A retired Penticton coroner is helping breathe new life into the impoverished outcaste village of Shivrapur, India.
Mike Barrett has been travelling to the south Asian country for the last few years, while amazed with the beauty of the country and its people, the extreme poverty is almost too much for him to bear.
“If you go over there and you see the conditions these people live in, it just ripped me apart,” said Barrett, 67, who left the BC Coroners Service in 2011 after suffering a stroke. “I realize we have street people here (Canada) and I empathize with them, but they’ve got people trying to help — it’s not enough I know — but these people (in India) are outcaste. They don’t have an education, never will have an education, because they’re working in corporate fields for a 100 rupees a day (less than $2 Canadian).”
|Standing with wife Janet, Mike Barrett of Penticton raises his arms in celebration at the new water supply for the village of Shivrapur in India he helped fund.
It was during a trip to India a year ago he met up with a couple of young teachers, Amar Singh and Raushan Vishwakamara) from the Bihar State region, where Shivrapur is located and decided to extend an offer of help.
Last January the teachers reached out to him to see if the offer still stood because they learned the small village needed a water pump and had no one else to help them.
Admittedly a little reluctant, at first, Barrett sent the teachers the $375 requested, “curious” to see what would happen.
What he received a couple weeks later warmed his heart.
“They sent me pictures of the villagers digging this well and then they showed me pictures of the finalized pump, nice basin and the villagers washing their hair in it. They were so thankful,” said Barrett.
When he got home and told some friends they too wanted to help with some money but he said with a laugh: “At that point I didn’t want to get them involved because I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.”
On his last trip, back in October, he decided to take his wife Janet to get a first-hand look at what their money had accomplished.
“When we got there we met up with the two guys and they were gracious as hell and took care of us as friends,” said Barrett.
“We went out and saw the pump and the villagers, it was really cool, it meant so much to them and they were so grateful.”
It was at that point he realized the full impact of how much even a little help could make in the lives of poor families.
“Really, it just struck me and I’m going to try as hard as I can until I can’t do any more,” said Barrett.
|Mike Barrett of Penticton with Sadhus (holy men).
The next day he and Janet went out and spent $150 and bought 25 blankets for the people.
Singh, who helped install the water pump, remembered the reaction when they showed up with the warm gifts.
“He (Barrett) purchased 25 pieces of blankets for needy old women and men because winter was coming and those villagers don’t have warm clothes,” said Singh. “When Mike and Janet distributed them, more than 50 people came crying.
“Only words of gratitude is what we all have for having mikeysr (Barrett) in our team and seeing what he is doing to help the kids and the community. “
Ironically, he says the plight of the children is not upsetting to him but only drives him to do more.
“I am very aware that they do (suffer) and education is the best tool to have a chance to escape poverty and oppression,” said Singh. “That is why I became a teacher and started this lovely project we have now. Unstoppable as an attitude of overcoming our fears and fighting for the dreams when we really believe.”
When the Barretts returned to Penticton this month they reached out to their friends on Facebook who generously sent enough money to buy 140 more blankets which were also given out.
Along with Singh and Vishwakamara, he is working towards getting medical care for the villagers, a school. Hoping, eventually, to do the same for other villages.
With that in mind, they have set up a non-government organization Unstoppable Welfare Trust, for underprivileged children and the Unicorn Project, an educational fundraiser on Facebook.
“After taking my Buddhist precepts and continued travels to India, I realized how lucky we were to be born into western society,” said Barrett. “So easy to get water, use the toilet, turn up the heat or turn the air conditioning on, six pairs of shoes, 20 outfits, food in the pantry — all of these just because we were born here.
“I know how some people struggle in our society, I’ve seen them and worked with them in past careers, but I also hope that there is compassion for all who need it.”
Teacher describes lives of outcaste children
A teacher in India, every day Amar Singh sees the struggles children of poor families have not only getting an education, but just surviving.
“Most of them (children) live in simple mud houses without access to electricity or running water,” said Singh, 26, “Since their parents grew up without education the probability of them finding work is very low. In order to survive, many families send their children to beg or to work in hard physical labour jobs.”
|Mike and Janet Barrett (centre) with Officer Amit Sager and Dr. Vinod Kumar to their left and teachers Amar Singh and Raushan Vishwakarma to their right and villagers holding their new blankets
He added that although discrimination based on the caste system was outlawed more than 60 years ago, the practice of “untouchability” still dictates the order of modern life for millions in India.
“Traditionally there are four principal castes (divided into thousands of sub-categories) and a fifth category of people who fall outside of the caste system; the Dalits,” said Singh. “As members of the lowest rank of Indian society, Dalits face discrimination at almost every level, from access to education and medical facilities to restrictions on where they can live and what jobs they can have.
“Abuse of the Dalit caste is particularly high in Bihar (where he lives). This combination of persecution, discrimination and poverty leaves Dalit children in Bihar extremely vulnerable.”
He translates Dalit as “oppressed or broken” a reference to people who were once known as ‘untouchables’ because of the impurity and pollution connected with their traditional ‘outcaste’ occupations.”
|Workers load some of the hundreds of donated blankets into a tuk tuk vehicle to be delivered to poor villagers. The blankets were purchased through donations from Canadians.
Submitted photo t>
And it’s particularly bad for the children of the lowest strata of the Dalit called Musahar.
“The term Musahar literally translates as ‘rat eaters,’” a practice which ostracizes the Musahar from other Dalit castes and reflects their desperate struggle for daily survival,” said Singh.
Schools are legally obliged to include children from all castes, including Dalit, but he said those children are often treated with cruelty and neglect, being made to sit back of the classroom and not being allowed to interact with other kids.
“As a result, those who do make it into school often drop out at an early age,” he said.
While the task ahead for people like Singh is monumental, he believes with support of people like Mike Barrett and other Canadians who are willing to help, the world he lives in can slowly change for all children.
“I have a lot of enthusiasm but not a lot of experience. Our goal is to is hopefully to provide for warmth, medical services and a small school for one village and then another.
“Unstoppable as an attitude of overcoming our fears and fighting for the dreams when we really believe. My team and I will continue to work towards helping the kids and the community working with you guys, part of the team as well. All the ones with a good heart willing to offer love and compassion to the most needed, will always be part of our family.”