Exploring the world of India’s orphans

You’ve got to hand it to people who just up and venture off to foreign lands on humanitarian missions in an effort to make something of a difference.

It’s gratifying both to read of these kinds of experiences and to go yourself. Actually, life-changing is a more suitable phrase to describe how it will likely impact you.

There are all kinds of situations globally that are ‘crying’ out for exposure. One such place is India. In many ways, the country is experiencing tremendous economic growth. But aside from the horrendous poverty that still exists there, another problem demands attention – it’s estimated by UNICEF that there are nearly as many orphans in India as what makes up the population of Canada – about 31 million.

It’s one thing to hear that number – but when you hear stories of individual orphans trying to get by as they live on the streets, that’s when that mind-boggling statistic takes on powerful meaning.

A new DVD, Mother India – Through the Eyes of the Orphan, brings those personal stories to life. David Trotter and Shawn Scheinoha decided to head over to Tenali, India and explore the orphans’ situation for themselves, and the film does a fantastic job of reflecting the heartbreaking realities. As the narrator notes, “They wanted to see life through the eyes of the orphan.”

Indeed, they found groups of orphans scattered throughout city slums. They found them begging on trains and doing virtually whatever it takes to survive. One of the most tragic things about these orphans is how isolated and alone they feel.

Their faces tell the story – they often look much older than they really are – faces lined with stress and hardship and eyes darkened by the constant threat of starvation. Trotter and Scheinoha immerse themselves in the world of the orphans, and offer viewers a shattering look into their experiences.

Many have been lived with foster parents who were abusive, so there is a continual cycle of running away and fending for themselves.

But the power to connect is strong – many orphans form ‘communities’ of their own, coming together in their common goal of scraping out something of a living. But amidst the hardships, there is of course that human need to feel a sense of belonging.

“We had the intention of following a group around, because we thought if there really are 31 million orphans in the nation of India, they’re not going to be living alone,” said Scheinoha. “They’re probably going to be living in groups, or in a family setting. We felt that if we could find one of those groups of children, what would it be like to build trust with them and then be able to document their stories?”

Scheinoha estimated that about one-third of the orphans they came in contact with had a missing limb. This was usually from trying to jump a train, missing and falling underneath losing a hand, arm or leg. It’s frankly unimaginable.

We North Americans can develop a sense of being cut-off from much of the world’s problems, I believe. Drenched in materialism and a celebrity-obsessed culture, a certain insensitivity to ‘real need’ can set in – perhaps gradually. We become stuck – watching programs on TV that plead with us to donate to a number of causes – yet somehow feeling unmoved by what we see. Some call it desensitization. And that is, to a degree, understandable. Thanks to the deluge of competing 24-hour news channels and the always news-hungry Internet, we know a lot more about the world than could have even been imagined some 20 years ago.

Screening out some of the bad seems necessary to maintain one’s sanity.

But that can make you complacent. On the other hand, learning more about the realities out there can also fire you up to try and help.

Check out www.31million.org.