Like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, SOS Children’s Villages were born from the ashes of the Second World War. If the Universal Declaration made compelling promises of how human life ought to be lived, the SOS Children’s Villages actually enabled that life to be lived.
The experience of a life lived within the context of human rights and human dignity is deeply empowering and enabling, a way of life that in itself is a vaccination against the corrosive impetus to violence.
Indeed, as Gandhi reminded us time and again, non-violence is nothing more and nothing less than the absence of fear. The village itself provides freedom from want: shelter, clothing, food, education, a supportive family, the companionship of a community. And a mother’s love.
Vijayamma, and hundreds of other SOS mothers like her, are the indispensable healers of a motherless world. For every child who has lost a mother, for children discarded and abandoned before they could even think, for children born into cruelty and deprivation, Vijayamma and her legion are a beacon of hope. They fulfill a child’s human right to love, to dignity, to security, to respect, to be valued and cherished.
These mothers do more than build families and hold them together. They shape, nurture, guide a family that is ever evolving and ever growing.
These mothers forego their own choice to seek a life partner: there are no fathers in SOS villages. Just mothers, who have made a commitment to raising a village full of children within a safe, secure and supportive cradle of familial love.
The Austrian-born Gmeiner, a soldier on the Russian front during the Second World War, understood that the shattered lives of children in war and conflict could not be rebuilt without a home of their own. His singular determination, beginning with $40, created the first SOS home in the Tyrol in 1949. The movement he inspired is making a signal difference in the world.
My 1996 introduction to SOS Children’s Villages, personified in my meeting with Vijayamma and her family, became a catalyst in my own personal development. At the turn of the millennium, I walked away from journalism at the pinnacle of my career, stepping off the platform of security and esteem to make a genuine difference in the world – as who I am, rather than what I am. Without official position, without a bully pulpit, I determined to come down from the tower to the street. And I have never looked back.
Providing children with the love and community they deserve is not an act of charity: there is an inherent recognition that this is a child’s birth right. Thus, it is an act of enabling the human dignity with which each of us is born.
The SOS approach is not a “one size fits all.” Indeed, in the experience of Vijayamma and her fellow mothers in Aluva, it evolves from within the community, accommodating its unique cultural norms and behaviours, and its own approaches to consensus and coalition building.
The commonality in each SOS Children’s Village is to enable freedom from fear and freedom from want within their own communities. In very practical terms, their practice of human dignity illustrates how the children they nurture are achieving, and can achieve, both of those foundational freedoms.
We are walking across the gravel yard to Vijayamma’s house with its shaded flower-garden. In 1996, Vijayamma had just brought a newborn into the house, Ponnu, whose arrival provoked sulking and jealousy in some of the newfound siblings. Her toddler Mallu clung especially fiercely to Vijayamma’s sari, wondering when the new baby would return whence it came.
Mallu’s birth mother had abandoned her on a bus, asking the lady in the next seat to hold Mallu while she went to the washroom. Vijayamma’s children included a school-age girl and her younger brother, whose mother had been driven to take her own life. And there was Rani, eight or nine at the time, trying to distract Mallu, understanding then and there that being a big sister to the new arrivals would be a definition of her life.
Vijayamma is a grandmother now. She last became a mother aged 45, and with just a few years of active child-rearing lying ahead, takes a merited satisfaction in the well-formed lives of the children she has already raised. Most of the children are in university or beyond, including two working in the Middle East which brings a level of affluence their siblings could scarcely have expected.
It is early 2014. Ponnu would finish high school later that year, and pursue a polytechnic course. Mallu has three years of engineering college behind her, with more to come. Hima, scarcely older than Mallu, is pursuing an MBA in Chennai. Vijayamma’s oldest, Unni, is proprietor of a photography studio in Aluva, not far from where Vijayamma raised her.
Murugan came to Vijayamma after his parents died from drinking counterfeit liquor from a government-run store: dozens more were blinded apart from the six dozen dead, and more than 600 families were left orphaned and bereft. Today Murugan is an engineer in Chennai, married with a child. Salu, Murugan’s sister, finished her MBA and went to work for a prestigious international bank. Children once discarded, bereft of home and parents, with even the prospect of survival in doubt.
We walk into the ample front room, with its play area for the younger children, and space enough for the family to gather. Most of the village children are away at school, this is the time the mothers have to get everything ready for their arrival: snacks, dinner, organising the routines.
Vijayamma invites us in for lunch. We begin with water boiled with cumin – the habit of purifying the municipal water supply brings a delectable bonus in flavour. The freshness of the greens and vegetables, the simplicity of the cooking, amplifies and enhances the natural flavours of every ingredient.
Vijayamma rejects every compliment with a little smile of dismissal that endeared her to me all those years ago. And when I inquire about what became of the children, she replies by pulling out a book and opening it on the living room table.
It is Rani’s wedding book, photos and text printed and bound into a commemorative volume. Rani is a stunningly beautiful bride, and Vijayamma a justly proud mother. Rani studied hotel management, won an internship in the Taj group’s hotel on Kerala’s famed Kovalam Beach, and met her husband, a financial officer in the hotel. I am overwhelmed as I reconcile my memory of Rani the child with these images of a poised and assured young woman on her wedding day. (Months after my March 2014 visit, her newborn son became the latest addition to Vijayamma’s flock of grandchildren). Here are all the trappings of a middle-class Indian wedding. A plenitude of guests, flower-bedecked car for the bride and groom, the newlyweds touching Vijayamma’s feet in a gesture of respect, the suits and sparkly saris and laden tables of food and refreshment. Vijayamma raised two sons, Anish and Rajesh, who sent their mother money from their jobs in the Persian Gulf to ensure Rani enjoyed a grand wedding.
Here is the flowering of a human life.
The arc of Rani’s life is what we can multiply tenfold, hundredfold, thousand-fold, when we establish and nurture freedom from fear and freedom from want. Not as an act of charity, but as the fulfilment of human dignity.
There should be no piety nor sanctimony nor indeed the seductive corruption of giving to the “less fortunate.” What the SOS Village and Vijayamma’s love gave Rani was nothing more and nothing less than her birthright: the possibility to live a life of dignity. This journey, from charity to dignity, is a transformation from “giver and receiver”, and the power relationship implicit therein, to the shared consciousness of being and belonging with and to one another.
This is the very act of overcoming “otherness,” of embracing pluralism, affirming that many streams of human experience and of the human condition can live together in dignity, under the rule of law, with diversity seen as a source of strength and resiliency. Freedom from fear, freedom from want. Moving from charity to dignity. This is the radiant heart of sustainability.
Sitting beside Vijayamma, drinking in the images of Rani’s wedding book, I begin to weave together the thoughts I have just shared with you. And I see past my restive exile, past the rootlessness and sense of drift that has consumed me for all these decades, and come to a kernel of truth.
When we free ourselves enough to embrace human rights as a way of life, when we approach one another with the abundance of unconditional love, when we see ourselves in the Other, we can indeed find a communion that transcends origin, geography, race and societal place.
And if our journey of Us will provoke you to look within yourself, to know yourself, and to act upon what you find, your world and our world will be transformed.