Asha’s story started about two years ago, but for me and my family, it all started about a year ago – on 19 April 2016 when my friend, Ulrike Reinhard, email me about her. Ulrike sent me Asha’s photo (her and her parents) asking if I happen to know anyone who could host her for a few weeks here in the UK and support her in learning English. I do not think I had any doubts that it should be us and when I showed the email to my husband he simply said: “of course!”. My son – well he was just so moved and excited.
Today Asha is almost 18. As I am typing this she is sitting on a plane from Delhi to London Heathrow. This afternoon she will be sitting in our living room! She will stay with us for a month learning English, making the most of her time here to go back and serve the school and community with her new language skills. She will stay with us for a month learning English, making the most of her time here to go back and serve the school and community with her new language skills.
I cannot explain to you the overwhelming mix of emotions flooding me and my family today. Our friends are asking if we are ready (in full support, ready to help, offering social time with their children too – anything to help her learning) – but I do not think one can prepare for a moment like this. All we can do is just go with the flow. It’s moving, humbling, simple yet so very emotionally charged experience and at the end of the day I am really honoured to host Asha in our house. I admire her drive and determination to convince her parents, her country, the world really that she can do better than the place she was born to. I admire her mother for understanding the meaning of this opportunity and I really respect her father for understanding what’s best for his child. I can only imagine the amount of courage and trust it takes to send your child away so far and for so long if your world is your village and your social status is not too high.
So that’s how I feel today but because we want to document Asha’s story – for her, for her parents, for Ulrike and every single person who contributed to it I am going to go back a little bit and tell you how we got here.
I met Ulrike at the Global Voices Summa a few years ago, at a time when her vision for Janwaar Castle was shaping up and the very early work on the park was being initiated. We talked about her vision and my ideas that later shaped Wantage Pixel Club. I felt connected to Ulrike because I could see she wants to make a long-term impact on a community of children (and their families) that otherwise would be overlooked and she was planning to spend all her money, life experience and connections to make it happen. I was moved and infected by her determination and so I started following the Janwaar Castle blog, Facebook page, later on also Instagram feed. I sent a few books through our mutual friend and donated a little bit of money here and there thinking “this is the least we can do”.
In April 2016 Ulrike messages me on Facebook asking if maybe I could help with ideas and asked me to check my email. I opened it and saw Asha’s family photo with a note: we are looking for a family that could have Asha over for a few weeks. I wrote back that we can have her over. Ulrike wrote back “Do I get you right? Do you really mean you can do it? Wow” – I suspect she did not expect it would be so fast and easy.
Well, it wasn’t. I know it sounds like the biggest challenge, but actually, it was only a small step on Asha’s journey. You see, Asha comes from Adivasi which means her prospects are very limited. Her older sister was married off and she was facing the same prospects. Not a single person in her village had a passport or even knew what that means. Not many people travelled beyond the village itself. It was only Asha’s great English skills in her initial studies and ability to work with Ulrike and the team to make her parents understand the importance of this trip that led to her father’s promise that if she does manage to travel and study in the UK, she will not be married off and she will work at Janwaar Castle instead. You can read about this initial part of her journey here:
It was a long, long difficult process. And one we started to think would never get anywhere. What kept us going was Asha’s strong will and persistence to explore. She used to say to her father, “I am too young to get married. I want to study. It’s important, because without good education I will end up working as a laborer, too. If I study, I can find a good job.” Asha’s mother understood much faster. She said, “ The villagers would ask us how we could think of sending our daughter abroad. Aren’t we scared? Yes, we are, but our daughter convinced us to let her go. She kept telling us: “Let me go. If I do well, I can achieve something in life!”
Ulrike set up a crowdfunding campaign for her. The news of Asha’s travels spread fast and was celebrated in a good media coverage (here and here for example). She was featured in a video documentary about Janwaar Castle:
Once we had the permission to travel and we had a home for Asha here in the UK both teams – Janwaar Castle in India and us here in the UK – started working hard on possibly the hardest bit: passport and visa. Spring 2016 was all about the passport application. Manaan posted his personal journal about the process here, here and here. Asha had to travel to the passport office twice and the journey was emotional for them all. (Honestly who likes to go to apply for passports, you know for us it’s fuss and bother but I remember the times of communism in Eastern Europe so I do know the feeling of fear, worry, complete submission when you face an official who is about to decide about your future, I really can relate to it and I am glad that there are kind, lovely people around the world who check papers and make our travels possible).
Ulrike kept us informed on her Facebook profile. Mehmood visited London and met us to officially “vet us”. I spent entire fall talking about Asha in my community. My friends, fellow parents, members of the Chamber of Commerce and other local groups – everyone was really inspired by this story and pledged all the help they can give us once Asha is here. Remember that for the UK the fall of 2016 was a very difficult time – our society suddenly felt somewhat divided, confused, worried. Everyday conversations were hard. Listening to the news was, well….upsetting. Asha’s story already then felt like a sparkle of light to all of us here.
Then we saw this post in November 🙂
I was ecstatic! Once we had the passport we had to apply for the visa. I had no idea that this is the hardest past of the process, really. The amount of paperwork we had to prepare! But it was all worth it. This is where our work became a little bit more crucial. We have secured Asha a place at our local school working according to playwork principles – something really aligned with the philosophy of Janwaar Castle. I have asked a local friend of Indian origin to advise us on what else we need to think of – Gurmukh was really supportive, offered help with food and more importantly, Asha’s spiritual needs. Our friend, Bethany, offered her English teaching skills. My friend, Linda, offered any support needed when our work, life gets in the way and Asha needs company. I have asked other mums to let me know if we can provide Asha with a lot of playtime with their daughters – I have an 11-year-old son, so it’s not the same. My landlords spent a lot of time serving as medical support in India and they also started asking: when is Asha coming? We would love to meet her. I started feeling a little bit excited at this stage. We live in a very connected world, India is not far away but the process can be frustrating. So at this stage, I started feeling even more invested in Asha’s story. Ulrike visited us in December and met all the people involved in Asha’s story in our town. We had a great time planning and learning about Asha’s needs and goals.
“I’m feeling very good that my daughter is going to England. I’m feeling so happy, so very very happy. Also because she will go on and learn to do good work, and also progress forwards.
She is making everyone happy and proud. Boosting the confidence of the other kids, the village and herself. This makes me very happy.”
We sent our visa paperwork and it was over to the team on the ground again. Applying for via took us months, few attempts and many, many people helping. Remember that for Asha every step of this process was new! Catching the train, catching the metro, filling out the paperwork! All of it! Visa applications (we needed to do it few times) took us all the way to this spring:
In the meantime, Asha continued working even harder and inspiring the girls in Janwaar, across India and us too! I cannot even imagine how hard it must have been to wait for passport and so I am glad she made the most of her time, kept busy and helped Janwaar. She also developed her skateboarding skills. A lot has happened at the Park too – check out their fan page.
Ulrike presented the ideas behind Janwaar Castle at TEDx:
We waited. Waited a long time. Applied again and again. I was starting to worry that maybe we might need to invite Asha when is is over 18? But Ulrike and Manaan workedfiercelyy on getting the visa for Asha. I cannot even tell you how detemined they were. Our friends kept asking about Asha on a weekly basis.
21 April 2017, almost exactly a year after our first email exchange, came the news:
I cried. I think we all cried. I still cannot stop crying when looking at this update. We did it. And Asha’s journey did not stop. It continues.
She packed and left her village:
She prepared for skateboarding:
And she boarded the plane:
This afternoon a very new part of her journey begins and I cannot wait. I met Ulrike’s Indian friend based in Oxford, Prakhar, yesterday. He offered helping us with translation and anything we need here too. We will be documenting her stay here as much as we can, but we will also do our best to give her time and privacy to study and rest. My family is going to treat Asha as if she was our daughter in May thinking of her wonderful parents back in India with huge respect. I have rearranged my son’s room to create space for Asha when we applied for the visa the last time almost in desperation – a part of me was thinking: maybe if I create this space now the universe will align itself and help us get her here? It worked!
Of course the fact that Asha got her visa is a result of months of work and determination of Asha, a core group of people involved and many people who simply did something small but crucial for her: promised help, donated money, gave us all a word of support or really just believed in us, believed in Asha. It’s easy to think of one or two people but it’s usually all of us united, as a community who make a difference and every kind gesture matters.
For me today is the end of a very emotional journey to get Asha to the UK and prepare to make her stay here truly meaningful to her and her family and community. This is why I wanted to write it all down in one post. Thank you for reading. I would like to use this opportunity to thank every single person who helped me and my family to help her. You are all so wonderful: your acts and words truly matter and show that those strange times are not even a test to our human kindness – they are a testimonial that humans can be really powerful and kind at the same time. We have already made a huge difference.
As for Asha I am confident that everything she will learn and experience here with us will provide her with skills and even more determination to go back and serve her family, community, Janwaar Castle. And we will be there if needed. We will watch her and her park – I recommend you tune in too. Read their press coverage, find out more about them, check out their videos and other videos about them. Follow Asha’s story with us and afterwards, back with her family. I am confident she will be the one to watch and she will inspire many more kids, girls, to do something amazing too.
When Ulrike agreed for us to have Asha over my first question was: what is the meaning of her name? Ulrike did not know and had to ask. We found out quickly that it means “hope”. I cannot help but wonder why her parents gave her this name, maybe one day I will find out. I know that names carry a huge meaning. For me today Asha indeed symbolises hope. She brings hope to her world and to ours – the world we all have to share. Every choice we make, ever word we type or say can unite and build us. It can inspire.
As Ulrike said: “Nothing’s impossible” As my husband said: “Of course!” As my son said: “I cannot wait!”
We cannot wait!
I love the photo of Asha posted in January so I will leave you with it for now. Thank you for reading.
Asha’s goals in the UK are to learn English, meet local skateboarders, understand our culture and collected and document her experiences to help her community and Janwaar Castle. If you want to be a part of Asha’s story, help, get involved, tell it to others just email me on email@example.com
(I am very emotional today so sorry for any typos etc)
Update: Asha has landed and seems really happy about her place, new friends and new adventure. Here is our first meetup at the airport: