The Night Ambulance in Kolkata – Joan Kennedy.
My account of the Night Ambulance.
As one of the staff of Rockwell College who supervised our Transition Year students on the Hope Foundation Immersion Programme to Kolkata in February this year, I was honoured to be part of such a wonderful group of students. They were a credit to their families and school and I believe we all have a very different perspective since the trip. A view which will stand to us when times get tough in the years ahead; just for a moment we can reflect on our Kolkata experience and perhaps realise that our problems aren't so bad.
The photos (below) capture what we saw. They can never show what we felt. I was struck by the happiness and dignity of the people we met in spite of their conditions. They were welcoming, happy to chat and hold our hands. We laughed, sang and danced with them; a few moments of joy that have left us with a lifetime of memories. I hope it has helped them in some small way to realise they do matter, they have purpose.
We posted photos to the Transition Year Facebook page as a record and to show our families what we were experiencing. These photos attached did not go up on Facebook. A social worker took them and forwarded them to me; nice to have them.
Staff were given the opportunity to go out in the Night Ambulance with social workers. We travelled firstly to people living under the railway bridge; in the darkest of places people came from everywhere and surrounded us as we handed out clothes and spoke with them. They were a quiet crowd, happy with anything we could give, never pushy, always grateful and appreciative. The kids showed us their handshake and were delighted when we messed it up.
Next we travelled to Hastings where we met many more families, one with a little baby who had a party the day before. When babies are weaned from milk to solids it is celebrated. We sat with them and sang songs and tried to say their names, which they found hilarious.
Then on to 'Central'; I found this heartbreaking. All the way down the street were families asleep on the footpath; kids with concrete for their pillow stretched out sound asleep reminding me of my own kids when they would come into our bed at night when they were small and stretch out and take over most of it. Yet these kids had no bed, no roof or walls to shelter them.
A 15-year-old girl, my daughter's age, took me by the hand and introduced me to her family and relatives. The social worker later told me her 2-year-old brother had been kidnapped a few months earlier and sold for 20,000 rupees – circa 300 euro – to a family who didn't have 'a boychild'. What I found amazing was that in this city with millions of people, children everywhere, the guards tracked the boy via CCTV and found him within 2 days and were able to return him unharmed to his family.
Further down the street another young girl took over and held my hand, introducing me as her new aunty to everyone. One small hut had a 16-day-old baby inside. Our guide told me that all these kids are up and dressed for school each morning. A fantastic development as education is seen as the way out of this poverty. Another couple handed me their little baby to hold and were very proud parents. What a difficult existence on the streets; my heart pained handing him back to them, knowing the life he has versus the life a baby should have. But then he had the most important thing, the love of his parents. I can only pray it's enough.
We returned to the Night Ambulance; time had flown by. What seemed like minutes was actually three hours. The social workers had done their duty for the night and we were privileged to witness it; amazing people; I felt welcome. In those hours the world seemed very small and I realised we are all just trying to make our way in the world. Some have it easier than others and none of us got to choose. We don't choose where we are born, who our families are. We are all the same. It's circumstances that we have no control over that dictate whether we have food on the table or not, or indeed whether we even have a table. They seem happy knowing no different; I felt sad knowing differently. I left wondering who is happier.
Click to expand photos below.