CHENNAI // Deepak and Kamesh sit by the edge of a pool and offer bread crumbs to the fish and turtles as they reveal how lucky they feel to live where they do.
The two Indian youngsters reside at Anandha Illam, which means "happy home" in Tamil, an orphanage in Chennai for HIV-positive children. The centre has been built with support from the Emirates Airline Foundation and is run by the Community Health Education Society (Ches). "Our old home was so small and suffocating," said 12-year-old Deepak, who has been under the care of Ches since his parents died of Aids 10 years ago.
"We had no place to play at all. Here we have everything - spacious rooms to live and study and sprawling grounds to play of our own free will. We feel so free here." Kamesh is also HIV-positive. As he feeds a catfish, he whispers that even after months at the facility he sometimes finds it difficult to believe he lives in such a home. "Until we came to this place I had never imagined that we could ever get such a spacious and beautiful home of our own," said the 14-year-old son of an HIV-positive widow.
"With all the amenities I have around me now I feel like I am [living like] the son of a rich industrialist or businessman. "Life is so enjoyable here that sometimes it seems it is not my real life, [like] I am in a dream." The work carried out by the Ches staff and volunteers has not been easy. Since they began taking care of Aids orphans in 1994, they have faced struggles with money and discrimination.
Dr Pinagapani Manorama, a gastroenterologist who founded the home, said: "We have been running an orphanage. The Emirates Airline Foundation, by building this excellent facility, has turned it into a place which looks more like an international-standard hostel, equipped with all the amenities that children need. "It does not look like an average orphanage any more. "The foundation has undertaken the responsibility to support Anandha Illam for the next 20 years, which means for at least 20 years we don't have to worry about the funds for the children. The whole package has come as a very big relief to us."
In the early 1990s, when HIV-positive orphans were being deserted by their relatives, three were picked up by Dr Manorama and kept under the care of Ches workers and volunteers in a small rented room. As the number of the HIV-positive children and Aids orphans grew, they moved to a bigger rented room, and thanks to donations, the Anandha Illam orphanage was born. International sponsorships arrived a few years later, but the funds were not enough for a bigger space or better upkeep of the children.
"In three rooms, cradlers and grown-up children had to huddle up along with their caretakers," said the Anandha Illam manager, Muthu Pandian. "The sick and newborn too lived together with others and grown-up boys and girls could not be kept separately because of space constraints. After having been thrown out from one rented house some years ago, we always had the fear of being asked by the house-owner to vacate the house."
However, now Dr Manorama and Mr Pandian believe the bad days are now over. Anandha Illam was operating out of a rented three-room house in Chennai city in 2007 when an airline employee visited the facility and the Emirates board members learned about Ches and its home for Aids orphans. Dr Manorama believes that as soon as the board members knew about the home's hardships, they began planning to help.
"I was called over to Dubai where, as they wanted, I presented a proposal for building a new home for the children," said Dr Manorama. "We just wanted a building, but they suggested going for a bigger space so that the orphan children could enjoy their lives well." The foundation bought two acres of land in rustic surroundings and built the current Anandha Illam home, paying US$642,000 (Dh2,360,000) for the project.
The foundation has also committed $86,000 annually for infrastructure and maintenance for the next 20 years. The organisation paid Ches for the land so the title deed is in Ches's name. Mohammed al Khaja, the airline's senior vice president for safety and standards and a founding member of The Emirates Airline Foundation, said the group was keen to help improve the quality of life of children infected with HIV regardless of geographic, political or religious boundaries.
"Ches has been in the field for over 14 years and their expertise and commitment to the cause has made them the perfect partners for this project," he said. "The Emirates Airline Foundation is glad to be a part of this wonderful and unique initiative. Millions of children across the world become infected with HIV every year and without treatment they die on account of developing Aids. "Once a child is infected with HIV, they face high chances of illness and death unless they can successfully be provided with treatment.
"We are delighted to facilitate a medical care centre within the home's premises for regular medical treatment and follow-ups." Child-care experts and medical professionals, who have visited the home, say they are amazed with the set-up of the facility and the way the children are responding. Dr Manorama agrees that the children have become healthier since they began living in their new centre and are eating more.
"Boys and girls now live in separate blocks. Many children are going to expensive English medium schools. "Now they have a library, special classes to learn musical instruments and also private tuition classes to help them perform better in their schools." Mr Pandian said the focus had gone from day-to-day problems such as providing food, water and electricity to being able to build a higher quality of life.
"Now, after the Emirates foundation provided this home, we are not worried about the daily needs of the children anymore," he said. "We are now concentrating on how we can improve the quality of life of our children and help them compete well with regular children outside." * The National