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Giving and learning at an orphanage and at school in Punjab

Meredith Stewart revisits India — journeying to an orphanage in Amritsar and a school in Ferozepur, Punjab — after her 2016 trip to Kolkata and the village of Bhalupali (and onwards) that was covered in our last issue . . .

At the end of 2019 I headed back to India to visit an orphanage in Amritsar and a school in Ferozepur, Punjab. I am passionate about learning more about the world around me, how children learn, how environments and poverty can affect learning, and how different charities are there to help.

Before leaving I ran a raffle and thanks to the generous support of the Gisborne community, together we raised enough money to provide blankets, a new hot water system, plumbing, electrical work, an upgraded bathroom and new windows for the 50 girls who call the Khalsa Seva Orphanage in Amritsar home.

Khalsa Seva supports families who are unable to support themselves by providing food, paying medical costs and tuition fees, and building facilities to be used by the wider community and the orphanage. It is a non-profit organisation established by a Nihang Singh group with the mission statement “Lifting the vulnerable out of poverty”.

Nihang Singh are an order established around 330 years ago by the 10th Sikh guru, Guru Gobind Singh Ji, to protect and stand for justice. It was a difficult time in Indian history, when Sikhs were at the forefront of battles and renowned for their martial skills. Today, Nihang Singhs continue to live a lifestyle built on the values the guru founded, as a warrior, to protect the Gurdwaras (Sikh temples), to do seva (service to god) and stand for justice/humanity.

Ghagan (Gurjant) Singh is the project manager for Khalsa Seva and a dedicated team are there each day to empower the girls to have a successful future.

On arrival I was greeted with warm smiles and laughter, and we gathered to introduce ourselves. The kiwi puppet I brought with me became a favourite and delighted the children as I shared what a kiwi was and stories about Aotearoa. This orphanage provides the girls and one boy (whose mother works in the orphanage) an opportunity to attend school and learn Sikhism philosophy through its history, gurbani, playing traditional instruments and sharing, with passion, kirtan — the singing of hymns or shabad from the Guru Granth Sahib ji.

Love and healing energy

You can feel the love and healing energy that surrounds you here and how blessed these girls are to grow up knowing their culture, religion and identity.

Each time I travel to India I meet people who add to my personal growth in understanding humanity and what makes us unique. I feel it is also important to visit these places, as kind-hearted people have donated money and I want to see how the donations are utilised.

My philosophy has always been to involve the employment of local tradesmen and resources, and that 100 percent of all money raised goes to the charities.

Money raised in Gisborne also helped to purchase over 100 school jerseys for children at a low socio-economic school in a small village in Ferozepur, Punjab to be able to attend school, thanks to Morha Singh.

Morha taught me so much about what it is like to live with a disability, and the views since time began on the label “disabled” and what it looks like in India. Morha contracted polio at age three, and for six years was unable to walk. His parents spent most of their money to help him walk again. Sadly, his father was killed in an accident before seeing his son walk.

For most of Morha's childhood he used crutches, as sadly this right leg never responded to treatment. He found crutches frustrating and a disadvantage when playing with friends. So he began using a stick, which he puts under his arm, and soon found this was easier — to the extent that he could then play cricket (bowling and batting).

My first thought when I met Morha was, “Poor thing, why doesn't he have crutches?” He explained to me the stories of his childhood, playing and being able to run like the others using his stick. He would refer to himself as disabled. My view, which I expressed to him, was “you are no different to me, we all have something which is a disability in our life; for some of us it is visible, and for others it's not”. I saw the person, not the stick or leg.

I had always thought I was open-minded to seeing the personality of a person, rather than the “the visible” appearance. I realised my views of “poor thing”, he needs help, he needs crutches, was a judgement — as the reality is that crutches inhibit his freedom.

We had a running race one day and, yes, Morha runs very fast. This old lady found it hard to keep up!

Each day Morha has people staring, some offering to help, while others stare then turn away. I witnessed the discrimination against him but he never let it get to him and told me “don't worry”.

We had flown around India on a few different airlines with no issues; in fact, they were very helpful. Then one flight to Delhi left me in tears. I had gone through security and was waiting for Morha. I could see the security guard having a discussion with him. He then took the stick and began waving it around like a sword, demonstrating different martial arts techniques to the horror of myself, Morha and others in the queues. Finally, after seeing seven security people and multiple X-rays of the stick, Morha was allowed through. Apparently they thought he could be a security risk as his stick could be used as a weapon. In my head I was thinking “Hmmm, couldn't crutches be a weapon too?” We then had to sit in a special security area until our flight was called. As I sat there, I had a mixture of emotions as people walked by staring; is this the life of someone who has a “noticeable” disability? Morha simply smiled and said, “It's OK, this is my life”.

We finally boarded the plane with another 10 people checking the stick. Morha is six foot tall and unable to balance on one leg long enough to use his stick as a weapon, however I realised that these people saw the stick and not the person.

Morha has such a positive attitude to life and has taken every opportunity to aim for a better life. He has a degree in English and is an electrician. He is a strong supporter of helping people in poverty and the underprivileged, providing financial support through fundraising and a kind ear to listen and understand their struggles. He sees his disability as a gift from God to be able to help others. I don't see his disability, he is no different to me. I see a man with a kind heart trying to make a better world.

HUMBLING EXPERIENCE: It was an honour and a very humbling experience to receive the orange cloth siropa — given as a blessing from the guru, as an acknowledgement of gratitude for those who have done seva (service) for others. Khalsa Seva project manager Gurjant Singh presented siropa to myself and Morha. Pictures supplied
BLESSED PLACE: Khalsa Seva Orphanage is a blessed place to visit and it was wonderful to be welcomed as part of their family.
TRADITIONAL HYMNS: The beautiful girls at Khalsa Seva Orphanage, Amritsar perform kirtan (hymns from Guru Granth Sahib ji). The girls are also taught to play traditional instruments such as the tabla (drums) and harmonium.
KIWI FINDS A FRIEND: Aroha the kiwi puppet has made the Khalsa Seva Orphanage his home — delighting the children with his bird call and unique look.
KEEPING WARM: Over 100 children at the Government elementary school in Khai Pheme Ki Village, Ferozepur received a new school jersey thanks to the generous support of the Gisborne community.
IMMERSED IN THEIR CULTURE: The girls as Khalsa Seva Orphanage in Amritsar are immersed in the Sikh culture/religion/traditions and grow up in a caring, positive environment where their wellbeing is nurtured by learning their history and identity in a changing world.
HE IS NO DIFFERENT TO ME: How we see a disability is a reflection of our own perception. Morha Singh gave me new insights into life and what it is like to grow up in India with a disability.

  1. Morha Singh, Firozepur says:

    I have no words I can write here – thanks is not enough for you Meredith Stewart and the loving land of New Zealand. I have imagined about NZ since my childhood when I studied New Zealand in my secondary school syllabus. Thanks all NZ.