
While soliciting resources in Tikiapara in 2003, Mamoon noticed a piece of torn paper lying on the ground. As he picked up the paper and read it, he found out that the woman in the picture was Lee Alison Sibley, the wife of a official in the American consulate in Kolkata. After much contemplation, Mamoon wrote to Sibley, requesting her for help in finding resources for the children. Shortly afterwards Sibley paid Mamoon a visit. She was moved to tears when she saw the learning center.
She was the first person to make Mamoon a donation of Rs 10,000. She enquired if Mamoon only worked with Muslim children since that was the majority population of the village. Mammon told her that his motto was to work with all the children from the vicinity. “She asked a journalist friend to write an article about her visit to Tikiapara,” said Mamoon, recalling her visit.
When Lee’s visit to Tikiapara was reported, the headline read, ‘Our services are based on need and not creed’. With that as the inspiration, the motto of Samaritan Help Mission was formed. Thanks to the article, many people learnt about Mamoon’s budding school.
Mr. Ramesh Kacholia of Caring Friends, Mumbai, happened to read the article. From then on he became one of Mamoon’s key mentors, helping support his efforts and remain instrumental in transformation journey of Mamoon.
Samaritan Mission School
In 2007, Samaritan Mission acquired land to aid in their increasing capacity of children joining classes. The school started with 800 students and 40 teachers. By 2010, this number grew to 3000 students. The school is now well established imparting quality education to students from economically weaker families. Some are from single parent households with a deceased or an imprisoned father and the mother being the sole earner. Parents that never dreamt of sending their child to an english school are proud and happier to see progress of their children. The school has given exceptional results in the academic sphere and its students have also excelled in extra-curricular activities.
Mamoon was familiar with the R.Belilious Institution in Tikiapara, an establishment to impart education to underprivileged children. The land for the school was donated by a Jewish couple who did not have any children. However this popular institution turned into a neglected space and got shut down. The intent to revive the school was a latent desire of Mamoon. In 2014 , Mamoon’s dream took another giant leap. The government of West Bengal and the Howrah city police handed over the school to Samaritan Mission to establish a new school. Mamoon proposed that English would be the medium of instruction with options for Urdu, Bengali or Hindi as the second language. As soon as it was inaugurated, 300 children enrolled in the school.
The school has a unique model of admissions. Admissions to the school are open throughout the year. All children are welcomed at any point of time since there is a lot of migratory population. The school provides best of facilities to the students. The school bears all the expenses of uniforms, books and stationery and charges a modest fee of Rs 50/- per student. Mamoon personally interacts with the students, teachers and parents, building a good rapport with all.
Boys are taught to maintain decorum and personal upkeep. They are encouraged to get regular haircuts. Education is made fun with extra-curricular activities like- sports, art, students also use Google Hangout and group video chat to learn English from a teacher abroad.
Kindling the Sporting Spirit by developing a Sports Academy
The unused playground in the Belilious Institution was used by Municipal vehicles to dump solid waste similarly garbage was also dumped in the pond in the same campus. Another brilliant brainchild of Mamoon was to convert the space into a football field.
Mamoon sought help of Chevrolet by sending them a proposal of converting the ground into a football field. In May 2015, with the help of Chevrolet India, General Motors USA, and Slum Soccer, a high quality football field was added to the campus as a world class football pitch. The beautiful green field was inaugurated by internationally renowned footballer Mikael Silvestre from Manchester United Football Club. When children play and study in a safe happy environment, the possibilities of spending time in juvenile crimes is reduced. Local matches and events now take place here. This also brings in awareness of exercise and fitness and adds to the enthusiasm of children going to school.
While mentioning Chevrolet’s support, Mamoon shared motivational quote which guided and motivated him in his journey.
"There is no harm in trying, you will never win if you don’t begin"
Child marriages are common and parents give no education or vocational training to girls to make them independent. Widowed women are often left to fend for themselves and their families. Due to these reasons, Mamoon was interested in helping women.
A quick walk into the lane beside Rebecca Belilious English Institution is the old family home of Mamoon. The house has been transformed into a home of tailoring and other activities for the women of Tikiapara. This initiative was started to help single mothers earn a regular income. Around 200 women are trained regularly and Samaritan Mission arranges for the sale of the garments. They make anywhere between 200-600 garments daily and earn about Rs 5000 per month. Most of the women are mothers of children enrolled in Rebecca Belilious English Institution or Samaritan Mission School.
Industrial Sewing Machines have been installed by Ambuja Cements for supporting National Skill Development Corporation. The adolescent underprivileged youngsters get trained to operate these machines. These machines are computer controlled and more specialized to make special embroidered designs. The course is 4 hours daily for 45 days. About 200 youngsters get trained and earn better incomes from this specialized training. Many students get selected by on campus placements. Some of them are also encouraged to start become entrepreneurs with the support of Samaritan Mission.
Health hazards in the slums are innumerable due to unhygienic homes, water shortages, no clean drinking water, illiteracy and poverty. Health issues are neglected till they become serious due to poverty, ignorance and an unwillingness to lose a day’s wage to reach the nearest health facility.
A Primary Health care centre was started during June 2009 in the campus, a Polyclinic where General practitioners are available everyday from 9 am to 10 pm. On specific days specialized doctors are available with specialities including Dentists, Gynecologists, Orthopedics, Neurologists and Ophthalmologists. The treatments are affordable and easily available closer to home.
The doctors attend to more than 300 patients every day. There is also a small Pathology Lab for basic tests which is rapid, easy and cost effective. The clinic uses modern and cost effective devices for conducting blood tests, blood pressure measurement and ECG. Complicated cases are referred to the Municipal Hospitals. School children also undergo free and regular dental and eye check-ups.
Blindness awareness drives are conducted for children having vitamin deficiencies. Senior citizens too are made aware of cataracts and how it can be corrected with surgery. A physiotherapy unit is also a part of the health centre. Orthopaedic and Neurological cases are handled by them along with Cerebral Palsy Patients.
A mobile healthcare delivery system has been operating since April 2015 with two mobile healthcare vans working across 50 wards under Howrah Municipal Corporation. This service helps bring professional healthcare services to the doorsteps of Howrah households. This initiative is supported by Cognizant Foundation and Howrah Municipal Corporation.
Most elderly people and many children need glasses but could not afford to get their eyes checked and get spectacles. Samaritan Help Mission started an optical centre keeping this in mind. The shop provides free or discounted glasses with free replacements for senior citizens. School children have free eye check-ups as part of their school schedule.
Samaritan Help Mission also houses two pharmacies. One pharmacy is for generic medicines which has more than a thousand types of medicine and is provided at highly subsidized prices and for free in most cases. The non-generic or regular medicines are available at discounted prices.
Samaritan Help Mission Day Care Special School was started in August 2017 in the slum of Howrah District for children facing Mental Health issues. Due to illiteracy and ignorance the parents neither recognize or understood the problems of these special children.
Their rehabilitation was a distant dream until Samaritan Help Mission started a Special Day Care school. Samaritan Help Mission reaches out to more and more individuals with special needs in the Howrah Slum communities of West Bengal.
The day care helps in providing various speech therapies, motor skilled as well as Physiotherapy treatment for Cerebral Palsy Children. Currently about 70 students are beneficiaries of which 40-50 need regular therapy. Children with Cerebral Palsy and multiple disabilities can be helped in the special school, so as to make sure they become equal participants in the society.
This Special School has provided a good platform for the parents to share their lives / problems. They are satisfied and happy with the quality and progress of the education and self-help development of their children, which otherwise was not possible.
Treated drinking water
Water borne diseases are very common in India especially in the areas that have no clean drinking water. Untreated water can easily be contaminated with waterborne microorganisms that may cause health complications.
A water treatment plant has been installed by DITO Foundation of the Netherlands on Samaritan Help Mission premises. It uses Reverse osmosis (RO) with Ultra violet (UV) and Ultra filtration (UF) facility to provide WHO standard purified water to the community. Drinking water is sold from 7:00 am to 8:00 pm daily in 20 litre bottles for a very small sum of Rs 10/- for 20 liters of water. Subscribers are provided with a smart card to use this facility. This project has about 800 registered members and it provides water to 4,000 families with the numbers growing every day.
People living in Tikiapara had no banking facilities so they used to put their money into Chit Funds. They often lost their hard earned savings when chit fund operators would disappear.
Samaritan Help Mission decided to work on financial inclusion and as a result Indian Overseas Bank (IOB) and the State Bank of India (SBI) appointed Samaritan Help Mission as their banking correspondent in Tikiapara. More than 7,500 people have opened bank accounts with a minimum balance requirement of only Rs 1000/-. There are daily transactions of almost Rs 70,000/- now happening at these banks. Presence of the banking centers is an encouragement for the residents to get into the habit of saving money. The government incentives and scheme benefits are also available through these bank accounts:
● Students get scholarship benefits directly in such accounts
● Holders get an medical insurance of Rs 10,000/- for hospitalization if needed
● If beneficiaries save Rs 25/- per month, the government gives them an additional Rs 30/- resulting in a total monthly saving of Rs 55/month
Adopt a Family : In 2008, a new initiative was started to cater to elderly couples and senior citizens without a regular source of income. For nearly 350 such families in Tikiapara, Samaritan Help Mission provides a monthly ration including rice, pulses and wheat among other things.
English Access Micro scholarship: For those interested in learning English to brighten their future prospects and getting a scholarship to study in the US. Google Hangouts is used to learn English and converse with a teacher in a foreign country which excites and motivates children.
Digital Storytelling: Digital Storytelling has student leaders creating one-minute films to portray social injustices and biases. The topics could range from gender based inequalities to discriminations. Each team scripts a narrative in English of approximately hundred words. This gives expression and voice to their feelings and also brings about awareness for a social change.
Physical Fitness: Yoga camps are conducted regularly for 3 days which include fitness regimens like running, exercises for agility, improving concentration and raising awareness of being healthy.
Cleanliness and Beautification Drive: These are conducted regularly in and around the neighborhood. After cleaning the area, the volunteers under the guidance of a professional artists paint the walls around the school's perimeter with images of peace, messages of cleanliness and protection and conservation of the environment. The local residents also now understand the importance of cleanliness so they are inspired to do their bit to be part of the change.
Working beyond Tikiapara
Bankra is a neighborhood slum about 10 kms from Tikiapara with households experiencing poverty and crime. Like Tikiapara, Bankra slums have similar problems of illiteracy, crime, abuse and unhygienic environments.
A lot of children from Bankra were working in a paper factory nearby. Samaritan Help Mission is trying to replicate its successful model in this area too. With the support from the Caring Friends Group Mumbai and the Tata Steel grant of Rs 50 lacs, Samaritan Help Mission could buy 30 katha land (approximately 21,600 square feet) in Bankra.
The land was bought to establish an English medium school with an affordable fee structure. One elderly gentleman from the locality was impressed with the mission and he donated his own land measuring about 20 katha for Samaritan Help Mission’s project. He even convinced another friend who held a small plot of land in the same locality to donate it to Samaritan Help Mission.
Construction of a new school building is underway. A nursery section with morning and afternoon sessions has already begun. Teachers too have been recruited from the neighborhood. It is estimated that the education facility will help over 3000 children of this area.
Healthcare at Bankra
A medical Centre similar to the one in the Rebecca Belilious English Institution campus also functions in Bankra. In addition to providing medicines and consultations, the Bankra dispensary has a small pathological laboratory. Pediatricians, obstetricians, general physicians and other specialists from the local government hospital are present on a rotation basis throughout the week at the medical centre.
Volunteer Based Institute
Samaritan Help Mission is a 100% volunteer based institution. Most of their work is being carried out by girl volunteers from not wealthy backgrounds. They volunteer in various education programs and are the pillars of the Samaritan Help Mission community. Volunteers receive a monthly honorarium which they use to pay their college fees and for other educational needs. Samaritan Help Mission also provides educational support to these volunteers like buying books or providing admission into various degree courses in their colleges. Samaritan Help Mission is very proud to have such volunteers in its organization.
Mamoon Akhtar whose dream, vision, hard work and passion has changed the look of Tikiapara and the outlook of the people to make anything possible. Starting from a small room in Tikiapara to having a English medium school for more than 6000 children, vocational training in tailoring and beautician training for women, water filtration plant-DITO, a primary health care centre with multiple specialities and also mobile healthcare units, special school for Cerebral palsy, mental health issues, hearing impaired and multiple physical disabilities, kiosk banking, pharmacy, industrial embroidery and design, optical centre, sports, yoga and digitized classrooms is highly impressive.
It is so evident that what began as a community work led by an individual has risen to be a large organization today. The work principle and ethics still remain the same. Samaritan now works for more people in more domains and addressing holistic needs of the community from education, sports, health, financial inclusion to livelihood support. The list seems endless. Every domain that can benefit the slum and people living in it has been covered. Mamoon now dreams to have a residential school which would help students who want to study further.
Mamoon’s principles of life are clear and inspiring and is an effective formula for success. He believes more schools are needed than religious places like temples and masjids. His principles are:
No harm in trying, you will never win if you don’t begin
Hunger and poverty have no religion, work for humanity
Don’t remain confused, take a decision and then make it work
Leader is not by position but because of action
Help people by need not by greed
When God is giving you countless why do you count in giving
Awards are embarrassing, ignore them and focus on real work
Mamoon Akhtar has truly made the impossible possible. He has received numerous awards including the prestigious Amazing Indian Educators, Karamveer Purashkaar to name a few and the list is ever growing. The Times of India published a full page special report in its Christmas issue dated 25th December 2005 under the title “Uncommon Heroes: Legend in our Midst” and featured Mamoon Akhtar as one of them.
Mamoon Akhtar’s resolve has been truly transformational and inspiring. It provides a good guide and a model as to how to address growing problems of slums spread all across our country. To list remarkable achievements of the work which was selflessly and silently initiated by Mamoon and which have become landmark achievements are:
Brought quality education to children of the economically weak strata in Tikiapara in Howrah with 6000 children currently being educated
Worked with the resolution that no child should be deprived of education because of his / her inability to pay fees
Brought financial inclusion to Tikiapara, decreasing the residents’ dependence on money lenders and prompting saving habits, benefiting over 7000 subscribers
Revived a government school on the brink of closure with community and administrative support
Expanded activities of Samaritan Help Mission to include health, sports and livelihood benefiting over 10,000 patients every year
Providing clean and treating drinking water to 4000 families
Replicate the successful model of tikiapara in a another slum in Bankra
He is a man on a mission and is unstoppable. His energy and positivity rubs off on his team and staff who are as passionate and want to continue working tirelessly. They want to bring about a silent revolution with education as its key platform. Mamoon is a secular Muslim inspired by the teaching of Prophet Mohammed and Swami Vivekananda. The fact that Mamoon Akhtar still resides in the same neighborhood helps him and Samaritan Help Mission stay rooted to the cause of transforming the children into great citizens. Truly his mission and cause are worth supporting.