With their bright smiles, curious eyes and dark hair, Urmin and Sabina, 8, look like typical school-going children; except they aren't. Until recently, both these girls peddled drugs for their parents, selling heroin to the "uncles" who thronged their tiny huts in the Tikiapara slums of Howrah, Kolkata.
Today, both girls go to a school run by Samaritan Help Mission (SHM), a non-governmental organisation that educates underprivileged children in the largely Muslim area of Tikiapara. Many of the students at the SHM school are children of drug pedlars, and one of the most unsavoury things that Mamoon Akhtar, the 38-year-old founder of SHM, has to do is persuade their parents to stop selling the stuff, resist the drug lords and seek a mainstream livelihood instead.
"I would never have emerged from the hell I lived in with my children were it not for Mamoon," says Reshma Khatoon, Sabina's mother, who now works as a domestic helper. Urmin's father now sells fruit for a living.
Akhtar knows the pain of a deprived childhood first-hand. When he was in the ninth grade, his parents pulled him out of school because his father had lost his job and they couldn't afford it. He worked his way to becoming a librarian but did not forget his childhood privations.
In 1999, he used his life savings to build a small school on a parcel of land left to him in his father's will. He called it Samaritan Help Mission, and its goal was to educate the children of the rag-pickers, rickshaw-pullers, servants and maids of the neighbourhood. Since then, SHM has grown to include classes from kindergarten to grade 8, a computer literacy workshop, vocational training and a micro-credit programme. Today, SHM's schools educate more than 3,000 children of different ages. Some are orphans; some have run away from home; all are underprivileged. SHM charges them 5 rupees (40 fils) a year because Akhtar believes that people will not value anything that is free. Funds to run the school come from Akhtar's savings and private donors, and through word of mouth. The local American consulate is a donor, for instance, as is a Mumbai-based charity called Caring Friends.
Although SHM operates in an area that is 80 per cent Muslim, Akhtar believes in a secular education. The school's motto is "Help need, not creed", and while this approach has garnered the school a "national integration" award, it has also angered the conservative religious leaders of the area who believe that a school located in a Muslim neighbourhood ought to teach its children values from the Islamic faith. Akhtar refuses to change the fundamental tenet upon which he founded the school.
"My background is Muslim though I support the great teachings of all faiths," he says. "At the core of all great teachings is compassion and caring for others."
Akhtar lives by his words. A few years ago, he and his friends arranged for a poor girl in their neighbourhood to be married to a rickshaw-puller. The girl, Amina, lived happily with her husband and gave birth to a daughter, whom they named Adiba Fatima after Akhtar's daughter, Atifa Fatima Mamoon.
Two years later, Amina lost her husband to tuberculosis and her mother to old age. She began working as a maid to support her young daughter, who was the same age as Akhtar's. The two little girls went to school together and played together. What no one knew was that Amina was suffering from cancer. On June 5, Akhtar and his wife, Shabana, went to the hospital to deliver their second child and found their neighbour Amina battling for her life. Amina died the next morning and SHM made all the funeral arrangements. The orphaned Adiba, who had been left in the care of a neighbour, jumped into Akhtar's arms when he went to visit her.
"This brought tears to my eyes. I took Adiba in my arms and decided that Adiba will be my second daughter and will live with us from now," says Akhtar.
At 10.30 that same night, Shabana gave birth to a baby girl. Akhtar took this as the word of God who "has given me the two daughters on same date, so I sent a message to my friends that we had twin girls - one newborn and the other who is 3 years old".
Akhtar says that over the years, he has come to realise that you cannot adopt just a child; you have to adopt the entire family. Recently, SHM has started programmes teaching cosmetology, dressmaking, embroidery, fabric painting and computer skills (with donated computers) to the local women employed in menial jobs, such as domestic help or labourers.
"Education is important, because in the vacuum created by a lack of education, Muslim children are easy targets for religious fanatics," says Akhtar. "We want all children to join their neighbours, regardless of background, to build a better and more prosperous India together."
Mamoon Akhtar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also visit samaritanhelpmission.blogspot.com and samaritanhelpmission.org.