In a village in India, children from one of the country’s lowest social classes are getting help from a group of Nebraskans. The effort started a decade ago, and continued with a recent return trip this summer.
Kids chase each other on the bright red dirt of a school playground, or play on a worn metal merry-go-round. Inside the open-air concrete school building, a teacher reviews the day’s math lesson, surrounded by walls painted with brightly colored murals. It sounds like a typical school, but it’s not. Located in a village outside of the city of Hyderabad, India, it was built 10 years ago by volunteers from more than 8000 miles away, a group of high school and college kids connected by a group of churches in Norfolk and a desire to help.
Megan Lund is one of these volunteers. She’s a Norfolk native who now teaches high school math in Lincoln. She returns to Hyderabad each year.
“We helped a long time ago to see this school built and so we're just continuing to develop relationships and really help with the education of the students,” Lund said. “If I had to say what we do in as simple a way as possible when we go to India, we play with kids and we love on kids.”
It’s a much needed volunteer effort because of a disparity in education in India, a situation created by the country’s caste system, which represents the different social classes in Indian society. Education is a rare opportunity for the lower castes, people like the Dalits who make up a majority of the population at this school.
“Those (the Dalits) are some of the lowest caste people,” Lund said. “(They) wouldn't otherwise have an opportunity to be educated so the communities are asking, ‘please come in, please teach our children’ because that's how their lives will be changed.”
“The caste system is a system that’s existed in India for over 3,000 years,” said Binu, a college-educated 30-year-old from Hyderabad who helps guide the Nebraska team on its yearly trips. “If you have to just break it down to a simple thing basically what it says is, ‘what you are today is the result of what you did yesterday and what you will be tomorrow is the result of what do you do today.’ In other words it says, ‘be happy where you are.’”
“The most elite jobs go to the upper castes and then the middle jobs and then maybe the lower caste jobs become a little bit more manual labor,” Lund added. “But then there's this whole group, the Dalit, who have been considered so low that they're not even considered a part of the caste system. They've been considered the ‘untouchables’ but they've also been considered the ‘unknowables’ you're not even worth knowing.”
So prior to this school being built, the future for Dalit children in this village might have appeared to be bleak. But Lund says this school is part of the solution for a brighter future.
“The solution is education,” Lund said, “so that you know you have the opportunity to pursue things. They've never been allowed to dream and I think education allows a new generation in India to dream.”
In one of the classrooms of the Hyderabad school, kids we would consider third graders are working on an English spelling lesson. Binu says it takes being educated in English to advance economically in India.
“If a Dalit child growing in a Dalit family doesn't have any education, generally they end up into their caste vocation,” Binu said. “But with an English medium education, you can stand at the cutting edge when you try for a job. The modern day language of business, the language of commerce, the language of economics, the language of social mobility has become English. So, the opportunities become much (easier) when you are highly educated.”
“Education is transforming the lives of Dalit people,” Lund added.
Lund and a total of 100 other volunteers have been back to this school eight times since they built it a decade ago. She hopes more people will get involved in this mission in the years to come.
Emily Kreutz of NET Television with children from the school near Hyderabad, India. Kreutz traveled to India with the group working with the school; she is helping produce an independent documentary on the project.
“It's important that Nebraska continues to go back because beyond my passion for just educating these children there are these relationships that have been built with the students and the teachers,” Lund said. “Lives are continuing to be impacted and I think they will forever be impacted because Nebraska keeps going back.”