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  • Robert Benson

Scholarship Program Launched for Women Leaving Orphanage in Kolkata

Updated: Mar 3, 2020

Seven of the nine girls that Love Forward began supporting at local colleges in Kolkata in 2018.

When I first visited The Refuge in Kolkata in January 2018, I had the opportunity to meet with a group of about 10 girls who would be graduating from secondary school and leaving the orphanage in early 2019. The staff allowed the girls to show us around the facilities by themselves, in a sign of trust and transparency. We visited their living quarters (which were separated from buildings that accommodated the boys and the elderly), and then we proceed to visit common areas and the kitchen, observing a sufficient but spartan standard of living that was geared toward economies of scale.

Dr. Joya Chatterjee, my companion and board member, conversed with the girls in Bengali and led them - for the first time - in several rounds of the Hokey Pokey. Suddenly age didn't matter, as these 17-year-old girls slowly, with each round, became more engaged in the dance and the song, laughing with delight and varying degrees of self-conscious embarrassment.

It didn't take long to get acquainted with their different personalities. Ranging from contemplative to gregarious, they were also kind, determined, and committed to their futures. One stood out as a natural leader, as she led our group between different areas of the facilities and explained their way of life. But as we talked with them about their present lives and future dreams, we realized that there was one thing missing ...


The Refuge

The Refuge is an orphanage in Kolkata, India, that traces its roots back to the 19th century. The current orphanage was started in 1901 by "a large-hearted Christian gentlemen named Mr. Ananda Mohan Biswas." Founded with the "principle object of providing shelter to the homeless and the helpless irrespective of age, caste or creed," the institution currently cares for about 350 people, of which about 320 are children and the remainder are elderly and homeless. Most of the children have lived at the Refuge since their early childhood.

Despite having limited resources, The Refuge provides a good standard of care for the children, who attend a mid-tier local school and receive a good education. In addition to sports, recreation, and music classes, The Refuge also has many different "shops" on-site that teach basic vocational skills such as tailoring for both girls and boys, and for the boys, carpentry and the making of caned furniture. With these skills, the youth have a chance at survival when leaving the facility after secondary school.

But when we spoke to the director, we learned that The Refuge shares a challenge common to many such institutions around the world - they lack the means to continue supporting the students after they turn 18 and are required to leave. As a result, the youth have a minimal (if any) chance of continuing their education at a college level. Some of the higher-achieving boys have been supported in pursuing a higher education by local Rotary clubs and donors. But for the girls, the best potential outcome is an arranged marriage ... the worst is finding any other means to survive, in a country ranked 142 out of 144 countries globally for opportunities for women.

Speaking with the girls, however, there was no shortage of dreams and ambitions. They dreamed of becoming teachers, nurses, engineers, flight attendants. There were no bounds to their ambitions ... just no means by which to pursue them.

I returned home galvanized in my commitment to find a way to scholarship the girls.

Several of the girls who Love Forward anticipates sponsoring when they leave the Refuge in 2019.

Overcoming Local Challenges to Launch Our Program

In the summer of 2018, we worked with a local volunteer, Sangeeta, to assist the girls leaving The Refuge in gaining admission to local colleges. A local free-lance journalist, we were absolutely blown away by Sangeeta's commitment to the girls. She worked with them tirelessly, over a couple of months, to assist them in gaining admission to local universities and programs of their choosing.

Their programs are as varied as their dreams. Several are studying accounting. One is enrolled in criminal law, as she aspires to become a lawyer. Other programs include engineering, education, political science and sociology. Most were admitted at local colleges affiliated with the University of Calcutta, a public state university established in 1857.

But the admissions process was even more challenging than usual as a result of local corruption. When the local college admissions process began in June 2018, college union members and others were accused of extortion, demanding exorbitant payments from students in exchange for admission. The situation became so severe that police and government officials had to begin visiting the campuses in an effort to stem the abuse. According to one website, the extortion scheme worked like this:

"A student applies online for admission. His or her online admission is accepted and the name appears on the list. But the moment the student goes to the college for verification of certificates, as required ... union members physically stop him from entering the college unless he pays up. If the student refused to pay or failed to report to authorities on time, his or her name would be struck off the list and the seat became 'available for sale' by union members." NDTV article.

Despite these challenges, Sangeeta never gave up ... all nine of the girls eligible for the Love Forward program were successfully admitted to college!

Nationwide, it is estimated that only 6-8% of the population achieves a college degree. Only about 11% of the 18-23 year old population is enrolled in higher education. And while some scholarships are available for the poorest students, the New York Times recently reported that funding is often delayed, resulting in students skipping meals, dropping out of school, or even committing suicide.

Why are we focused on the girls aging out of a local orphanage? The answers to this question are varied. From a faith perspective, I believe that the heart of God is for the orphan and the outcast, those who are the most disadvantaged - which in India, also includes women. To lift people out of their circumstances and toward their full potential. From a social perspective, it has been my experience that those who overcome the most challenging circumstances have a grit to succeed and an empathy for others that is unsurpassed, and they have the potential to generously give back to their communities and positively influence their society.

But most fundamentally, it is a demonstration of love - across boundaries of ethnicity, gender, religion, economic class, and every other categorization. When we love and value others the way that God loves and values us - as we are, not as we should be - without any other agenda, it is a force powerful enough to change the world.

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