Thirty million children left alone, orphaned or without a family. And only two out of a hundred find a place in some structure. When speaking about India the numbers immediately get out of hand; it is a scale of magnitudes far removed from what we are used to. You have to stop and think to realize that the number of homeless children is more than half the population of Italy. Add to that poverty, hunger, an illiteracy rate that remains over 20% and for women reaches 29.7% (UNESCO data), and the picture becomes even bleaker.
We have thousands of girls who, for lack of means, stop studying and end up who knows where. If it goes well, in child labour. Or they are sent abroad: Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates... But the fate for many is another: Prostitution, slavery, organ trafficking. We want to change all this. We want to give them a chance.
These are the words of Fr. Don Bosco Darsi, 43, who has been a Salesian priest in the Diocese of Vijaywada, in the state of Andhra Pradesh, since 2009. And since 2019 he has been the founder and soul of Talitha Cumi Unnati, an educational centre that brings together 240 girls from the Gunadala area, on the eastern coast of the country. Rural, deep India. Like the needs of those housed among these classrooms, where activities follow four main strands: Education, mentoring, prevention and protection. But the first word Don Bosco says, when he explains what they are, is sheltering, refuge. "The girls are between 9 and 24 years old, some are growing up here, others have just arrived." For all of them, it is more than a school. It is a home, run by eight people who work there permanently, plus about twenty volunteers. And aid also arrives from afar: this year, Talitha Cumi is among the projects financed by AVSI's Christmas Tents Campaign.
The funds will be used to finance very different activities. "Courses in handicrafts, computers, agriculture," explains Fr. Don Bosco: "But also personal support and vocational training. The basic idea is to create a broader positive impact, focused on the person." The girls arrive through a wide network of contacts and solidarity: "These are young people who risk being on the margins, excluded forever because of poverty, castes or their faith. We try to understand where there the greatest need is, where the most marginalised are. Sometimes the police bring them to us. Other times they come from the parish.”
Often it is a matter of putting an end to abuse, of all kinds. Or of trying to open up alternatives to a life that was already scarred at an early age. "For example, we try to prevent early marriages: girls getting married at 14-15 years of age. It is quite normal here, but it is often the only way to try to escape human trafficking.” At least 4,500 young girls a year leave from this area, sent like parcels, or almost, to the Middle East. They end up working in homes, sometimes worse. "Often these girls arrive having already lost hope. We try to give it back to them.”
He comes from a poor family, with four other brothers and sisters, "Don Bosco" is the name he chose for his Baptism, which came after meeting some PIME priests on a mission in his native area, the village of Thukkuluru. "What attracted me? They spoke of God's love and the dignity of the person. In Hindu society, if you are in a low caste, you have no dignity. Christianity is something else. You are made in the image of God, Genesis 1:26. Ultimately, it is the most important thing we try to communicate to these girls: "You are something great, you can become a wonderful person.”
He became a priest early, like his brother Jeeva (who died of Covid in 2020). "I was touched by the figure of Don Bosco, his passion for young people and education. My vocation came from there, and so did my name. Although I know it sounds strange in Italy, ‘Don Don Bosco'….”
Fr. Don Bosco smiles as he speaks of his European past. He studied in Leuven, Belgium: Moral Theology. "From there I took away very practical ideas about solidarity, the common good, the social teaching of the Church. Here in India we still have the caste system, it is normal that the poor are left on the margins: without education or protection. The traffic is growing very quickly. I do not know if you have seen Sound of Freedom, with Jim Caviezel: it is not set here, but it recounts the phenomenon well.”
"With them," he adds, the challenge is even harder. In addition to the barriers that hinder the girls' lives, there is another one: “Persecution against Christians. In recent years there have been 350 churches burnt down. It means that communities are left without their beating heart: schools, aid.... There is an anti-conversion law that is terrible, very fierce. And you look at Christians as if they are not patriots. It is as if they were to accuse Catholics in Italy of not being good citizens.” What impact does this have on your work? "You are always under observation. It is dangerous. But you have to deal with it. A place like Talitha Cumi also serves this purpose, to give courage to communities. Through our work we try to build peace. And to make these girls ambassadors of peace.”
Even schools have ended up in the government's anti-Christian stranglehold. The Catholic ones in the area have been closed “because they do not allow Hindu practices. We have to send the girls to public schools. Many do not want to go there, sometimes because of the traumas they have suffered. They prefer to learn a trade, like sewing. Others do go to school. We have many of them studying nursing, for example." In both cases, the key factor is education. "Their life becomes better. And the longer they stay here, the safer they are: they are protected, they learn."
Fr. Don Bosco recounts the story of girls for whom the Centre has become a 'gamechanger'. As happened to Sindu, “who graduated as a nurse and now works, earns a living. If it had not happened this way, she would probably be in Qatar today.” Or to Swati, who left school as soon as she finished secondary school
Her family would like her to get married as soon as possible, to save her from the traffic. But today she works and supports herself.” And she is freer to choose. The girls want freedom. With our help, they can become nurses, engineers, teachers. This can change everything.They can get up and walk, as the name of the Centre says, recalling the Gospel and the little girl resurrected by Jesus
This harmony is the result of a relationship born during his years in Leuven, where Fr. Don Bosco met people from CL. "I celebrated Masses for the School of Community there. They invited me to the Rimini Meeting. There I met Davide Prosperi, who proposed that I come to La Thuile, to the International Assembly of Leaders. I came for two years, and they asked me to speak about India. And there the contact with AVSI was born.” But if you ask him what CL is for him, he answers with one word: “A family. I was far from home and very lonely. Meeting those people was a great help. Spiritual and human.” And he says their names: Lucia, Giacomo, Luciano....
He also adds the name of another of his brothers, Joseph, “who has started a CL group here in the parish.” And that of Don Ambrogio (Pisoni) who visits them whenever he can. And who knows how many others will join them, in these weeks of dinners, initiatives and Zoom connections. But what, apart from the funds to be raised, does he expect from the Tents campaign? Don Bosco thinks about it for a moment. And then he says: “To have an experience. Of faith and peace.”