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  By Rev A.P. Jacob and five other priests  
  Most Rev. Dr. Joseph Mar Thoma Metropolitan Most Rev. Dr. Philipose Mar Chrysostom Mar  
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  By Shaheen Chander  
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  All for a job  
  By Meetu Tewari
AS a recent visitor to the city of Bangalore, I was struck by the rampant commercialisation of not just the small street corners sprouting big brand names like Tommy Hilfiger but also the invasion of even homes with the same.

Bangalore is called the IT hub of the country; offices are open at every street and corner and multinational companies have made it their home in India. Names like KPMG, Capgemini, Shell, Nokia and many more can be found here. But Bangalore as a city does not belong to anyone because no one belongs here. Most people come here for a sojourn of a few years before moving on. It is not a city loved and has no old world charm about it. It is not like Delhi or Mumbai where people dream of going to settle in. To date, of all the people I met, no one said they came to Bangalore because they wanted to. Their reasons are mostly for their job and for a few, their studies.

The city has adapted itself to meet the demand of these short-term visitors. Walls and pillars alike are plastered with posters offering PG accommodation for girls or boys. There was a poster offering the services of a North Indian cook, Ramu.

Trying to discover a suitable PG for a friend was certainly an experience worth remembering. After using Bangaloreís helpline number and scanning newspapers, a list was made and then began our visit to each. Opening a PG is a favorite activity for the people here. Because of lack of space, most houses here are tall but narrow. People have put this to good use, as most houses here have two-three storeys; these are given on rent and become a means of extra income.

PGs are especially popular with girls as they generally ensure food and give them a place to rest in. That is about all they promise. Their condition is generally poor and they are seldom more than a small room with a bed and cupboard. There was one which was expensive, with Rs 6000 per month for a single room with attached bathroom which was so tiny that I could not even spread my arms in it. Worse, food was not part of the deal.

In another the owners promised us North Indian food, a very homely atmosphere and clean facilities. Expectantly we arrived at a house in Koramangala, the heart of Bangalore. Curiously the house did not have a single plant or even grass, it was just a concrete block which somehow made me apprehensive. As the owners were then not present, some of the girls already living there showed us around. Basically, it was a large hall partitioned into rooms by cardboard sheets, there were two bathrooms and a kitchen so dirty that I wondered how anyone could even cook in there with dirty dishes spread about everywhere, tomatoes rotting in a corner, packets lying about, cobwebs in the cupboards which stood open.

As yet hopeful, we continued our journey to another. Next, we came to a posh apartment building and we, naively, believed that at last we would get something decent. What was shown to us instead was a small room with a bed, in which even a chair would not fit. It was a servant quarter which the owner, an old lady, wanted to rent out. The bathroom had an extremely small metal sink and was so tiny that my friend could not stand there without touching the wall. The cost was Rs 4500 for the room and as she was a girl and alone, another Rs1500 for food.

Our next halt was a PG being run by a lady from Delhi. She was very friendly and told us she cooked the food herself. Her one house was run as a PG while the one she was living in had two rooms which she gave for single occupancy. However, we were then given a list of regulations: cannot stay out late at night, after 11 door will be locked and food will be gone, no one can come to visit unless itís a girl for 1 hour max for project work, no males (family or friends or relatives) can come, no male can drop anyone in front of the gate, you have to inform whenever you are out late, no family members can come visit inside the house or stay for even a day. Needless to say, we never looked back.

While my friend is now happily sharing an apartment with another girl in a good locality, I was amazed how people choose to stay in such difficult circumstances. A colleague told me she shares a room with four girls, the food is pathetic and she has to walk over 4 kilometers everyday to and from her bus-stop. I asked her why she does not shift. She replied that she does not earn enough to afford better and besides, though her PG is really bad, the only reason she chooses to stick on is because all the other girls are so nice.

They are all from North India and very caring towards one another. In an alien city, so far away from home, perhaps it is this warmth and affection which we crave for and we sometimes find. In a city which is not friendly towards its inhabitants, it is these bonds which make a dreary life livable.

The companies here attract a large number of people but they are paid a pittance. However, they get to say they work for an MNC and are in Bangalore. Survival is never easy for the people coming here, especially young graduates and girls. They live in conditions which no human being should live in, especially one working for some of the biggest companies of the world. They live in rooms partitioned with cardboards, cramped rooms with six others sharing it, saving money, yes, but more so, making bonds with people who care for them.

Standing in dirty kitchens but cooking together, living in one room but watching out for one another and being happy because they know that in an unfamiliar city with no family there, they are lucky to have found someone to stand by them at all times.
  Young overachiever  
By V. Radhika

HE has raised millions of dollars supporting various causes across the globe. As UNICEF's child ambassador he has travelled the world. His book, 'Making Change: Tips From an Underage Overachiever', is a step-by-step guide to changing the world and includes chapters on public speaking, a section on dealing with the media and tips on how to convince large corporations to get on board.

And this whiz kid, Bilaal Rajan, is all of 12 years old. If this comes as a surprise, read on. Bilaal was four years old in 2001 when his father, Aman, read him a newspaper article about the earthquake in Gujarat that had devastated lives and property. The report was on an Ismaili priest, who had been crushed under the rubble.

Aman remembers, "I told him, 'You know, Gujarat is where our ancestors came from. Our great-grandfather was born there before he immigrated to Kenya. And the priest, he is from our mosque.'" After his dad finished reading the report, Bilaal responded by saying, "I want to help." When Aman inquired as to what he had in mind, the little boy, who was eating an orange said, "I am going to sell these oranges and raise money."

For the next couple of hours, the four-year-old traversed the neighbourhood with his parents selling oranges for a cause and by the end of the day they had raised C$350 (US$1=C$1.23). Today, Bilaal recounts the trigger for his desire to help, "I knew he (the priest) had a family and kids of his own. I would not want my dad dying if an earthquake happened here. I just put myself in their shoes and said it was not fair."

The journey that began in Toronto's Richmond Hill neighbourhood continues and has taken Bilaal to places and people that need help. Three years after Gujarat, his attention was riveted to the 2004 hurricane in Haiti. This time he sold nearly 1,000 boxes of cookies donated by his father's company, raising C$6,000. But that wasn't enough and he searched out large corporations he thought might donate to the cause.

"I knew that they had lot of money and was sure they would be generous," he says. Having short-listed 50 companies, he sent out a letter, an email and capped it with a phone call. While six companies offered C$200 gift cards, two responses were substantial: impressed with the perseverance and reposing trust in his abilities, APOTEX, a pharmaceutical company, donated $342,700 worth of prescription medicine. Heinz Canada donated more than 2,000 cases of baby food.

These donations came after the company's representatives had a personal meeting with Bilaal. In that meeting and in all the subsequent fundraising efforts, it is Bilaal who wields the mike. One cannot help wondering whether he ever gets intimated while addressing top corporate honchos or celebrities. But the middle school student just shrugs his shoulders and says, "No. I do not get nervous because it is not a performance, not a show where I need to impress someone. I just find it an opportunity to spread my message."

It is through exploring such opportunities that Bilaal has mobilised resources for various causes. When the tsunami ravaged South East Asia, he contacted the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) with a proposal that would be mounted on a nationwide scale. And so was born the UNICEF Canada Kids Earthquake Challenge.

Bilaal challenged every child to raise C$100 with a goal of reaching $1 million. He flew across the country talking about how he, just a regular kid, had been able to make a difference in the world. In the end, with the federal government matching contributions, dollar for dollar, Bilaal's challenge garnered nearly $4 million in aid efforts for tsunami-affected regions.

A lot funds raised by Bilaal are chanelled through the UNICEF to projects that are close to this youngster's heart and the rest are funnelled through his foundation - Hands for Help. Not surprisingly, the money funds projects meant for children. Paraphrasing a quote from Mahatma Gandhi, he says, "Why should not children in other parts of the world have exactly what we have here and what we take for granted?"

Gandhi and his idea of change, has been a source of inspiration for Bilaal. The other contemporary he admires is Aga Khan. "He is my spiritual leader but he works not just for his religious community but the entire humanity. Knowing how devoted someone is and how devoted someone can be has really inspired me to go out and do more," says the young boy.

Bilaal runs a website, '' and is an active blogger. Last year, he established a leadership award in his school for the middle school student who has completed the most volunteer hours. He also sits on the school's outreach committee, which raises funds for various charities and local projects.

All this however, does not take away his academic or sports pursuits. Bilaal maintains high scores and his name figures on ski and tennis teams. But all these laurels rest lightly on this pre-teen's shoulders. Shrugging off the "celebrity" tag, he says his classmates and friends know him "not as a superhero out to save the world, but just another 12-year-old fond of taking action."

His parents, Aman and Shireen, are often asked about their role in shaping Bilaal's efforts or in pushing him to do more. A gentle laugh precedes Aman's response, "Never. All we have done is lend him our ears and let him pursue his passion." He adds, "Bilaal is a very out-of-the-box thinker.

He's very good at doing what he does. He's very passionate about what he does." It is this passion, which will never let Bilaal pursue fundraising as a profession. "I will continue fundraising, but not as a job. I should not be paid to make a difference," he says. On the professional front, he wants to be a neurosurgeon and an astronaut. Not either, but both. (Women's Feature Service)

Photo caption: Bilaal Rajan - WFS
  H-4 visa blues  
  By Elsa Sherin Mathews

"LONG hours in front of the television," is how Ruchi Singh, 27, a trained fashion designer, describes her daily routine in the US. "Once my husband leaves in the morning, I have nothing much to do. I spend my day surfing the Net for new recipes and news from India and, of course, watching television," she elaborates.

Singh once had a hectic professional life, as a finance executive with a multinational company in India. However, marriage to her college sweetheart, a software engineer in Philadelphia, changed everything. "I was looking forward to a new kind of workplace here. However, the H-4 visa doesn't permit me to work," rues Singh, who came to the US in 2007. After the initial period of settling down, when she ventured into the job market, she realised her H-4 visa status was a chief impediment to her being a professional.

"Job hunting has been a frustrating experience. Companies turn me down not only because of my visa status but also because they think that my Indian qualifications don't match up to the US job market," she says. Singh is now planning to do a course in Information and Technology (IT).

Singh's H-4 visa, also known as a 'dependent' visa, can be converted into an H-1B -- a working visa -- but there are many hurdles. She would have to find an employer/company that would be willing to declare to the authorities that she is the most suitable candidate for the job -- that they couldn't find any US national to fill the post.

Every year, thousands of Indian women -- many of them qualified professionals -- join their husbands in the US. But they really have nothing to do there. The world knows about the millions of illegal immigrants in the US and the problems they face, but the case of H-4 visa holders is largely overlooked. An H-4 visa holder is not only denied the right to work but also to obtain a Social Security Number (SSN), which is essential for opening a bank account and obtaining a driving licence.

The only way out is the H-1B visa route, but it is an extremely difficult one. Each year, there are a fixed number of H-1B visas issued by the US immigration office. As of May 1 2009, the numerical cap set for H-1B visas was at 45,000 for the current year.

For an IT professional or an MBA holder, the odds are relatively better than, say, for a primary school teacher. The solution to this would be to get a US education, but that is very expensive and most women on an H-4 visa don't even consider it.

"It is difficult, nearly impossible to find a job if your field is non-technical," says Deepa Nair, who worked as a lecturer of English in Delhi University before she got married and shifted to San Francisco a year ago. "Entering academics is a tough call and is only possible if one enters a US university for a higher degree," elaborates Deepa, who now spends her time reading, catching up on news, going out on walks and dong volunteer work.

Talking of her friends, she observes that "many feel wasted because of the visa situation. Some go ahead and look for alternatives, while others become full time homemakers. This is a visa situation unique to the US. It handicaps a lot of people (especially women)."

The limitations that the H-4 visa puts on a woman's freedom can take a turn for the worse if she becomes a victim of domestic abuse, which has been the concern of Shivali Shah, a Washington, D.C.-based immigration attorney. Shah co-founded Kiran: Domestic Violence and Crisis Service for South Asians in 2000, while she was still a law student at Duke Law school in North Carolina. "While helping battered South Asian women there, I found that a disproportionately high number of them were on the H-4 visa," she reveals. Shah has been championing the cause of battered women on the H-4 visa since then.

"If a battered woman on the H-4 visa wants independence, we try to help her convert to an H-1B work visa or to a student visa. However, they are difficult to obtain, as the H-1B visa is constructed in such a way that the woman effectively needs her husband's approval to convert," explains Shah.

This lawyer-cum-social worker made a breakthrough of sorts in 2005 with the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA 2005). "A provision in VAWA 2005 allows battered H-4 visa holders to apply for work authorisation," says Shah. However, VAWA hasn't come into force yet, as immigration officials haven't issued any regulations for it.

Besides aiding battered H-4 visa holders, Shah routinely helps non-battered H-4 visa holders to navigate the job market and negotiate their visa status with their prospective employers.

At a psychological level, being on an H-4 visa results in a loss of self-esteem and leads to, as Shah puts it, a power imbalance in the marriage imposed by government laws. "Men on the H1-B visa tend to marry women whom they see as vivacious and independent. But everything changes when the wife joins the husband in the US on an H-4 visa. A lot of men feel cut off from their partner as they are not able to understand her internal emotions," explains Shah.

These emotions can range from self-anger to suicidal tendencies. Meghna Damani, 33, a filmmaker based in New Jersey, who arrived in the US on an H-4 visa, would confirm the latter. Her autobiographical film 'Heart's Suspended' has been much appreciated in the US. The film also received a 'Special Jury Mention' at the Jeevika Film Festival, New Delhi, in September 2008.

A Masters in Marketing from Sydenham Institute of Marketing, Mumbai, Damani was greatly disappointed by the rejection she faced from US companies. With no change in the situation for over five years, the isolation and dependency led to depression. "When I was in Pennsylvania, I used to volunteer at a shelter for victims of domestic abuse as it was the only option I had. I trained to become a counsellor there, but could not be hired because of my visa. This affected my confidence and my depression was aggravated. I started having suicidal thoughts. I started feeling guilty about things like eating out," recalls Damani, who eventually turned to Nichiren Daishonin's Buddhism and became part of the Soka Gakkai International (SGI) in the US.

She got strength from her Buddhist practice and later took a Graduate Documentary Filmmaking from The New School, New York, and then went on to make 'Heart's Suspended'. Damani received her Employment Authorization Document (EAD) in November 2007, a day after her documentary was screened at the Mahindra IAAC festival in New York. She now hopes to hold screenings all over the US and raise awareness about this unspoken issue.

Women are reluctant to talk about the limitations of the H-4 visa for fear of derailing their Green Card applications. But Shah quickly lays such fears at rest, "It is a misconception that speaking about the injustice of the H-4 visa will jeopardise chances of obtaining a Green Card or U.S. citizenship."

Perhaps spreading awareness is the only way to deal with the problems that are connected with the very common H-4 Visa. It will lead to the enforcement of initiatives like Shah's VAWA 2005 and make it easier for women with these visas to lead full and normal lives in the US. (Women's Feature Service)
  When NRIs return  
  By P. Koshy

THERE is a mass exodus of migrant labour back to Kerala these days, as project delays, re-phasing and other general slack in economic activities make destinations outside India, particularly the Middle East, unattractive.

The southern part of India is very often at the receiving end of this phenomenon, since a vast majority of Gulf NRIs are from here. This is especially true for the state of Kerala.

According to the latest statistics released by the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, a whopping 1,50,000 NRIs have returned from the Middle East alone. This trend, unavoidable as it may seem, poses several challenges to the Central and State governments.

However, the odds are in favour of these NRIs, for whom the experience gained from an overseas exposure will go a long way. Though it is sad that many Indians have to come back on account of job losses, it strengthens the local economy.

These men and women, who explored the possibilities of overseas climate, are returning with certain skills, experience, a familiarity to the global market culture and, above all, required discipline and readiness to take up responsibility. This is a good trend for the local economy. Wherever they settle down, they can make a difference.

Years back in 1995, a certain gentleman named James returned from the UAE. He wanted to lead a peaceful retired life with the money he was able to save during the long 20 years he was abroad. But after a few days, he got bored and wanted to do something. However, he was not certain if investing money in Kerala's troubled waters was a good idea, as the climate for setting up business or a small scale unit was not considered too favourable.

Moreover, a friend of his, who had started a food processing unit in a village in Pathanamthitta district a year earlier, was finding it difficult to run his business, as managing labour was difficult, in addition to several other problems. James decided to lend a helping hand to this entrepreneur. He functioned as a mentor, guide and also as the General Manager.

As it grew, it started providing direct employment to many. Today more than 25 people are employed here, making curry powder, jams, pickles and a number of packed eatables. Though James did not take any salary from the unit initially, he now gets an equivalent to or more than what he drew as interest from his fixed deposits. Moreover, this unit pays an average of Rs 4,000 per worker.

Gulf returnees can enrich the local economy with their vast experience. Opportunities are wide open for them. There are places from where they can get guidance as well. CARD Krishi Vigyan Kendra (CARD KVK) in Pathanamthitta district offers an interesting course meant for would-be entrepreneurs in the food-processing segment.

The short-term course teaches all aspects of the food-processing business, as well as some basics on setting up an enterprise. The certificate is given by Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU). In addition, banks provide financial assistance to persons who are empowered with overseas experience and are now returning to start new ventures.

The outsourcing boom witnessed earlier had a positive impact. Indian workers were exposed to a global corporate culture. Several small enterprises were started by those who were exposed to this culture. Many such local firms incorporated similar discipline and efficiency, with a far-reaching impact. Gulf returnees are bringing with them experience, knowledge, skills and above all a work culture that could have an impact on the local economy.
P. Koshy is with Samadhan Foundation and can be reached at:
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