Open letter to Tirmasahun

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So it’s time to go!

Nine months just flew by and as I look back I can still see my shocked self looking around the streets of the village that has become my place for the last year. I still have that shocked look, sometimes, I guess India will never stop surprising me.

I think I would do a very poor job trying to squeeze in a few paragraphs all the emotions that are making my heart explode right now, so all I want to do is to give a shout out to my lucky stars, that brought me here, and to the beautiful souls I met: my team, the students of our education projects and, of course, the villagers, hoping this will be enough to give you an idea of my experience.

First things first: thank you to the villagers of Tirmasahun and around. You are my real life heroes, that tackle every day situations that would cause every westerner (including me!) a panic attack, always with a kind smile on your face despite the hardship that life has given you. You are the real hope, you are the rockstars. Thank you for your chai, thank you for our chats, thank you for accepting me in your community and for taking care of me but, more than anything, thank you for your trust. It has been an honour and a joy to work with you.

Thanks one thousand times over to my colleagues and newfound Indian sister and brother – perhaps I should say didi and bahia – Payal and Krishna. Thank you for sharing with me every single moment of this adventure. Thank you guiding me when I was lost, thank you for explaining to me this Indian world when it was too hard for me to understand. Thank you for the hours, days, weeks, months spent laughing to tears and teasing one another. You will forever and always be my dream team and I adore you guys tremendously.

Thank you Gyanvardhan, my senior manager, my partner in crime, my solution man. Words are not enough to express my admiration for you. Thank you for keeping calm when I was stressed out, thank you for our jokes, for the honest laughs and for your generosity. I know this is probably going to feed your ego immeasurably, but it doesn’t matter: you are just amazing.

Thank you Tara and Vikas, the big bosses. Look at what you guys have done! You and I know what we have been through, together, since I joined you in this journey – the shortcomings, the challenges, the sleepless nights working on ambitious projects… but along with the tired eyes of those who have been through a lot, you still carry the smile of those who have overcome all of it. And here’s to you two and to the best for you, that is yet to come.

A standing ovation for the most resourceful construction team ever, that shared my same roof for most of the time I’ve spent here. Thank you guys, for showing me that impossible is possible. That there’s a jugaad for everything (nb. jugaad is my favourite Indian word, meaning “temporary arrangement” – and there’s no better place than India where this fits this well). Thank you for always inviting me to join your chicken dinner when I was alone in the centre. Even though your food was so spicy I could barely swallow it, sharing a meal with you under the stars was priceless. Thank you for our laughs on the roof under construction. Your  wisdom is something I will treasure for the rest of my life.Middle (2)

Thank you Vishal, for bringing me a different flower every morning – my days will not have such a sweet start from now on. Thank you for all the times you sang and danced for me. Your kindness and sense of responsibility at this young age, will never stop amazing me.

Thank you Boglarka, only you and I know what it means to spend an entire summer and an entire monsoon season in this unrelenting heat and humidity as a westerner. Thank you for going through this with me, our gossip nights and your Sunday morning pancakes made everything easier.

Thank you Nandlal, for driving me everywhere and for saving me from that killer buffalo. Your grumpy man sarcasm cracked me up all the time.

Thank you Sudha, for brightening up my days with your non-sense songs, your hip-dance, your daily gossip, your beautiful smile and your courage. I will miss you my dear.

Thank you Sukai, for protecting me from the many terrible beasts attempting on my life over and over again. You are fearless. And, of course, thank you for your delicious egg curry and paneer. You are an incredibly multitalented young man and you don’t even realize it.

Thank you my bright funny kids, that with your sparkly little eyes come here to class, day after day, craving what the other kids, there in the safe world, take so much for granted. Keep your ambitions up. I believe in you, you are perfect.

Thank you my brave beautiful girls, your progress over our women empowerment course fills me with pride. I hope you have absorbed a small knowing that education can change your life, can change your family and can change the world, and a big knowing that, unquestionably, you are wonderful and you are to be valued. I’m with you.

Thank you to the many international visitors, who came from near and far. Everybody added a precious piece (and many fun episodes!) to this story. Sweet memories that I will keep forever.

One day I read that “lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.” This is how I like to see this place: my lighthouse, shining with hope, to remind me that heroes exist and they’re out there, watching out for one another.

Wa salaam alaykum Tirmasahun – may peace always be upon you.

Federica for United for HopeBottom

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The heartbeat of Tirmasahun

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On arrival in Tirmasahun, two things became clear very quickly. It was very hot, and it wasn’t changing any time soon. And in the middle of nowhere, there is a big white building, with United for Hope written on the gates, that gives life to a village.

On arrival at the community centre, you can immediately see the strong bonds between staff, volunteers and visitors. Everyone is greeted with a chai or water. Volunteers speak with each other about their travels and share gifts they’ve brought from home. Jelly beans are distributed like currency. Everyone has something new to share with the group. I quickly started trying to learn names and remember who does what job. And with that, everyone is settled in and back in the routine of community centre life.

I was lucky enough to take part in all the community centre activities during my visit. Waking up at 5am isn’t exactly my idea of a good start to the day, unless you’re doing it in Tirmasahun to go on the water run. Jumping on the back of Krishna’s motorbike with Federica, we take off behind the van. Watching the villagers come out of their houses with the clean water bottles, ready to be filled is an educational experience. I take my water for granted so often, and here I am watching these people line up for a reliable water source. Some villagers want to learn more about the filtration process, Federica and Krishna oblige them with a description of our UV method against other water sources. They deliver water, and knowledge!

We are soon back at the community centre where we are meet by Sudha. Her warm welcome consists of a traditional Indian dance and a wide smile. She brings such positive energy to the building, its palpable. Through giggling and laughing, she gives each of us a traditional bindi and then she’s off to get on with her work. Boglarka and Sukai are outside working on the community centre make over before the sun gets too strong. Most of life here is dictated by the heat and the cooler hours. Payal, our translator and resident fashion queen, is making last preparations for classes that will begin soon.

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When 4pm rolls around, the community centre takes on another role, class room. The community centre is transformed by the energy of 16 excited children, ready to play some games, learn some English, and most importantly, see what sweets Miss Bogi has brought from her travels. I join the class and quickly see these are not the quiet children I presumed. There is sharing of stories and sweets before class officially begins. Once class is called to order you can soon see the United for Hope in action. I was surprised at the level of English some of these children were speaking. I was clearly able to communicate and partake in class with minimal assistance from Payal. Class in the community centre is very different from the government school. There is of course teaching grammar and syntax, but there is something else built into the classes. Self-confidence. Children are encouraged to take part, share their opinion and try their best. This has created 16 bright and self-assured children. After classes, there is a disco in the hall. Girls are dancing to Bollywood music, while the boys throw the cricket ball and teach me how to whistle. You can clearly tell they don’t want to leave. But by 6pm, they’ve packed up and wave goodbye (three times each) to everyone.

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It’s the evening and we are sitting on the step outside enjoying the breeze. With the main gate open, villagers walk by and look into the grounds, interested to see what’s going on inside. This building is a sign of energy and community. Locals want to see if classes are happening, if the water van is around, or if Federica is free for a chai. While the community centre is vastly different from the normal village life, it has quickly become part of the community, as has everyone inside. I felt lucky to witness the welcoming energy and sense of togetherness.

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The next day as I pulled away in my taxi, I was a little upset. I was happy to escape the heat and mosquitoes. But there was something that wasn’t so easy to leave behind in Tirmasahun. A community.

Shannon for United for Hope

Teaching in Tirmasahun: My First Weeks

My name is Boglarka Mezei, 25 years old, from Hungary. I arrived in India on the 5th of April, and I will stay until the middle of September. My job here is to teach the children at the community centre, from Monday till Friday and at the government school twice per week. We also have a new project with the ladies from the village. We teach them basic literacy, as well as general topics aimed to make their life easier. The final goal is to help them to empower themselves.

I wasn’t really prepared for India. I don’t think I ever could be. I was told to surrender all my personal space, get used to stares, and be more careful than ever. I was told that no matter how well you plan your time in India, it never goes according to plan (after two weeks I can say, that is true as hell).

So, all I did was breath in and let myself feel that new, interesting vibe of India. I’m a well traveled person, who`s seen a lot, and has been to many places. I thought nothing could surprise me! However, I’m not sure if anything could have prepared me for the emotional blow I’ve gone through on my first few days in India.

I arrived at the community centre with three others, who are working on a project to create cleaner, healthier and safer cooking stoves for the people in the village. After we arrived, Tara showed us around, and we were introduced to the staff, who I have to say, are the loveliest. Next that I met the children, and started my classes. Well the children, they are the sweetest. I’m looking forward to spending half a year with them. I’m getting closer to them every day. We are learning, and having fun at the same time. I’m not doing regular teaching, it`s more about playing games which help them to develop their personalities, to express their opinions, to trust each other, and of course to have fun while learning.

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But let´s talk about the hospitality in India, and the fact that you cannot plan your time here. Because I think these two fit together.

On one of the first days, we visited the families of the children from my class. Its just impossible to go, say what you want, and leave. They will offer you a chair, a cold drink or water, and some super delicious Indian sweets. And lets be honest, it is really hard to say no. Especially when those offering have literally nothing and they are still offering something. This is just the way they are.

And its always like this. If I am going shopping, I get to the shop, take a seat, chat a bit, get some cold drinks, eat something, and after that I can buy what I want. If I just walk around in the hamlet, or at the market, they keep coming. The locals want to take photos and always asking for selfies. If I stop by for two minutes, I have to be prepared for at least 10 curious pairs of eyes.

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Well, the second part of my story happens because I’m a westerner, but the hospitality is for everybody.

And this is why you cannot plan your time in India. I am never able to predict when I will be done, or I will be there at, etc. These are things that I have to get used to, just like the weather, the 24/7 sweating, the food, and the clothes that I have to wear because, as a woman, I have to cover myself.

I believe that the only thing I have to do is to step out of my comfort zone. Because after that my adventure in India will finally start, and that is the only way to enjoy my stay here, and to be a part of the community.

All the best from Tirmasahun,

Boglarka

Federica Surrenders to India’s Craziness

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India: lesson N. 1

It’s 3.30 am when I landed in Delhi, and India has overwhelmed me with a foolishness that there’s no way to tame.

It’s hell hot, the traffic is insane, the constant honking is giving me a headache, Dehi’s air is brownish and too many people, on the sides of the street, live in a way that can only be described as heartbreaking.

The only thing I can do is to swallow the sense of confusion I feel and try to adjust to a society that doesn’t belong to me in many ways, but somehow I can see its potential.

India is teaching me the hard way that if I want to find out its charm, I have to surrender to its craziness.

So I did it… and once I surrendered to India and allowed myself to go with the flow, I discovered a life which is poorer than the one I am used to, but much richer in love, generosity and humbleness.

And yes, my clothes, my hair and my entire self are soaked with sweat, I look horrible and I know I am going to stink by the end of the day.

And yes, rats and spiders feel free to run around my feet… it’s gross, but the only way I can fight them is to jump away.

But I have finally arrived to the Community Centre, I met the Indian dream team and the noise of our laugh while the three of us ride the same motorbike during the water round overcomes the one of the car horns around us.

Day by day I get to know all the pairs of curious eyes that appear here and there greeting me in the streets of Tirmasahun with cute big smiles.

I sit in people’s house, drink chai tea and have random conversations with the most uneducated people who with their mix of gesture, smiles and strange dialect, talk to me about life and philosophy. They don’t call it philosophy, because they don’t know what it is, and maybe just because of that they go straight to the point and astonish me with their simple humanity.

Federica for United for Hope

A Copywriter’s Journey to United for Hope

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Louise Rooney has known Tara since they attended school together and been a copywriter with United for Hope since its inception. She helps put together much of United for Hope’s communication materials.

My name is Louise Rooney, I am a copywriter from Northern Ireland. I’ve known Tara, founder of United for Hope, for quite a few years as we went to school together. I have been working in advertising for more than 20 years now, both for agencies and now as a freelance. The internet – and a wide network of colleagues established over time – enable me to work on all kinds of pro
jects across the UK with all kinds of businesses and brands, big and small.I have had the privilege to work with United for Hope since its inception, helping to put together all kinds of communications materials. It is an incredible and fascinating project that has given me a global view of how the world works and what needs to be done.

Tara and the team are an inspiration and their bravery in transforming the lives of Indian people – especially women and children with the strong focus on sanitation and education – is nothing short of incredible. These are the things we in the West take entirely for granted as a right not a privilege.

Tara roped me in as she knew what I did and I was always more than happy to help. I run a busy business but have always tried to make time for United for Hope. At the end of last year, Tara asked me to help out with creation of a new website for a project aimed at bringing farmers together in a co-operative model. I got to name it and now Grow Good Farms is really taking shape. It is such an exciting venture in an area (agriculture) that really lacks coordination and support and where people work really hard in blistering conditions for little reward. Grow Good Farms is set to change that by bringing support and innovation in practical ways. There is so much potential.

“It is important to see the linkages between different issues and to address them in a holistic way”

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Our last Team Member Profile of the year is dedicated to one of United for Hope’s founding members,  Julia Hollaender.

My name is Julia and I currently live in Munich, Germany. I studied South Asian Studies and Human Rights with a focus on women’s rights and gender equality. For the past years I have been working in development projects in Germany and Asia and at the University of Munich. I love experiencing different cultures, nature, literature and yoga. I am one of the founding members of United for Hope so I have been there from the beginning. I have been working mainly on program planning, legal set-up, fund-raising and grant writing.

  1. What brought you to United for Hope?

I met the founder Tara while we were both volunteering for another organization. We shared our experiences from India, exchanged ideas about sustainable development and thought about future visions. Tara told me about her travels to the project village and how she would like to create a more lasting impact. Soon thereafter we started outlining the vision and registered the NGO as a legal entity in Germany.

  1. What is one thing about United for Hope that you feel the readers should know?

What I especially like about United for Hope is how we are working with the people on many different levels. It all started with sanitation, hygiene, education and solar power. Now we have an encompassing education program in our Community Center for children and adults and an empowering project for women. Additionally, the clean water and the solar power projects are providing a source of income for the local people as a social enterprise. I truly believe that it is important to see the linkages between different issues and to address them in a holistic way. We have great partnerships in India as well as in the US and Europe and I am confident that we will achieve great outcomes with the projects ahead of us. I am proud that we have come so far in such a short time and currently we have a wonderful new project called Seeds of Hope which won the 8 Billion Fellowship by the Impact Hub Munich and Munich RE. The project is designed to empower women farmers through confidence training and education in nutrition, literacy and business basics. I look forward to the next years which I hope will be filled with empowerment, success stories (which often include failures as well), surprises and happiness.

A life changing experience

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Hello my name is Payal. I am Indian and I hold a masters degree in commerce. I’ve newly joined the United for Hope team. My dream is to become a social worker and uplift the lives of the rural poor in India.

The joy of giving – It has been one month since I arrived in Tirmasahun and so far it has been a great experience. I particularly enjoy working for the water project. I am responsible for the awareness campaigns around the importance of drinking mineral water. Being the only female, bilingual speaker in the team along with my knowedge of Pujpuri (the local dialect), my main task is translating, mediating the conversions we have with the villagers and reaching out to the local women.

I can’t hide that being a translator is not an easy job. It is much more complex that one could ever think. Much more than simply translating words or sentences. It requires a lot of patience and the ability –which I am now developing – to find the right way to translate difficult concepts  in the simplest way possible.

At the beginning I found it difficult to translate comments and phrases (which I normally would not use). It made me feel uncomfortable but then I realized the villagers are like my brothers and sisters and I have to be cool and calm to them and act according to their expressed needs but on the other hand I often also get lots of love and regards from  the people residing in the village.


The joy of teaching – Being surrounded by kids, their charming faces and their excitement to learn, fills my heart with joy.

Teaching them and seeing their enthusiasm to learn takes me back to my school days and makes me wonder why I was not as enthusiastic as them. Maybe the main difference is that I was taking everything for granted and they truly value every single moment spent in the classroom.

Working with and for these kids made me realize that educating young minds is essential for achieving long lasting and sustainable change. And this is the path I want to follow in the future.

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Health camp – On 23rd of Oct we organised a health camp in our community centre, we provided free check-ups for the needy people. There I saw many sick people who were not in a position to consult proper doctors due to financial constrains. I personally felt very happy serving this patients.

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The time I am spending in the village regardless of the everyday challenges is an enormous source of peace and gratification for me. I have the opportunity to do something meaningful for my brothers & sisters living at the margins of society. To provide them with choices and alternatives for a better present and future.

If I had to sum up my experience so far in one phrase then I would say, ‘Life Changing’

Payal for United for Hope