When the heart is filled with an ocean of sorrow, it is pressed upon all its insides and it swells with grief. Time passes and the waters recede, if but a little, and the heart is ever-changed, ever larger, and into that new and tender space comes bitterness and self-pity or empathy and love.
Over the past 5 months Narges Ashtari has traveled across India to bring so many wonderful gifts to the orphans there. And at every orphanage she also shares her story. Each time she does a special bond, a deep connection is made with the children, because, like them, Narges is also an orphan. The loss of her own parents a sorrow that will touch her for the rest of her life. The answers that follow are passionate and unreserved. They are alive with an urgency borne of deep understanding and of tireless compassion. They are a testament to a heart once swollen with sorrow, ever larger with the capacity to love.
The empathy with which you write about the orphans, that deep connection you have because of the loss of your parents, do you feel some sense of purpose now in that loss?
Absolutely. Losing my parents was the hardest thing I had to face in my life. I was so young when they died that I didn't know how to handle it, what to feel, what my future would be like without them. I struggled for many years, not wanting to accept that I had to continue my life without them. The thought of knowing I would never see them again was sometimes too much to handle. I didn't fully understand the loss, I was hateful and angry inside and so desperately dreamt for happiness again, I was tired of tears and tired of feeling helpless… Looking back now, those years were unquestionably terrible but those years have made me into the person I am today. It’s true that as time goes on, the pain becomes less, if I said that now, I am in no pain, I would be lying. I think about them every single day and often envision what my life would have been like if they weren't taken from me. I feel their presence around me all of the time and it is their memory that has given me the strength to continue my life regardless of what happened.
I am a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. I remember how the pain felt and I know what I would have wanted at that time in my life. From that experience I try to give these orphan children the best of me, the most love and care that I can possibly give as a human, because that was what I so greatly craved. This loss and bad experience has changed me for the better. Seeing these orphan children smile brings me so much happiness, happiness that I can’t even begin to describe. I understand and sympathize with how they are feeling and I know that their pain will also pass, but instead of them having to face the pain alone we can conquer it together. We will grow and learn together because we are the same. Their happiness is my happiness.
Tell us about the abuses you saw at Bethel orphanage and how you rescued the orphans there.
Bethel orphanage was the first home that I came to in India. The home was run by Rev Arvind Mohan Dass and his family and from the moment I met him I had an uneasy feeling about him. His character was angry, his patience was limited and he had absolutely no compassion for children. Three character traits that seemed so out of place for a man who willingly chose to work with orphan children.
Later, what I would witness would be the most horrific child abuse I had ever seen. It was the first time that I had witnessed any kind of mistreatment towards children. Sometimes I would feel like I was living in a nightmare. He would beat the children, deprive them of food and play mind games with them to turn them against each other. He would preach hate against other religions, other castes and often remind the children that they had no one, that they were burdens to him.
I didn't understand why this was happening and how he could claim to be a ‘man of God’ but act so cruelly. We would argue, hours on end at how in my eyes the abuse was not acceptable, that he could not carry on like this as he was committing an offense and most importantly damaging these children’s lives. He never accepted that violence was wrong, in his mind cruelty and abuse were forms of discipline.
I spent 3 weeks in the home, every hour felt like an eternity and it is not an experience that I want to ever face again in my life. Once he knew that I wasn’t going to keep quiet and I wasn't going to leave quietly his violent behaviour started being directed at me. He would threaten me often saying that once I left his home my life would be in danger. He knew what I was planning but never ever thought I would actually do anything once I left the orphanage.
He was delusional if he thought I would keep quiet. I left Bethel Orphanage April 11th 2011, not even being allowed to say goodbye to the children. For almost 4 months I battled so desperately to bring this man to justice. Every single day I would contact the authorities, I sent letters out every day to anyone I thought could help me. I contacted National Child Welfare Services, District Child Welfare office, Superintendent of Krishnagiri police, Juvenile Justice Authority, the District collector, The commissioner of Social Welfare, The National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights, UNICEF, Indian council for child rights, United Nations high commission for human rights, World Vision and many many more. I even attended a conference on humanitarian work in Ranipet, to ask for help.
I spoke to reporters, lawyers, police officers and even made an online petition to send to the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. Months would pass and I did not hear a single encouraging response. I never allowed myself to give up, not for one day. I had a mission, a mission to free my little brothers and sisters. Every single person I would meet I would share my story with, in hope that they would help me but no one did. No one wanted to get involved in a child abuse case, especially against a reverend and especially because I had shed light on the corruption between him and the police department. Reporters would ask for handouts to publish my story. Bribery would have gotten things done fast but that was an option I refused to take.
Letters sent...the hard-fought battle for justice for the children of Bethel Orphanage.
And then, 118 days later, I got the response I was so desperately seeking. 'Dear Narges, An independent inquiry has been conducted into the matter by an agency authorised by the Commission. The report has also come wherein all the charges have been substantiated. The commission is now directing the state government to immediately close this orphanage and to register an FIR.'
This was sent by the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights. This day was the best day of my life. The children were interviewed one on one, they all testified against him and when Arvind Mohan Dass’ paperwork was checked, he did not even have the correct documentation to be running a home! The children were immediately removed, their relatives tracked down and the children were sent to stay with family members who agreed to take care of them. It was a miracle. 18 orphan children were freed from a life of misery and abuse.
However, my mission is not yet complete. I want this man to be punished for what he put orphan children through for 12 years. He must be sentenced and that is what I am working on now.
You wrote in your blog that the Rev. Arvind Mohan Dass, would always quote verses from the bible when you questioned him about his violence towards children. He broke your trust in Reverends, tell us how Rev. Samuel restored it.
Rev. Samuel was the founder of the third home I stayed in while in India, Dr Peter Children’s home. He showed me the true meaning of being a man of God. His teachings, his care and love for orphans and the compassion he had for the poor was breathtaking. He was the first person to explain Christianity to me, what it really is. He answered all questions and doubts I had regarding the Bible. Rev. Dass had always used the Bible as an excuse to be cruel and vicious to children, as I had no previous experience it made me hate religion and hate religious people. It was a miracle that I met Rev Samuel, he explained the bible to me, in its entirety with so much patience. He was determined to change my views of reverends and religion and he absolutely did.
I have so much respect for reverends and the work that they do now. Christianity is a beautiful religion and I can see why people believe, if people are lucky enough to truly understand what the bible is trying to teach, they will find that it is filled with words of encouragement and strength. He showed this to me and I will always be grateful to him for this.
Are you a woman of faith? If so, does it compel you to defend the cause of the orphans?
I am most definitely a believer. What I believe in may be different to others or may not be put into a classification but it is what I have faith in. I believe in being a good person, I believe in helping others and I believe in living my life with a purpose. We are all the same no matter where we are from or what religion we may follow. We must strive to spread happiness to others who may need a little push or encouragement. I respect all religions as I feel that they all ultimately have one purpose - to teach you to be a good person and to do good.
I choose to work with orphans because they need support. I can’t live my life ignoring this, not because I feel like I have to, because of my faith, but because I want to. They didn’t choose to lose their parents, suffer from that loss as well as having to live in poor conditions. But I can choose to help them, to show them that their pain is temporary, that their life is what they choose to make of it. We are all one and have a duty to help one another.
Your generosity to the orphanages you have visited over the last 5 months in India has been extraordinary and the testimonials of those you have blessed sing your constant praise. Tell us about your decision to cut your hair and the money you raised from that.
Before I shaved my head I had never done fundraisers before. I had no idea how to do it or whether people would support me but I knew that I had to try. Before coming to India I wanted to raise money for the 6 orphanages I was planning to live in. I had my heart set on it and my goal was $6000 so I could give each home $1000. Shaving my head seemed like the best thing for me to do, the most fitting for my beliefs and personality. Beauty is only skin deep, how you look does not define who you are. I knew that in this superficial world, this would be something people couldn’t ignore, and that by doing this I would reach my goal of raising $6000 before leaving for India in March. I was overwhelmed by the support and sponsors I got from people around the world. The majority of my donations were from people who I had never met before, this was the most humbling. February 28th my head was shaved.
Narges gets her head shaved!!
$7740 was raised in total and I was over the moon! Bald, and over the moon! This money has made SUCH a huge difference for these children in India. For each home I purchased items that they needed, things that they lacked in their homes and things that would make the children happy. Who knew that a few strands of hair would make such a difference? I hope that this encourages other women out here to do the same. By giving a little of yourself you make so many people happy, nothing is greater than that. My hair was donated to the Little Princess Trust. I hope there is a little princess out there somewhere with a little piece of me on her head!
With the funds raised, necessities and niceties for the lovely children.
There are an estimated 163 million orphans in the world. What can be done? How do we open the hearts and homes of families to adopt these precious kids?
I believe that every family should adopt a child. Most people that you speak to always speak of ‘wanting’ to but wanting is entirely different to doing it. The process is lengthy, I agree, but the outcome of it will be that you ultimately save a child from growing up in poverty. You are giving a child a home and you are changing their lives. Last year, while I was in Mother Theresa’s home in Sri Lanka I saw so many foreigners adopting children from the home. It was the most amazing thing I had ever seen. I was an emotional wreck when I would see the children and babies being prepared by the sisters in charge to be sent to their ‘new’ homes. It was breathtaking to see and if people could see the look on those children’s faces when their new mummy’s and daddy’s were taking them they would understand just how much these children dream of having a family to love, a place to call home.
I have my own views on adopting and having biological children. I believe that there are SO many children out there that are in need of a mother, so why should I create something that already exists, like you said, in millions around the world? My future home will be filled with adopted children. I am not saying that this is what I feel all women should do but it is what I wish more would do. You don’t have to be genetically related to feel motherly love for a child and you don’t have to give birth to be a mother.
I try to educate the orphan children that I meet about this as much as I can. They all know about my past - that I lost my parents too, and they can see that now because of that experience I chose to help others that were like me. I want to encourage them to do the same. One day they too will be adults and if each and every child that was raised in an orphanage grows up to do charity work and help for other children, this world would be a better place. My dream is that these children also turn their negative experience into a positive one and take the difficulties that they faced in life as a lesson they learnt from. I dream that all the children that I have met will keep their promise to me – that they too will grow up, put the past behind them and help others.
How old is Prishan now? How is your little king?
Prishan is almost 3 and growing up so fast! Every couple of months I get sent new pictures of him, my heart melts over him and I can’t wait for him to be old enough to understand that this all started because of him, his inspiration changed my life and so many children have been helped in his name. He is already a little superstar, many people who visit the Mother Theresa’s home often email me saying they went to see him, took him gifts and spent time with him. I wish he knew just how much he is loved. He will one day.
King Prishan above and King Gowtham below.
By ‘King’ you are most definitely referring to my little King Gowtham! I met him at Reverend Samuels’s orphanage. Although he is a year or so older than Prishan I saw great resemblances between them. He suffered a lot of abuse at the hands of his own mother before being brought to the orphanage but yet he was such a playful and lovable little boy, never crying or misbehaving. He seemed to understand a lot more than other children his age and he made my time at the home so wonderful. He is truly a King to me and he is so happy at that orphanage. I hope Prishan and Gowtham will meet one day. My two little Kings.
Tell us about your brothers, what they mean to you, how you draw strength from them.
I am so glad you asked me this question. Even if you hadn’t I would have found a way to speak about them! My brothers are my life, they are without a doubt two of the most amazing people I am fortunate to know. All three of us are so different but it has been this difference that makes us as one. My older brother Mehdi has been my rock through out my life. He was the man I looked up to growing up, he taught me all I know about life and he encouraged me to follow my dreams. He has always been a hard worker, having to work at a young age to support himself he taught me the importance of discipline, structure and independence, to never give up on anything you set your mind on. He is who I have and will always look up to.
Mehdi and Amir!!!
My younger brother Amir is a blessing in my life. Even though he was so young when we lost our parents he understood everything and coped with the loss, he never rebelled or felt like he had less than anyone else. At just 4 or 5 years old he would express his feelings, he would speak about what he was going through, he was a small child, there were no ‘things you should say and things you shouldn't say’ in his mind, what ever emotion he was feeling he would express and it was this that helped us to grieve our loss together. I spent most of my childhood with Amir as I felt a sense of protectiveness over him. He perhaps didn’t need it but I felt the need to protect him. Anyone who has ever met Amir would say that he has always been a unique child. From a young age he excelled at school, excelled at everything he set his mind to. I am so proud of my brothers and feel so privileged to have them in my life.
Celebrating Mehdi's Birthday!
What has been the most heartbreaking thing you have seen on your India trip? The most heartwarming?
This is a very difficult question to answer as I feel there just too many incidents to speak about. I have seen many things in India that have broken my heart. The abuse I witnessed at Bethel orphanage was of course the worst, no amount of heartache can compare to what I was feeling while witnessing my little friends being mistreated at that home. It opened my eyes to the corruption and abuse happening in India as well as around the world. It broke my heart to know that so many people turned a blind eye on the case and chose not to help when they easily could have.
I met so many children who were not orphans but abandoned by their parents. Imagine being a child knowing your parents left you by the side of the street, in a slum or took you to an orphanage without a care in the world and never to see you again, imagine feeling like a ‘mistake’… I witnessed countless times heartless mothers and fathers giving up their children, people who had no financial difficulties but simply ‘had no time’ to care for their children. I had to sit with those children at the front gates watching their parents walk away from them. I felt the greatest pain knowing that they were hurting inside.
I met children who were used as labourers, house cleaners and servants before being rescued and taken to orphanages. I met a child who witnessed his own mothers kerosene suicide, children who lost their parents from Malaria, bomb blasts, murders – these children were afraid of fire, loud noises, sharp objects, these things would bring back awful memories for them. This is real pain and this is real suffering. No one deserves to feel pain like this, especially children. All they need is someone to sit with them, someone to speak with them and someone to tell them that everything will be alright.
The bond that I have witnessed between the children has been the most heart-warming. The strength and courage that they have despite what they have had to face in their short lives is unbelievable. They stick together and never take anything that they have for granted. These children know the true meaning and value of life and these hardships they have had to face in life will make them even more stronger and will hopefully encourage them to give back to the world. I have met many adults who were once raised in orphanages and have left the homes creating their own children’s homes. Right now I am living in an orphanage called Assist Orphanage home for girls, this orphanage is run by a husband and wife who both grew up in orphanages. What greater joy is there than to run a home similar to the one you were raised in. These things touch my heart and these amazing people that I have had the privilege to meet restore my faith in humanity. There are SO many good people out there, so many people that are trying to do good but there work is unknown.
You were born in Iran, do you ever imagine how your life would be if you had stayed there?
When I was in grade 6 my mother and father decided to take me and my little brother with them for a ‘visit’ to Iran. This visit ended up being for 5 years! Basically, they tricked me, saying later that it was for my own good. Even though it was their initial decision to raise me and my brothers in the UK they didn’t agree with a lot of the ‘western way’ of doing things and perhaps they feared we would grow up being different to what they wanted. They knew that if they were honest with me about moving to Iran I would have never accepted. I spent the next 5 years in Iran, confused and homesick. My mother and father both died during those years. My life had changed so fast. It went from a normal life, living in the UK with my family to moving to Iran, an Islamic state, surrounded by unknown relatives having lost my parents…that’s why I have learnt to never take anything for granted in my life and that is why I live each day to my fullest. We have no control over what life has to throw at us we need to live each day to our full potential, as if it’s our last.
On Iranian TV talking about Prishan Foundation.
I learnt a great deal about life and people while living in Iran. The Iranians are loyal, generous and very family orientated; the history is rich and the country is full of beauty, I learnt a lot of great values in those years. Having said that, the most terrible times of my life were spent there too, not because of the country but because of fate. I don’t know what my life would have been like if I were still there but either way I believe I would have done this work.
I was born in Iran, raised in the UK and now live in Canada, but all of that has no meaning to me as I consider myself a citizen of the world!
Conspiracy of Hope’s unofficial slogan is "a voice for the voiceless". In every respect that is what you are. What do the orphans of India want to tell the world?
Not to forget about them. Not to ignore the statistics that show 25+ million orphans in India in need of support. Not to ignore the fact that 1 in every 3 malnourished children of the world lives in India. These children I have seen for myself. I have seen children that are so weak they can barely stand, children with swollen little bellies because they do not get enough food. This life has been cruel to them but we all have the power to change that. They want the world to pay attention to them and for them to no longer just be statistics but people, humans in need, children who deserve a chance to live a normal life.
What do you miss most about the West? Besides the children what will you miss most about India?
More than anything I miss my brothers, family and loved ones. The thing that I am looking forward to the most when I get back is fundraising again. I miss it. I miss being able to tell people just how much their donations makes a difference by sharing my experiences and telling them about all of my little friends that have benefited from our support.
What I will miss the most about India is the humbleness of the people. The beautiful colours and designs all over the streets and villages, the amazingly decorated homes and beautiful traditional clothing, the generosity of the villagers to me - always ready to offer me something from the little belongings that they owned even though I was there to help them! I will miss living among all types of animals, from cats and dogs to goats and buffalo, the smiles of all whom I had the privilege to meet, the 5am wake up calls from Mr Murugesan - overseer of Florence nightingale orphanage who would encourage me to wake up at that time to do yoga! I will miss living a simple life, eating with my hands and living as one with all the people that allowed me to experience life in their shoes.
This country is absolutely beautiful and the people that I have met on this journey have shown me what it really means to sacrifice your life for others. I have met so many inspirational people, people who do so much good for humanity, they don’t do it to be appreciated or to be recognized but they do it because of their love for people. I have learned a lot and I will miss everything about India...
Even though you said ‘apart from the children’ it is undoubtedly what I will miss the most. I will miss the hugs I got from my little brothers and sisters. The thought of leaving India and having to say goodbye, one last time to all my little friends breaks my heart. I am not ready to even think about it.
What’s next for Prishan Foundation? Any plans for other countries in the near future?
I have already started planning my next journey. Next year I want to go to Africa and work with Aids affected orphans. In Tanzania alone there are over a million Aids affected children. A million!! They are in such desperate need of both financial and emotional support that I so desperately want to be there to help them. I want to change people’s stigma towards Aids and encourage more volunteers to go to Tanzania. These children are at no fault, it could have happened to anyone. I want to show them that it IS possible to live a normal life and that they are loved by so many around the world. In my eyes children are children, no matter what illness they may have or what conditions they may be living in, they all deserve a shot at happiness.
Next stop Africa!
What languages do you speak? What is “Conspiracy of Hope” in Iranian?
I know little bits and pieces of language from the countries I have visited in the last year or so as it’s easy to pick up from the children. Dhivehi, Tamil, Sinhala and Oria. In no way fluent but enough to get by. I would say that my second language is Iranian. Conspiracy of Hope in Iranian is توطئه از اميد (Tote e az Omid). It is such a beautiful language and I am so grateful to my father for teaching me.
What else would you like to add?
I want to thank you Mark for wanting to share my work with others. I class you among those individuals who inspire me and it is people like you who make this world a better place. I hope that together we can fight for the rights of orphans and give them the ability and chance at having a bright future.
I hope that those who have taken the time to read this will understand my desire and passion for helping these children and I hope that they will find it in their hearts to donate what ever they can to give these children the ability to live a normal and productive life.
Providing support for just one child will mean that child will grow up understanding the importance of helping others… that child will go on to help 10, 15, 20 more. This is the cycle that I want to encourage but I can not continue this work alone. Help me to help them.
For more information on the beautiful work that Narges does and to support her you can visit her website and join Prishan Foundation on Facebook. And to learn more about her and her lovely orphans you can also read her blog.
As always, from all of us at توطئه از اميد, thank you for being a voice for the voiceless. And remember, as Narges says, "They didn't choose this life, but you can choose to help them."