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Dejected. Restless. Those are a few words I would use to describe how I felt leaving the Saath office each day after being in Ahmedabad for a week. More importantly, I felt as if my mere presence as a student intern from a foreign country was becoming increasingly more burdensome instead of beneficial. Incessant feelings of frustration flickered inside me as hour by hour, the days burned away and we continued to work on our visa registrations with seemingly no progress—while also occupying the only air-conditioned conference room in the entire office. For the unforeseeable future, it felt as if moving forward in our projects was simply out of grasp. Despite the never-ending hospitality from my host parents, the indisputable passion from all the Saath employees, the words of encouragement from our patient Saath coordinator Hemant and Hindi teacher Ragini, and, of course, the record of amazing accomplishments from the NGO’s 30 years of dedication, I began to seriously question my purpose and role in the program. What in the world was I doing here?

Half way through our second week in Ahmedabad, we finally finished submitting all of our Visa registration documents. I could almost feel the warmth from the light shining in from the end of the tunnel. Despite the difficulties, the Visa registration was necessary, and the process represented one of the many unique experiences that interning in India entails. On Wednesday, we had the opportunity to visit our primary project sites, mine being Child Friendly Spaces. On this visit, I rediscovered the inspiration and enthusiasm I felt when I first applied for the program, prepared at DukeEngage Academy, and stepped out of the Ahmedabad airport at four in the morning on arrival day to embrace the 100-degree air.

Child Friendly Spaces is one of the many initiatives that Saath has established to empower and provide basic care, education, and healthcare to the children of slum communities. Its main mission is to improve the education and overall quality of life for the children of migrant families who are working and living at the various construction sites in Ahmedabad. Saath runs seven Child Friendly Space centers in Gujarat and that day, I visited three out of the four centers in located in Ahmedabad.

After a 30-minute car ride full of honks and speed bumps, I began to notice familiar buildings zoom by us and I realized that we were approaching Godrej Garden City, the community of high rises that I was calling home this summer. Less than 5 minutes away from my apartment, we arrived at the first center called Savvy Swaraj. The proximity between my comfortable homestay and the impoverished shelters that families were living just across the street from me provoked a moment of great awareness and humility. Slum areas are not just hidden, isolated pockets of poverty, but these living conditions exist so vastly in the city that the extent of poverty spans over enormous areas.

One of my greatest apprehensions working at the center was the possibility of language barriers; however, after hearing the chorus of welcomes from the students, I immediately felt my nerves dissipate. By spending time at the centers, not only did I get the opportunity to practice my Hindi skills (or lack thereof) with students and teachers, but I could also gauge firsthand the powerful impact of facial expressions and body language. The potential of what could be achieved through non-verbal communication was eye-opening. One of the activities involved myself and my fellow Duke students sitting in a circle on the floor with the children, and guiding them in folding an origami boat. At first, a young boy on my right would not even look me in the eye and he was extremely reluctant to let me help him. As the activity continued, he began to look up at me for assistance and even approval, and he cracked a smile every time I gave him a thumbs up. This demonstrated how much kids are willing to open up and accept you, even if you don’t speak their language or even if you look physically different from them. One lesson that will stick with me beyond this experience is a simple yet incredibly bold statement that Hemant stated: “a stranger is just a friend you haven’t met yet.” Oftentimes, it simply takes a bit of time, patience, and friendliness to change that relation status from a stranger to a friend.

After spending time at the sites, we began to brainstorm ideas for lesson plans and engaging activities to lead at the centers. We even started planning a campaign to implement reusable cloth diapers with the babies and toddlers at the centers to improve overall hygiene and promote healthier facilities. Additionally, I finalized my involvement in Kishori, an educational program for 10-13 year old girls who have dropped out of school, to develop a curriculum focusing on soft life skills, such as confidence, leadership, and decision-making.

As I became more and more excited about my projects, I found my sense of belonging and I realized that although our purposes and roles may not be starkly evident initially, they will surface based on our genuine passions and determination. Speed bumps may feel like a nuisance or setback in the moment, but they are necessary and cause us to continue moving forward, becoming more appreciative when we reach our final destinations. Although completing the Visa registrations felt equivalent to going 100 km/hour speedbump after speedbump, I eventually found myself smoothly cruising towards one of the most meaningful and worthwhile experiences of my life.

Students at the Child Friendly Spaces center in Vejalpur, Ahmedabad playing a game (Photo Credit: Ameen Ahmad)