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football for hope

By unknown | Jul 14, 2008 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

We continue our series on Fifa's Hidden Football Stories which has seen the beautiful game bring hope to millions of people around the globe ... FOOTBALL FOR HOPE Lifeline for Homeless Children in India's Second City

We continue our series on Fifa's Hidden Football Stories which has seen the beautiful game bring hope to millions of people around the globe ... FOOTBALL FOR HOPE Lifeline for Homeless Children in India's Second City

Vijay was found lying in the great Howrah railway station, where he slept with a razor blade under his tongue. He used the blade to defend himself from attackers. Yet most of the time he ended up slashing himself to ribbons. Vijay is nine years old.

And then a 12-year-old Abhik, was burned quite hideously when his mosquito net caught fire. The fire killed his mother, who was lying next to him. He was also found in the station: sniffing glue and smoking heroin.

Also there's 15-year-old Dinesh. He was discovered at age seven, living on the streets, having been continuously raped for years: his syphilis was so bad he had to sit on a bucket of potassium permanganate for six weeks.

Where are we? Kolkata, of course: that great, majestic, troubled and teeming capital of India's West Bengal, formerly known as Calcutta. This is the city of Mother Theresa and her beggars and lepers. This is the so-called "city of joy". This is the city that provoked Winston Churchill to say: "I am glad I have now been to Kolkata, as it means I never have to go there again."

A nightmare of poverty and suffering.

And yet, if Kolkata can sometimes seem like a nightmare of poverty and suffering, it still has many beacons of optimism: and one of the very brightest is Futurehope, a charity for homeless kids run by an affable 50-something Englishman called Tim Grandage.

"Tim Uncle", as he is known to his co-workers and charges, spends his time rescuing waifs and strays from the pitiless streets of the Bengali slumopolis. Dinesh, Vijay and Abhik have all, for instance, found a home with Futurehope. This is why we know their stories - though their identities must be disguised, to protect their future prospects.

Tim Uncle doesn't just rescue and feed his charges. He teaches them to live, learn and laugh like normal people, to lead a constructive existence. One of the main techniques he uses when rehabilitating the kids is sport - especially team sports like football.

Sitting on the sun-drenched balcony of a Futurehope kids' home, Tim takes up his remarkable story.

"I was working for HSBC in Kolkata. I was a young man, a bachelor boy, leading a fairly aimless existence. One day I was watching some kids in the street: it was monsoon time, the streets were literally flooded. Waist-deep in muddy water. All the guys at the bank were complaining, of course. But these kids were swimming in the rainwater: laughing, playing, celebrating. It really affected me. I'm not sure why."

Soon after that Tim came across another street child, who was desperately ill. Appalled at the child's condition, Tim took the boy to a friendly doctor. The physician readily agreed to help.

Without Tim and his doctor friend the boy would likely have died. The experience gave Grandage the kind of emotional buzz you don't get from corporate loans: within a few years he had given up his banking career, and set himself up as a fulltime charity worker, helping the street kids of Kolkata.

It wasn't easy at first. Tim's company, HSBC, were "incredibly understanding and generous" - the bank funded Tim's endeavours, and provided many other resources. Nonetheless, in the early days, things were extremely primitive. At one point Tim was living with 32 street kids in his own two-bedroom apartment. Everyone slept on the floor. He keeps the photos to prove it.

Two decades on, Tim Grandage's Futurehope is a very different concern. Acclaimed around the world for their work, the Futurehope dormitories house at least 200 homeless children every night. The Futurehope schools teach the children art, maths, music and English. More kids come in from the slums as "day scholars" - children who aren't technically homeless, but who would otherwise go without schooling. "There are reckoned to be 100 million illiterate children in India," says Tim. "And 100000 are homeless in Kolkata alone."

It's a daunting task. But the rewards - spiritual and emotional - are huge. Tim and his co-workers can really make a difference, as we are about to find out, during our visit to the Maidan, the great central space at the heart of Kolkata.

When we arrive at the Maidan, a bunch of Futurehope footballers are already there; having a playful kick-about. The referee is a charming teenager with certain mental problems, but no one seems to care. More than a few kids have the most challenging backgrounds: born of teenage prostitutes, or afflicted with psychological conditions, or getting over a life of drug addiction - that may have begun at the age of six. Yet here they are: just another laughing football team.

Jagdeep is a slightly older boy who has come through the Futurehope system. He explains a further advantage of soccer, and other sports, in the streetkids' lives: "It makes us realise we can win. When you are homeless, you are a loser. OK, you are free and there's no school, and that's maybe fun when you are eight, but as you grow older you realise everyone looks down on you. People sneer, the police beat you up. But then you join Futurehope, and you get in the football team...

"And then maybe you play the police team and you beat them. We do that regularly! That is a very good feeling. Believe me! And then the police learn to respect us, and we learn to respect ourselves."

As the warm winter sun goes down over the grandiose Victoria Memorial, Tim takes us on a tour of the City of Joy. We go to the shores of the great river Hooghly, a tributary of the Ganges, where thousands of men are washing in the filthy water. Further down the shore: corpses are being burned, in great open funeral pyres. Death is never far away in Kolkata.


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