By Afshan Anjum

Five year old Amina might seem like a quiet, shy little girl gazing at you from the corner of the room when she sees you for the first time.

Soon you would discover the chatterbox that hides behind those deep yet innocent eyes. Amina loves ice-cream and chips like any other kid her age, but she’ll surprise you with her chatter. She is full of curiousity and imagination.

“She comes up with a new name for herself every day. One day she’ll call herself Munaza, another day she’s Amina, or Hudo. Last time she told me she’s Kokar”, says Sadaf Mir, a volunteer who loves talking to Amina during her visits to Darul-Muhsinat Girls Orphanage in a small village in Baramulla.

“When she’s not talking, you find her humming to herself. Sometimes I bribe her with treats so that she sings me a Kashmiri song in her adorable voice”, Sadaf adds. 

Amina is the youngest and most loved member of the shelter that takes care of 25 girls in a two-storied house with four functional rooms. The orphanage started in 2014 and mostly runs on Zakat and local funding.

While the schools are closed due to COVID-19 lockdown, the girls at the orphanage have also faced a crunch in their education. Unlike many children living with their parents in the rest of the country these girls do not have access to television or internet.

The only thing that keeps them going is their love for books. Aged between 5 to 16 years, the girls have different tastes in books and cherish the small collection they have on an old wooden shelf. The older ones like to read about history, science and space.

There are some who like fiction and a couple of them find solace in Urdu poetry. Little ones have their eyes on graphic books and comics. But ask them what they want to be when they grow up, they all have only one reply “Doctor”. 

Whichever path they take in life, the girls know that books will remain their best friends. The orphanage is aspiring to build a library for these ardent readers that acts like a window to the world even in lockdowns, strikes and curfews.

There is little flow of donations during the pandemic and the orphanage is hoping to collect enough money to be able to build the library as early as they can. The caretakers understand how challenging life has been for these young souls. And books might eventually become the guiding light the children are looking for. 

“Sometimes the younger girls go to school and see their friends with toys or new bags and they come back and demand those things.” says Fatima Rashid, the warden. “I try to make them understand these are unimportant things and once they get older and if they study well, they can get better things than these, they understand.

They are all quite mature for their age. So being children they also wish they had a family, their own parents and sometimes they get saddened by all these thoughts, it’s natural.

They are human beings after all. But the good thing is that they understand they have to make a life for themselves on their own. They carry themselves respectfully.”

Darul Muhsinat orphanage has a four member staff which consists of a cook, a helper, a warden and a manager. For now, this is the only family these girls have known. Every person tries to care for them in their own way and the girls have not disappointed them.

“They aren’t fussy eaters and eat everything. All of them have their own favourite dishes but they all love chicken when cooked nicely. Two girls love kebabs, some of them like biryani. The younger ones mostly like cheese” says Zaina Begum, the cook at the orphanage fondly referred to as “Aunty” by the girls.

The little girls have their own coping mechanism to deal with the challenges life has thrown at them. Seerat, Shazia and Amina, all of whom are about 5 to 6 years old are usually seen playing with their kitchen set. But the moment they know the manager is going out for a chore, they’ll immediately tag along.

Sadaf Mir is the only volunteer at this orphanage who has been associated with this home for past three years. It all started after 2016 when she decided to give tutions to these girls to keep herself busy besides going to college. In a few years Sadaf felt the need to cultivate more vision for the girls in terms of education and career.

“I’m trying to change many old notions that they have built in their minds. I recently organized a workshop where I invited female professionals who have chosen unconventional careers and excelled in them. This will hopefully help them understand that one can choose any profession and be successful if one is ready to work hard.

Also, hearing accomplished women speak will hopefully inspire them to be ambitious. I’m hoping to organize many such workshops in future to expose them to the plethora of career opportunities available in today’s world and for them to understand women can achieve great things too.”

Kashmir is reported to have the largest number of orphans in the country, pegged at over 2 lakhs as per a survey done in 2018. And the management of most of these ‘private-run’ orphanages is often mired in controversies, with allegations of poor conditions and mismanagement of funds.

But these little havens are all that these children have got, the little succour in their lives. And if something good comes out of these stories of despair, it seems like a speck of colour on a large gray sky.

(If you’d like to help these girls build a library, you can find their fundraiser on this link: https://milaap.org/fundraisers/support-in-building-a-library-in-an-orphanage )

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