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During the ongoing pandemic, vaccination is one beacon of hope and a simple solution to this aggravating problem. However, it is not as straight forward as it seems, especially in multi-cultural country like India. In Sewa team's recent visit to a couple of remote villages in Maharshtra, it was quite evident that lack of education is crippling our health care efforts. Residents of these villages were hesitant to get vaccinated on account of an ongoing rumour that it results in loss of life. Sewa volunteers made an effort to address their issues about vaccination and motivated them to get vaccinated as soon as possible. To support the awareness campaign, we also spoke about right nutrition and distributed health and hygiene kits to the women in these villages. We are committed to strengthen our communities from inside out.
Lakhmapur and Mandva in Nagpur District, Maharshtra. As a Sewa volunteer, I was looking forward to this event, since I perceived it as a great opportunity to connect directly with the community. However, I did not anticipate the depth of our interaction with the residents of these villages. When we reached Lakhmapur, we had a very heart-warming welcome. Jankalyankari samiti runs an initiative where they train Arogya Sevikas (Health care workers) and Sanskar varga sevikas (After school tutoring) from remote villages for sustainable development of these areas in long term. The kids from Sanskaar Varga presented welcome song and were excited to meet us. Distribution of kits was a small part of the event. It was more of a safe platform for women to share their issues about health and education. It was heart wrenching to see young women craving to study but schools and colleges are closed. They have no other means to get educated. Many young women wanted to pursue under graduation, however, these villages do not have regular public transport especially during pandemic. Since March of 2020, when the lock down started, the kids have missed out on studies. This is such an important age for mental development and missing out on education will have long term repercussions. The Sanskar Varga Sevikas are bridging this gap and trying their level best to lead children of these villages into right direction. Our team also spoke to young women about self-reliance in face of adversity. As Sewa volunteers we obtained a fresh perspective on from where we have come and how far we have to go as a community.
Hemang Thakkar, Senior Territory Manager at AbbVie, a highly focused research-driven pharmaceutical company, is more than a sales professional. He is a singer, musician, and concert performer and has his own band called Rhythm of Dreams. More than his titles and positions, he loves to serve humanity through his music.
One evening last month, Hemang invited a female vocalist Lakshmi Peter to join him for “Singing for Sewa” at Nirmanz Food Boutique, a local restaurant in Houston. Hemang and Lakshmi repeated it the next day, encouraged by the the experience of the previous night. They both performed for six hours in two days to raise funds for assisting Sewa International’s ‘Help India Defeat COVID-19’ campaign. The event was a spontaneous gesture by the singers in which the owner of the establishment, Nirman Shah, matched 100 percent of funds collected from the patrons.
At the end of the two days' efforts, Hemang offered a twenty dollars tip to the restaurant’s employee Carlos for helping load his musical instruments into the truck.
Carlos, a poor immigrant from El Salvador, refused to accept the tip. Carlos wanted to be a part of Hemang’s endeavor of serving COVID-19 afflicted people in India. Hemang insisted Carlos accept the tip, however, Carlos was adamant in not taking the tip money as he felt for contributing to a noble cause. They both were wedged to their positions about the tip, nonetheless, at the end both agreed to split the tip money in half so
Carlos could donate $10 for the charity as well as Hemang could give Carlos $10 tip for helping him.
Although Carlos is extremely poor and struggling to support his own family for more than a year due to the financial crisis created by the pandemic in the United States, his heart was beating for helping fellow human beings suffering on the other side of the world in India who he does not even know. His contribution is invaluable and inspiring.
On June 11, Hemang organized a formal fundraising musical concert - Ye Jeevan Hai (This is Life) – in Houston to support Sewa International’s efforts to help India defeat COVID-19. More than 100 people were in attendance and donated for the cause. Anis Chandani, a flute maestro and past music director of Sa, Re, Ga, Ma show, singers Maha Krishnan, Lakshmi Peter, Raj Vishwakarma, table player Bobby Jutley along with Hemang’s daughter Rheana and son Shyre performed in the concert.
The main sponsor of the event was Amir Dodhiya of New York Life. The Alings Chinese Bistro, Nirmanz Food Boutique and Bombay Brasserie served delicious food free of charge and the beautiful banquet room of the Hampton Inn in Missouri City was on the house.
Hemang raised over $25,000 with his musical talent from his spontaneous singing at Nirmanz and a formal fundraising musical concert “Ye Jeevan Hai”. His employer AbbVie fully supported Hemang in his endeavors of fundraising for Sewa and matched 100% funds raised by his efforts.
Hemang supports Sewa International’s humanitarian work for a long time. In the aftermath of hurricane Harvey in 2017, he raised funds by holding two musical concertsand donated a few thousand dollars for relief and rehabilitation efforts.
A male voice on the other end said that it was Irfan Motiwala. He said he had raised a small sum of money to donate to Sewa International and requested Kavita Tewary to meet him in person. Kavita, who received the call, is indeed a good friend of Irfan and his wife Shaolin, as well as Shaolin’s sister, Lin. The call was initiated by Kavita so that she could learn more about the journey of both Lin, and her brother-in-law Irfan, and how they had responded to the COVID-19 pandemic as they owned and managed a restaurant, “Aling’s Chinese Bistro,” in the bustling, big city of Houston, which is now the most diverse city in the US!
It was a pleasant conversation in which they told Kavita about their struggles, and how the hospitality industry had suffered the past year due to COVID-19. But they wanted to make a difference, and despite their own challenges they wanted to make a difference in society. They had thought about it carefully and had decided to donate free meals to frontline workers. That over the past year they have served 15,000 of those free meals is an amazing story, a classic American story.
Shaolin and Lin’s grandparents had moved a long while ago from China to Kolkata and had then relocated to Mumbai. Shaolin married Irfan in Austin in 2010. Both Shaolin and Irfan, who have settled in Houston, Texas, are from India. Lin and her husband Gary Yan, who is also an Indian, left for Toronto, Canada and later moved to Houston and they run the Indo-Chinese restaurant, Aling’s Chinese Bistro, with Irfan. Gary is a chef and had worked at a famous restaurant in Mumbai. And in an interesting combination of roles, Shaolin, Irfan’s wife, is also a chef.
The two couples have been part of the Houston community since 2010, but they continue to maintain their strong links with India. Kavita was curious about how they negotiated their complex mix of identities – Indian, Muslim, Chinese, American – and wondered about their connections back in India. They are well-settled in the US but consider India home: “Of course, we have come to America and now we are living here. But we love India as much as we love America, and our home is still India,” Irfan told Kavita.
Last year, with the start and spread of the pandemic was both unexpected and really hard in the beginning. People stopped going to restaurants, and Lin and Irfan found it hard to lay off more than half of the restaurant staff: “We have a family kind of setup in our restaurant, and everyone has a big smile on their face at work. So, you can imagine how hard it was… like losing one’s family, when Irfan had to let go of people, and that too when none of the staff wanted to quit,” Lin told Kavita. The kind of commitment to work and to the restaurant could not have come without the love and respect which Lin and Irfan have earned from their employees.
Kavita had called Irfan one day last year, and he had sounded a little careworn, depressed. He had found it difficult to let go of some of the employees, and it was weighing him down. But he was also thinking of doing something positive in response to the pandemic. “We want to do something for the frontline heroes. We feel helpless when doctors, nurses, and others are suffering so much,” he told Kavita, and since he knew Kavita was involved with Sewa International had asked how he could work with Sewa. That conversation led to something big for both Aling’s Chinese Bistro and Sewa International, setting as they did a trend in Houston by serving hot meals to frontline workers.
“We are at war,” Kavita remembers Irfan telling her about the pandemic, “and the only people fighting are the doctors, nurses, medical professionals, and frontline workers. We must give back to society in some way. We know how to prepare food. The country has given us so much. Whatever we can do now serving these frontline heroes cannot compare with what we have received from this country”.
Kavita recollected what Irfan told her about the morale of the staff. They were stressed, feeling low, but then came the decision to cook a meal for hospital workers. Later, there was an order to deliver to a police station, and more meals at the mega vaccination sites, with people standing in the hot sun all day trying to do the testing and the pretesting for the virus. Irfan said that his staff felt good that they were doing something useful. It was hard as the staff worked extra hours, without any income. It was then that the bistro’s customers decided to do something and help Irfan, Lin, and the restaurant staff. People had started asking how they could be part of this effort by the Bistro, and how they could also contribute. They began donating, which was unexpected, and which encouraged Lin, Irfan, and the restaurant staff in many ways. Customers and their children came forward to volunteer, and helped in delivering the food to the hospitals, and police stations, confirming the Sewa belief that “together we serve better”. One of the customers who began raising funds to support the restaurant collected more than $15,000, and because of that money Lin and Irfan could cook and distribute quality food to those they deem heroes.
After seeing the work of Lin and Irfan five other restaurants started serving food to hospitals and COVID volunteers. Now, many more restaurants are doing so. But Aling’s Bistro has served the Houston community the longest and are still serving. So far, the Bistro has donated more than 18,500 meals to frontline workers. And Irfan and Lin have spent over $15,000 dollars from their own, and they have done their work in collaboration with Sewa International.
“Why did you choose this fundraising project for Sewa International?” Kavita asked Irfan who told her how he had admired the work Sewa volunteers had been doing even before the pandemic, and that he knew some of the Sewa volunteers. “One thing that I admire in Sewa is volunteerism. You have so many volunteers who come out all the time, constantly, no matter what the situation is. You spend so little on administrative expenses, and you offer so much to the community. We knew Sewa even before the pandemic. I always admired Sewa because I knew a few people -- you, Dr. Raj, Gitesh ji, Akhilesh, Nikhil… and you are all doing amazing work,” he told Kavita.
Kavita thanked Lin and Irfan for trusting Sewa International and told them about what inspires Sewa volunteers -- the joy of service, believing that serving humanity is serving divinity, and serving all without favour. “It is such a beautiful synergy when people work together. You are the experts in food, and we organize events and bring volunteers to serve. In the end, it is the community that is the beneficiary, and it is our community,” she told them.
Irfan told Kavita that he has met many wonderful people in Houston, and that one woman, who took the lead in fighting the pandemic had raised money to help 200 refugee families. “She provided them groceries for a week,” he told Kavita.
Asked to share some final thoughts and concerns about what is happening in India, Irfan said he is praying that India would soon get a handle on the situation. “I cannot imagine what they are going through, right now. But we should do our best to support India. The country has gone through hardships and a lot of ups and downs. People are volunteering, they are coming forward to fight against this pandemic. Indians are very brilliant. They will come out of it. It is a matter of time,” he said.
Kavita told them that the global community is supporting India, and while the initial response was slow everybody now realizes that we are in this together. “None of us are going to get out of the grip of COVID-19 until everybody gets out of it,” she told them.
Lessons have been learnt in responding to the pandemic not just in the Houston community but around the world. People are coming together, and this pandemic offers us a moral about the need to ignore differences, build bridges. People like Lin and Irfan embody that spirit.
(The recorded conversation between Lin, Irfan, and Kavita has been edited for clarity.)
By Danny Pereira
There are many who have dedicated their service to the afflicted, in these Covid times. Many have also sought to take advantage of this difficult situation. However, the Sangh and Yuva Brigade have established themselves as organized NGOs, committed to social welfare. I was introduced to the genuine secularism of these Hindu activists, which was beyond caste, creed, or religion, when faced with a crisis in my own family.
I received a call from my niece, Sushma Pereira, a nursing graduate from Kolar one week ago. “Dad has undergone a CT scan. The report says he suffers from Covid pneumonia. Severity is 16/25, and oxygen is not available anywhere. If I got oxygen, I would take care of him at home. He is not able to breathe. Oxygen saturation is at 70-75...” She was miserable, without knowing what to do. I was in Holenarasipura, near Mysore, and tried to contact someone I knew who could help. The people who came to my mind were Gururaj, the All India Saha Pramukh of Gramvikas and the young leader of Yuva Brigade, Chakravarti Sulibele. I called them both, and what happened later was the unveiling of the benevolence of the volunteers responding to another's hardship.
Sulibele tried to get an oxygen cylinder in many places, but in vain. Finally, he got a cylinder in Malur, a town in Kolar district. It was brought to the town by a volunteer from Kolar. But the flow meter could not be found in Kolar. Sulibele made a very difficult search in Bengaluru and arranged to send the flow meter. It had to be brought from Bengaluru to Hosakote and then to Kolar. Here, in the hospital my brother's condition worsened. Eventually, the cylinder and the flow meter reached us. The moment the oxygen cylinder was fixed, Sulibele called me. The gratification in his voice was like he had done it for someone in his own family. The stirring words, he uttered so achingly, are still ringing in my ears during these crucial moments of COVID-19. The many expectations of loved ones -- some people need oxygen, some need a ventilator, and a bed for some -- it is difficult to set it all up during this pandemic, but somehow, we manage. A few days later, Sulibele called me to enquire about my brother. When I said, “though you helped a lot, he did not survive,” there was a lot of pain in his voice. I cannot forget the assurance he gave me trying to relieve me of the pain of my loss.
The oxygen from the cylinder, which we received with so much difficulty, was used for only half an hour. Those who gave it and brought it did not know the fact. The reason was that the cylinder was for industrial use. When I informed Gururaj, he immediately contacted the district pracharak of Kolar. Though he straightaway contacted the district hospital of Kolar, all the beds were filled with patients, and they could not take my brother in. Prashant, the district pracharak of Kolar, did not stop trying. In the meantime, we got KGF Sambhram Hospital, in Kolar, to take my brother in, as the former MLA, Mr. Sampangi was able to persuade them. My niece still remembers the way Sangh activists comforted her during those tough times. The volunteers were calling her from time to time and requesting her to let them know if she needed any help. She was in awe, amazed about these people as she knew nothing about the Sangh. She heard that Mr. Sulibele had bought the oxygen cylinder by paying Rs.20,000. When my niece tried to pay that amount, he refused; the taxi driver was being paid by a Sangh volunteer, Vasanth from his own pocket.
Thus, the Sangh volunteers did their best to see that her father recovered – these were people whose faces my niece had never seen before. Though my brother seemed to recover for a day or two, the initial consumption of five litres of oxygen rose up to seven litres gradually. It was planned to have my brother transferred back to Kolar hospital due to non-availability of oxygen ventilators. Not only ICU but also the beds were filled out in the Kolar hospital, yet Prashant continued with his incessant efforts. The RMO, Dr. Balasundar of SNR Hospital, who was the sanghchalak there tried to reassure my niece.
Within fifteen minutes, my brother left the world, for ever. When my niece sought to hire an ambulance to take the body to Chikkamagaluru, the price she was quoted was Rs. 60,000. It was difficult for her to bear this cost. The Sangh volunteers came to her rescue again. The district pracharak contacted the Member of Parliament and arranged for a private ambulance and the MP himself rented the ambulance to transport the body of my brother. Besides, he arranged a car for my two nieces and their mother to return home. The funeral was held with the help of Kolar District Pracharak Jagdish, Mysore Division Pracharak Akshay, Division Karyavaha Vijay Narvey, Chikmagalur Sangha Vyavasta Pramukh Mallik, and others. My niece is still grateful for the help of the Sangh's various activists who felt the hardship of hers as theirs and regularly phoned her to inquire. She remembers the humble words of the volunteers that they perform what Sangha advises and they are not doing anyone any special favors.
We are Christians. The Sangh stood with us when we were bewildered by this Covid crisis at our door. Not knowing these people, without being familiar with them, how they reached out to help fills my heart with gratitude. If we phoned to thank the activists, they would say that we have not done anything special; this is what we consider service. I had read and knew about the philosophical doctrines of the Sangh. Now we have got acquainted with their real service mentality. My brother was a steadfast Christian who was a critic of the Sangh. I wanted to tell my brother about the selfless service of Sangh after he was healed, but alas, that chance is lost. The help that the volunteers of Sangh offered us is not ordinary. They believe that what they do is for the good of society, for the good of the country. Their humility and their devotion to service is commendable. That they serve without discriminating based on caste or religion fills my heart with pride.
Original essay in Kannada, by Danny Pereira, published in Vijaya Karnataka on June 11, 2021.
Translated by Ganeshprasad
On a scorching sunny day in the month of May, a bright young woman observed a group of people distributing medicines and other essentials in her neighbourhood. She went close and found out that the group was from Sewa International and had tons of questions to ask them. What were they doing, how they worked, where they lived, and who funded Sewa, she was curious to know. The place was a low income neighbourhood in Nagpur, the third largest city and the winter capital of the Indian state of Maharashtra. Sewa volunteers were distributing health and hygiene kits to the residents and spreading awareness about the right usage of mask and measures to increase immunity. The Sewa volunteers briefed people on the preventive health measures to combat COVID-19. A few of the residents discussed their fears about the pandemic with the volunteers. The residents were quite responsive and immediately started following advice. Many of these families thanked the Sewa team for the medical aid they received in times of financial uncertainty.
Kirti Suresh Ankushe, the girl who stood there watching Sewa volunteers was impressed by their work and expressed interest in volunteering with Sewa. She had finished her high school and hoped to enrol for her bachelor’s degree in the near future. While struggling with her own financial uncertainties, Kirti, at a very young age, was thinking of serving others. Sewa volunteers were pleasantly surprised by her willingness to volunteer and thought she was an inspiration for today's youth, and India with such selfless minds could easily win against any pandemic.
–Anandu, Attapadi, Kerala
Panaganarapallam is a tribal village in the Pudur Panchayat of Attappady region in the Indian state of Kerala. The village has a scattered settlement where it would require a 500-1000 meter walk in the hilly, muddy pathways to move from one house to another. The residents of Panganarappallam were fearful and hesitant of taking COVID-19 vaccines. The government officials had faced strong resistance from people when they went to this village to vaccinate people. This was clearly seen from the fact that only two individuals were vaccinated in the village.
Sewa International’s partner organization, Swami Vivekananda Medical Mission, working in collaboration with the state health department, took up the challenge to mobilize the villagers for the vaccination camp. On the morning of May 27, 2021, a three-member team of Swami Vivekananda Medical Mission along with the officials of Health department visited the village. Using the community network of SVMM, the team interacted with the local influencers in the village such as the village head or “ooru moopan” and the local health volunteers and took them along and visited each and every household of the village crossing hills, forests and water streams, and explained the importance of vaccination to them in their tribal language.
The results of their efforts were evident at the end of the day, when more than 90% of the 18-45 years old people in the village came forward to get themselves vaccinated. Among them, four individuals could not take vaccines due to some pre-existing systemic diseases. This is an ideal example of the vision of Sewa, “Together We Serve Better” where the public, community and voluntary organization collaborate to address local challenges and overcome difficulties.
Parth is 17 years old and is a junior at the Charter School of Wilmington, Delaware. He has many relatives living in India, including his grandparents. He has been closely following the COVID-19 situation in India. It was appalling for him to see how an acute shortage of essential medical supplies and equipment, such as oxygen and ventilators, is leading to a large number of deaths across the country. He felt that though he could not be there physically, he should try to help. He thought of raising funds through an activity and started looking for an organization that is buying lifesaving medical equipment, like oxygen-concentrators and ventilators, and shipping to hospitals across India.
We, as his parents, felt proud of his initiative and discussed with him on how to turn it into an actionable campaign. After researching several options, including buying equipment and shipping to India ourselves, we concluded that Sewa International is the best platform for serving the community for this and other causes. After deciding on the Sewa platform, Parth developed the campaign content and requested us to reach out to Sewa for approval.
Parth came up with an idea of preparing and selling Indian food items that are nutritional, and affordable. We decided to keep the expected contribution per box to $10 as we wanted to attract many people making small contributions rather than a few people making large contributions. We evaluated many food items such as pav-bhaji and manchurian fried rice, and decided on idli / vada with chutney and sambar.
To spread the word, we used text messaging and requested patrons to order in advance. To our surprise, we got far more orders than expected. Though they found it challenging to keep up, Parth and his mom continued to take orders till the last day as every contribution was going to help. We had to make several trips to local Indian store to augment the raw material and food containers as orders kept adding up.
Parth’s mom prepared the batter for the food a day in advance and the whole family got up real early to cook on the day we distributed the food. A few family friends and their kids were excited by the idea, and came in to help us in packing. We distributed food to the people who could not come and pick it up. The whole event was a huge success as we raised more than $1,200.
After the event, a few middle-school kids, including those who helped us, reached out to Parth for more insight and how they could be part of the campaign. Parth and other children explored the idea of doing sub-campaigns with different types of events, such as Indian food sale, dress-down day, virtual bingo night, and more. They are currently planning to conduct another fundraising event in the coming days.
It was a sultry Sunday morning of May 2021, and the helpdesk of Swami Vivekananda Medical Mission, the partner organization of Sewa International, received an emergency call from the village health worker of Mele Mulli. The village is situated in Attappady, a region predominantly inhabited by tribal people in the Indian state of Kerala. The health worker requested essential groceries, vegetables and necessary medicine for an elderly-woman in the village. The Sewa team visited the village in the same day afternoon with the required relief kit and found that the situation of the elderly woman was worse than what they initially imagined.
Kaliyamma, the 84-year-old woman, lived alone in the tribal village of Mele Mulli. The area is saddled with high infant mortality rates, malnourishment, low literacy level, poverty and high unemployment. The tribes of Attappady live in hamlets called ‘ooru’, in and around the hills and forests of the Western Ghats of India. Mele Mulli is the last tribal village of Attappady in the north-eastern part of Kerala. The village is surrounded by forests and frequently attacked by wild animals like elephants and boars. The relief provided by the government never arrives or often reaches these tribal villages late.
The elderly woman Kaliyamma was living alone in Mele Mulli village without any source of income. Her elder son had died a few years back and her second son was stuck in Tamil Nadu due to COVID-19 related lockdown restrictions. She was suffering from cough, fever and cold and the Sewa provided essential medicines to her through the trained community health volunteers. The team also provided her a grocery kit, arranged freshly-cooked food and connected her with the state health department. The health department conducted a mass testing, and found 48 COVID-19 positive cases in the village. Kaliyamma was also tested positive and was taken to an isolation centre. She is now recovering well in the government COVID-19 facility. The immediate relief provided by Sewa and Vivekananda Medical Mission in the form of grocery kit and medicine provided a lifeline to Kaliyamma for a few days before the government support reached her.
A dailywage worker and farmer from Nanded in the Indian state of Maharashtra started posting messages seeking help during the Sewa International Facebook live session that was held a couple of weeks ago. Due to the multiple messages posted, the session moderator messaged to him to check what was going on. The person from Nanded mentioned that he needed immediate help and if he did not get any he would commit sucide along with his family.
The volunteer who was moderating the Facebook live session immediately forwarded the concerned person’s details to Sewa International volunteer located in India to follow-up. Sewa India volunteer contacted Lok Kalyan Samiti (World Welfare Committee), a Sewa’s partner organization in Nanded, Maharashtra to find a volunteer to get in touch with this person. Within 15 mins, a Lok Kalyan Samiti volunteer from Nanded got in touch with the daily wage worker to check what type of help was required.
The person being helped by the Lok Kalyan Samiti hailed from a small village near Nanded and he was in deep financial trouble. His mother went through a knee treatment and needed more medical assistance. His sister, a cancer patient, too needed immediate medical assistance and his wife was expecting and was due to deliver a baby soon. As this person was out of job for more than a year and his farmland was not yielding enough to support his family’s needs, he was disheartened and desperately looking for a solution to his woes.
He had borrowed some money and it increased his burden further and while searching for a solution on Facebook he had come across the Sewa International page and started posting repetitive messages asking for help.
The Jan Kalyan Samiti and the Sewa International volunteers counselled him over the phone multiple times to dissuade him from taking his life and found a free hospital in the area for his family to get free medical treatment. They also organized a fundraising campaign to provide some financial assistance to his family. His wife gave birth to a healthy girl child recently. He thanked the Sewa and Lok Kalyan Samiti volunteers for all the help he received and said he would help someone in the future to pay back the help he got. He also said, due to the financial crisis, he had to stop his Bachelors of Computer Application ( BCA) course in the middle and now intended to find a job and continue his education. He is pinning all his hopes on his new-born daughter and hoping she will bring good luck and Lakshmi (the Hindu goddess of wealth) in his life.
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