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Reaching the Young ‘Untouchables’

In India, a home for boys sparks a quiet revolution

by Jose Kavi with photographs by Jose Jacob

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It could be any traditional house in Kerala: an unremarkable single-story building with a slanted, tiled roof and narrow veranda. Scarlet flowers fall from a nearby flame tree, drifting past an open gate leading to the front door.

For dozens of young people, that door is an entryway to more than just a house. A sign in English and Malayalam, the local language, says it is the “Malankara Boys’ Home.” This is a place of possibility.

A low building in the front houses a library, sick room, kitchen, pantry, work area and classroom. A path paved with red and black tiles, chipped and broken in places, leads to a four-story building where children study, sleep and play.

Between the two buildings — each in need of fresh paint — lies a small lawn with a statue of the Virgin Mary inside a large lotus, the national flower of India, fashioned out of concrete. Here, children pray before going to school.

In this home in 1996, the Syro-Malankara Catholic Archeparchy of Trivandrum began a plan to deliver children from a vicious circle of poverty, squalor and despair.

Seventeen years later, the Malankara Boys’ Home counts more than 175 extraordinary young men as success stories, part of a growing effort to spark a quiet social revolution among southern India’s Dalits.

Dalit, a Sanskrit term, denotes the former “untouchable” groups in India’s multilayered caste system that segregates people on the basis of birth.

Although Mahatma Gandhi called the Dalit “harijan” (children of God), and the Indian constitution bans caste discrimination, those people once identified as untouchable continue to lag behind socially and economically.

But thanks in part to Malankara Boys’ Home, that is beginning to change.

“Our children have brought hope to those who are dismissed as social scum,” says the Rev. Jose Kizhakedath, a priest of the archeparchy who started the home and guided its first seven years. It is a hope that is slowly but perceptibly changing the lives of some of Kerala’s young people most in need.

It all began with priests who were appalled by what they saw in Dalit enclaves, or colonies, in the archeparchy. Dalits make up about 10 percent of the Syro-Malankara Archeparchy of Trivandrum’s 220,000 Catholics, many of them converts from decades of intense missionary activity in the region.

As the number of Catholic Dalits grew, the archeparchy decided to open several parishes for them — mostly in the far-flung and remote areas in which they lived, explains the Rev. Varghese Kodithara, who took over as the home’s director in early 2013. But when priests arrived to work at the parishes, what they saw of the Dalit way of life shocked them.

Most of the homes were single-room huts surrounded by open sewers and with no running water or latrines. In many families, parents slept in the same room with the children.

“It was worse when the fathers were alcoholics,” says the Rev. Mathew Kadakampalli, who has spent his half-century as a priest living and ministering among Dalit people.

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