Ulfat Nazir was three when her father was killed. She was one of four children. Her mother had only studied to sixth grade and she, too, was left to raise the family on her own.
By an estimate of the non-profit Save the Children, in 2014 there were 215,000 orphans in the Jammu-Kashmir area, 37% of whom had lost either their father or both their parents to the terrorism and chaos that drags on in that area. The conflict in the oft-forgotten reaches of India and Pakistan has raged on since 1947—always simmering, sometimes boiling over—creating hundreds of orphans even during the quieter years.
The region’s weak economy renders it almost impossible for a woman alone to provide for her children, so a child who has lost her father is considered an orphan. If a widowed mother remarries, the children from the first marriage are often shunned by the new family. The situation becomes especially dire for girls, who in this patriarchal and conservative society, are left without any guardian, education, or hope of escaping the oppressive poverty.
While Jan and Nazir suffered tragedies, they were among the lucky ones. It is what happened after the devastating deaths of their fathers that altered the trajectories of their lives.
They not only escaped that downward spiral, but began to pursue careers that would be considered ambitious by any standard. Jan is in her first year in the engineering program at Kolhapur Institute of Technology and Nazir is pursuing a law degree there. An organization named Borderless World Foundation (BWF) is paying their full fare.
Two years before Jan’s father’s death, Adhik Kadam, the eventual founder of BWF, began to sew a metaphorical parachute for girls like Jan and Nazir.
As a student of political science at Pune University, Kadam had heard his Kashmiri classmates argue about the volatile situation back home. These arguments in cafes and mess halls carried a tangible undercurrent of real pain, anger, and often a sense of betrayal and loss. When Kadam considered going to Kashmir to observe the situation for himself, his professor urged him to “go deep,” Kadam recalled.
It was meant to be just an exploration trip with his friends. He collected what little funds he could—as the son of a poor farmer, he didn’t have much—and planned to go for three weeks. He ended up staying for six months.
What he found was a land more war torn than he had imagined. Regional rivalries were so intense that Kadam’s local contacts couldn’t host him in their homes for fear of reprisal from the militants. So he stayed at refugee camps with the very people he had gone to study.
For the first three months, Kadam and his colleagues went door to door taking a tally of homes that had lost a family member. The numbers were astounding. Estimates vary, but by Kadam’s calculations, there are currently 1,000 orphans in a single village called Dardpora, a hamlet situated at the Line of Control, a line that divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan, and where the two armies try to hold their ground.
Kadam looks a bit unlikely for the type of work he is doing. His sturdy build and good looks would appear to suit him better in a career as a Bollywood actor rather than as, what I term, a penniless vagabond. He claims no permanent residence, instead living with friends and supporters who are eager to contribute to his work in any way possible. In fact, when he jokes that he lives with “fakirs,” the Muslim equivalent of sadhus, who subsist on alms, you get the feeling that he may actually be living as an ascetic—his focus is so singularly trained on his work that it seems to be like a life in meditation.
But he is a vagabond with a loyal following, as was clear when he made a presentation in Palo Alto, California, recently. Supporters had arranged his flights for him and provided him with room and board. His laptop and cell phone had been given to him by well-wishers. They drove him from place to place, as he spread the word about BWF to hopefully attract funding.
As most people seemed to have forgotten the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir, in his presentation he had to begin by educating the audience about the situation. He talked about homes that BWF rents for the girls, and the schooling and professional training they receive. He described how the organization tries to strengthen the children’s bonds with the community by enrolling them in area schools, even encouraging local service providers to pitch in for their welfare.
It is My Home
BWF offers creative outlets to allow the children to find their interests, develop talents, and grow in a well-rounded way. A National Geographic photographer has been teaching photography to the BWF kids, some of whom have gone on to win prizes in national contests. If some girls need emotional support, they can seek help from the holistic doctor who visits regularly. A large cohort of friends and volunteers provide a steady source of parenting for the girls.
There are currently 1,000 orphans in a single village called Dardpora, a hamlet situated at the Line of Control, a line that divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan, and where the two armies try to hold their ground.
When Jan, the engineering student, first moved into one of BWF’s homes as a child, she instinctively gravitated towards the structured setting and intellectual stimulation.
“When I first went to Anantnag [one of the four BWF homes], there was a sir named Abdul Aziz Parrey,” Jan said. “He used to guide me as a father. He worked as a coordinator. He worked in the evenings, helped me with homework. Everyone would eat, study, and sleep at the same time.”
Every two weeks, she visited her mother. “It was a little hard, going away from my mom, but I really liked studying, and there were other kids, so with them, I became friends,” Jan said. The kids helped out with the laundry and house cleaning. A hired cook prepared all the meals and a manager oversaw everything. They prayed five times a day, and studied the Koran in the mornings.
“It felt very safe,” Jan said. “It didn’t just feel like home, it was home.”
What does she hope to do after college? “I want to do work like Adhik bhaiya.”
A Shock Absorber
Not many groups are willing to come and explore the mountainous area that has been serving as, in Adhik’s words, “a shock absorber” for the animosity between India and Pakistan. It’s remote, dangerous, and partitioned into Hindu and Muslim factions, where each group eyes the other with suspicion. Even the philanthropic organizations can’t seem to escape the divide.
“Other organizations tried to be there, but most were concentrating only on either Hindus or Muslims,” Kadam said. “There were no homes for girls, only for boys. There’s always fear that when you have so many girls in a home, they’ll be in danger.”
Kadam started the organization with a home for four girls. The children were young—two-and-a-half to five years of age. He lived in the home with them, helping to feed and bathe them, taking them to the hospital, and taking care of their daily needs.
But that was just a drop in the sea of need. So he took in more kids. And more. Today, BWF houses 250 Muslim and Hindu girls in four rental homes. As the children have grown, Kadam no longer lives with the children, instead focusing on securing schooling for them, helping them develop careers, even arranging marriages for some older ones. He is also hoping to build homes instead of renting, so as to minimize instability due to home relocations.
Children Buzzing In and Out
Chitra Mandyam of Sunnyvale, California, has been supporting BWF for four years through her informal group of civic-minded friends called “Caring Friends.” She wanted to see for herself the work Kadam was doing, so she went to visit each of his homes.
These were lively places, with “children were buzzing in and out of the rooms,” Mandyam said. On one such occasion, one of the girls, maybe 10-11 years old, was dressed casually,—came out without her burka. Adhik talked to this child in the tone of a strict father, reminding her to wear one immediately. He subsequently told us that he was stern because when this girl child is older and is at marriageable age, following the custom of her culture would be so important and he should not fail his responsibility in teaching her that.
“I’m not involved in any religious or political thing,” Kadam said, extending the “borderless” concept to his own spirituality.
“Born and raised a Hindu, he was fully aware of their culture and the need for the girls to follow it in the conservative society of Kashmir,” Mandyam said.
For himself, Kadam rejects any religious categorization.
“I’m not involved in any religious or political thing,” Kadam said, extending the “borderless” concept to his own spirituality. “Even taking this side or that side, that is a type of violence, because there would be conflict within me. I’m completely with no sides. I’m completely with the children.”
But not everyone around Kadam sees him as neutral. To date, he has been kidnapped 19 times—and released 19 times —by militants, army, or security personnel on both sides of the conflict.
“I’m a non-Muslim working in a Muslim area, the first question is ‘why?’ Because no one wants to go there, [but] that’s why I want to go there,” he said.
Kadam remains unflappably non-partisan though, refusing to even criticize his tormentors. When he ponders the frequency of the kidnappings, he describes it almost as standard protocol. “Every time there is a new district commander, they’ll start re-examining why these people are here,” he said.
For Kadam, these re-examinations have resulted in kidnappings both civil and brutal: he has been beaten several times. Fortunately, his early training as a wrestler gave him the physique to endure them. Under the ruse of inviting him to a friendly tea, purported friends have led him to a house where his kidnappers awaited.
To the question of whether he felt betrayed, he laughed and said, “that’s okay, even Christ was betrayed.”
To do this type of work, he said, you have to get past all religious and other biases, biases that lead to fear. First and foremost, you must overcome your own fear.
“Borderless is not just an organization name, you have to cross your own limitations also,” he said. “Fear is a great, great barrier of human life.”
And then then there is the issue of other people’s distrust. Government agencies are obviously distrusted, but even NGOs are considered suspect because they may be funded by the opposition’s government. To eliminate any appearances of partisanship, BWF accepts no government funding. Seventy to eighty percent of BWF’s funding comes from donors in India, and the remainder comes from those in the United States.
Asha for Education, for example, a philanthropic organization based in the Bay Area, has been supporting BWF since 2003. Reshu Jain, a volunteer with Asha’s Silicon Valley chapter, points out that BWF’s aim is to re-seed the Kashmir valley with the fruits of the girls’ education and training.
“In the Kashmir area, there are no really good colleges, so for colleges, they’ve been going to Pune, Delhi, and there some of the girls learned to use the machines to make the sanitary napkins,” Jain said.
They developed a business plan for setting up a sanitary-napkin manufacturing plant in Srinagar, entered it into a contest, won a grant, and returned home to set up their business.
Jain cites the example of one of the girls Kadam rescued, and later arranged a marriage for, who is now the elected sarpanch of her village, though she is only in her mid twenties: “… it’s very important that they not leave Kashmir valley, so they work in their native area, so that other kids get the same chance that these girls got. Be self-sufficient, take care of themselves, be independent and productive.”
Even as Kadam sees the value of his work in building an organization that has provided homes, education, and nurturing for hundreds of girls, he is aware that he hasn’t been fulfilling his duties as local tradition would have it. As the eldest son, he is supposed to be providing financial support for his parents. Instead, his work remains a mystery to them, and his financial support illusive. They have a vague notion of the work he is doing, but Kadam has not been able to collect the funds necessary to take them to Kashmir to see for themselves. “My parents are not very worldly —they still don’t understand exactly what I do,” he says, but they do accept that “the man is doing some good work,” he says.
Vibha Akkaraju is a mom of three girls, all energetic and excitable, at times temperamental, sometimes maddening, mostly endearing. When she’s not cooking, cleaning, organizing, planning, and shuttling, she likes to read and sometimes write.
This article was originally published in India Currents on August 1, 2016.