I’d never considered not knowing my birthday before I met these boys. Many didn’t know theirs.
Some didn’t even know their names before they came to Bal Ashram, a place for where we spent a week listening to children who’ve been freed from child labor by the Kailash Satyarthi Foundation and its partners.
Worldwide, according to UNICEF, there are nearly 150 million child laborers. That is 1 in 8 kids on the planet. At Bal Ashram, birthdays are a big deal.
When a boy arrives who doesn’t know his, they give him one. And they celebrate it. Some say it’s beginning of their new life.
One special morning, I watched as two boys received their birthdays. It happened to be Kailash’s birthday too. All the children gathered around them. Prayers said, hymns hummed, flowers showered. I relearned gratitude from these children. We ate and played together. Meditated and practiced yoga together.
When it came time to take their portraits, many of these children chose mature and serious messages. One boy wrote, “We kids should not work work. It spoils our lives.” His name is Zabad. Zabad posed like a boxer, flexed his muscles. He told me about the place he worked. He was in embroidery. I’d never been to an embroidery workshop.
“Describe it to me,” I asked. “The workshop was just a room, like the rooms inside a hostel. And there was the equipment for embroidery work. There were 25 children working in that room. And we cooked our food in the same room, we do bathroom in toilets in same room, and we slept in the same room.” I asked him if he ever dreamed while he worked at the embroidery. “At that time, I didn’t have dreams. I only had one thing in my mind: if I don’t work then I won’t have food.”
Another one of my favorite portraits from the children at the Bal Ashram was 12 year old Maneesh. Maneesh opened his chest like Superman and wrote “because you are poor doesn’t mean you can’t dream.” Before Bal Ashram, Maneesh was a beggar and a pick pocket. He told me about a time when he got caught by a man on the train. The man and others bit and hit him. They threw him off. “I was crying,” he said. He knew that he was wrong but he said he needed to eat.
We hope that you’re inspired by the stories and messages of the children we met. We’ve partnered with the Kailash Satyarthi Foundation, the Nobel Peace Prize Forum, and Fifty People, One Question to tell stories of these children. On the website at dearworld.org you’ll be able to share your own dream for every child too. We recognize that we’re more alike than we are different and we want to hear from you as well.
~ Robert X. Fogarty