From Child Laborer to AIF Clinton Fellow: A Cycle of Hope

Good evening, my name is Avan and I served as an AIF Clinton Fellow this past year. I’d like to share a story with you all.

Every morning, at 5:30 AM, a 12-year-old boy wakes up to get ready. No, not for school, but instead, to work in one of the many brass factories in Uttar Pradesh. This young boy’s job is to melt brass at about one thousand 700 degrees Fahrenheit, in a makeshift furnace, until it glows crimson, like magma. Then, he uses a pair of ordinary metal tongs to pour the scorching liquid metal into a mold, and later hammers it into shape.

After his parents divorced, the boy, his brother, and mother were thrown into financial hardship, and eventually this boy had no choice but to drop out of school and take up factory work.

For the next six years of his childhood, he worked for a measly 120 Rs. or $1.80, a day, constantly exposed to the caustic fumes and hazards of the factory, just so that he and his family could eat. This, by law, is called child labor.

Yet, for six years, despite the grueling routine of factory work, the boy’s desire for an education did not waiver. He managed to befriend a local doctor who had a genuine enthusiasm for education. The doctor soon became his mentor and he helped the boy obtain basic tuitions from local teachers. Each day, after over 10 hours of factory work, the boy would dedicate 3 to 4 hours to his studies.

That determination carried him far. After those six years, he managed to go back to school, complete 12th standard, and go on to graduate with a master’s degree in Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy. He was even offered admission to a PhD program, but at that point he knew his calling was to directly serve others.

This is the story of Nadeem; one of my dear friends and co-fellows in the American India Foundation Clinton Fellowship class of 2016-2017. On the last day of the fellowship program, Nadeem handed me a beautiful brass swan and said, “Avan, I made this for you!” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. He made this gleaming swan out of brass himself! And that is when he told me this incredible and inspiring story of his.

Nadeem smiles with the children of seasonal migrants at his placement in Dang, Gujarat.

Every child, every person, has the potential to be someone that they dream of being. Unfortunately, so many people are bound by unfavorable circumstances that are simply beyond their control, reducing their dreams to distant impracticalities. The AIF Clinton Fellowship recognizes this; we work within the context of community and culture to help individuals reach their own potential.

Just last year, the fellowship class worked in over 13 states, with some of the most marginalized and under-represented communities in India. Some of these included honey hunting tribes in the Nilgiris, weavers in flood prone villages in Assam, and Valmiki women working as manual scavengers in Ahmedabad.

Nadeem conducts a survey among sugar cane cutters and their families.

As an AIF fellow, Nadeem worked with Swapath Trust in Dang, Gujarat, one of the poorest districts in India, with a community of migrant sugarcane harvesters, the Koyta. Seasonal migration meant that children of these families did not have a stable school life. Nadeem’s project aimed to enable these children to continue learning no matter where they moved. After breaking out of the cycle of child labor himself, Nadeem was able to use the Fellowship as a means to serve those who were in a position in which he once found himself.

Nadeem’s project helped to support a Learning Resource Center for children of seasonal migrants to give them access to quality education.

Today, Nadeem leads an organization which equips government schools with the skills necessary to work with families stricken by poverty, so that the children are not forced to abandon their education and fall victim to child labor.

This is an exemplary case of how the outcome of the fellowship is multiplied! It helped a young professional gain his footing in the world of development, and he went on to dedicate the rest of his life to it. And that is just one such story. Roughly 75% of fellows continued working in a service-oriented career after the fellowship. This is proof of the dynamic bridge that the AIF has built between the United States and India over the years.

Avan, Nadeem and their co-Fellows from the 2016-17 cohort during AIF’s Midpoint conference.

But this story of gradual and widespread change really starts right here; with the unwavering support of compassionate people like you. And for that, I thank each one of you, on behalf of past, current, and future fellows and the communities with whom we work in India. Thank you for allowing us to dive into the world of development and gain insights that fuel our commitment to the field. And thank you for being part of the indispensable network of people that drives positive, sustainable, change in India.

I conclude with a quote from Rabindranath Tagore, one which I think embodies the fellowship experience rather elegantly: “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”

Thank you and have a lovely evening ahead.

Nadeem with Avan and co-Fellow Tim.

*This is a revised version of the speech that Avan gave at AIF’s Gala in Washington, DC, on 10th November 2017, honoring the AIF Clinton Fellowship.

Avan will have the fantastic opportunity to work among over 2,000 beautiful reptiles and amphibians. Her placement lies at the intersection of her love for science and education, deep interest in development work, and lifelong love for animals. She aims to learn from the experts and be able to form a practical waste management strategy, supported by experimental results. Avan is excited to finally visit South India, meeting new people, tasting the cuisines, and indulging in the culture of the community where she will be staying. Prior to AIF, Avan has served as co-president of a student organization called SHARE, which sends unused, surplus medical supplies from local hospitals to under-supplied clinics abroad. She has also participated in the Critical Language Scholarship program to learn Hindi.

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