#EthicalChristmas: Jai Bhim International - A Fire And A Tsunami
On Sat, 29 November, 2014 - 14:26
10 years ago on Christmas day my house burned down, while I was on a Buddhist meditation retreat in the Santa Cruz mountains. Across the world, the same week, a tsunami destroyed villages on the coast of Chennai, southeast India, leaving whole communities homeless, jobless, displaced. Back in San Francisco, lying on Amy and Megan’s couch, feeling sorry for myself on New Year’s eve, faces of newly-orphaned children flickered across a tiny screen. That night I felt grateful for warm shelter in cold rain. I had no idea my own quest for a home would lead me to these very children, 3 years later.
In Scotland that Summer, leading yoga on a month-long meditation retreat, I picked up a book on Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, a book that would change the course of my life. My own personal tsunami. A book about a man from the community considered “un-touchable”, now identified as “Dalit”. A man who wrote the Indian constitution, who embraced Buddhist meditation, who had faith in the empowerment of youth as hope for the future, who would inspire a vibrant social justice movement; the “JAIBHIM” movement.
2 years on, in India, I would meet young Dalit friends inspired by Dr. Ambedkar’s vision, dedicating themselves to their own innovative social projects. Committed to Buddhism and a shared orientation toward justice, our friendships would inspire our own collaborations, formed as “Jai Bhim International”. Communicative English workshops evolved with my friend Arun in Kerala, in southwest India, and then led us to the southeast, to Sakya Hostels, where Jagan, Nancy and Nabiya were creating a stable home for children from villages devastated by that tsunami near Chennai.
For the last 7 years I have been visiting these teams, in Kerala and at Sakya Hostels, leading English workshops that incorporate dance, yoga, drama, art, public speaking, study skills, and meditation. Collaborating across borders and time zones, our work has been entirely funded by generous contributions from friends, family, colleagues, students, and strangers. On an annual budget of less than $10,000, our programs have gained momentum. Last Winter we helped Sakya Hostels buy the building they had been renting, so that their program would have permanent shelter. This Summer we launched our very own Leadership Academy, shelter for the educational projects that are now thriving in Dalit villages in Kerala. And this year we are committed to building a dormitory for the girl students at Sakya Hostels. Shelter for the very girls I saw flicker across my screen on New Year’s Eve, 10 years ago. Girls whose mothers never went to school. Girls who are now preparing for university. Girls who are oppressed 3 times in a caste-oriented society; born poor, female and “low caste”. Girls who are vulnerable, unless they have a safe place to live, in a community that values their intelligence and creativity, supporting them day by day in the basics of education; providing school uniforms and books, a quiet place to study, help with homework, 3 nourishing meals a day, a safe place to sleep, and most importantly, love.
My Indian friends have welcomed me into their homes like family. They have fed me home-cooked meals and given me their most comfortable beds for sleeping. We stay up late into the night, sharing stories, dreaming up shared plans for the future. They have given me shelter. These orphans have adopted me. I went there as a teacher, but they have educated me.