The Muslim call to prayer rips through the night. Stray dogs snarl, vicious and whirling about until one concedes with a whimper—the hourly struggle for the top of a rubbish heap or a scrap of food. The goat living at the front doorstep bleats as its kid nudges it for milk. Along the street, smoldering piles of trash glow red.
It is 5:30 AM.
It isn’t ever quiet here, but dawn is the closest approximation. The sun will soon come up and blot the inky sky with pale peach. The cool of the night will be replaced by noon’s dry heat. It hasn’t rained in weeks; the air laps up every ounce of moisture.
The children’s homes – a house for the boys and a house for the girls – are tucked in at the top of a hill and drawn away from the busyness of the main street below. It’s a calmer place than the train stations of the big city, quieter than the crowded roads and slums of the red light district. Worlds apart from where these children were born and survived.
The call to prayer fades as the sun pinks the sky. It’s time to wake the children, bathe them, prepare them for school. Half the women on our team walk a block to the girls’ home – a one-bedroom flat on the first floor of a gated apartment complex. Red and yellow metal bunk beds line the bedroom and stand in twos in the living room. Single beds and dressers for the older girls and staff fill the entry room. Eighteen girls live here and share the two toilets and tiny kitchen.
“Time to wake up,” Tabea nudges Ruth. Ruth is four with a mop of short, curly hair. She yawns, sleepy, and curls into Tabea’s arms. It’s the only moment of the day she is still.
Rebekah, twelve, stretches and rubs her eyes. She was up until eleven the night before, finishing her homework after a long day filled with school, devotionals, and choir practice. She washes her hair and puts on her school uniform, then helps move the younger girls to the toilets.
Meanwhile, half of the young men on our team are up and finishing their tiny teacups of coffee. They’ll walk next door to the boys’ house and repeat the same process as the girls: Nudging three-year-old Pradeep out of sleep, helping the 9- and 10-year olds pull their clothes off the shared metal shelf, and insisting that yes, they really must bathe.
The boys’ home is a two-story duplex further up the hill from the girls’ home. Its address is simply known as “above the market, next to the shop.” It stands a few feet away from a gravel road with a packed-dirt front “yard”, enclosed by a gate. Tiger, the dog the children fed since he was a puppy, flops at the front door on a pile of shoes, as though he’s waiting for the tiny sandals to hatch. The walls inside are smudged with months of handprints, a line of brown around the main room and heading up the stairs to the bedrooms.
Most of the boys’ clothes are filmy with sweat and dirt. The boys won’t relinquish their favorites to the laundry pile. It could be from too many years of not knowing what would happen to their possessions once out of sight. But it could just be that they’re boys.
By now, the sun is bright in the sky and the street has come to life. Construction workers at the nearby “luxury” apartments clang metal on metal. The constant beeps and rumbles of traffic hang in the air. Crows caw. Children squeal. An infant wails. And the women next door chatter back and forth in clipped Marathi.
At 7:30, our team who wasn’t part of the wake-up routine assembles in the front room of the main building. We sit on floor mats and plan the day’s events. At 8:30 we walk next door for a spicy breakfast of rice and curry. The girls have all walked the twenty minutes up hill to join us. And at 9:00 we give the kids hugs and wish them a good day at school. They pile into a van, waving, and drive away.