Rite of Passage to India

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A homeless individual in India

By Blake Mosser

I arrived at Chennai International Airport in India at 5 a.m. I was there as a result of a scholarship from the Eric Stein Fund for International Experience, offered to students studying in the Sigmund Weis School of Business. My purpose: to bring my business skills to a nonprofit organization working with individuals who are homeless.


AS THE PLANE LANDED on the runway, I braced myself for the notoriously humid air my research had taught me to expect. In fact, a man I’d met during my layover in London had referred to Chennai as the “hell-hole of India.” So much for great expectations. Still, as the cabin lights flickered on, I turned and saw a woman don a thick winter coat! I learned quickly that India is a land of contradictions. Rapid development and inconceivable poverty. Lavish displays of color and rigid cultural norms. I was embarking on an adventure, navigating a world few in the West understand.

I exited the plane, weaved my way through customs and made a beeline for the parking lot. As promised, I was met by both an intense wave of heat and a driver from The Banyan, the nonprofit where I was to spend the next 10 weeks working. As I pulled my cumbersome suitcases toward the van, two young Indians reached for my luggage. I wasn’t sure if they were with The Banyan, so I insisted I could handle it. But they persisted, and, exhausted from my journey halfway across the world, I gave in.

They brought the suitcases to the trunk of the van and waited eagerly to be paid. I tried to ask the driver for guidance, but with his limited English, he couldn’t understand. So I asked the boys how much they charged. Without missing a beat, they responded, “Twenty dollars each.”

I stood, dumbfounded, fully aware the amount was outrageous. Nevertheless, I handed them $10 each, largely because I didn’t have smaller bills and hadn’t yet exchanged my dollars for rupees. I slipped into the van. What a way to begin my trip!

I sunk back into the passenger seat and peered curiously out at the arid landscape, barely visible at dawn. After 15 minutes, we entered the city limits and began to pass entire families sleeping on mats on the side of the road, dimly illuminated by streetlights. I later discovered that some of these families have lived on the streets for generations.

Work quickly consumed me. I spent much of my time in the central office of The Banyan, a nonprofit organization in Tamil Nadu that houses about 400 women rescued from the streets of Chennai and suffering from mental illness. These women receive psychiatric treatment and vocational skills training that will help them find work when they re-enter the larger society. The ultimate goal of The Banyan is to reunite these women with their families. The Banyan also operates clinics and runs programs in rural Tamil Nadu to educate the population about treatment options for those with mental illness.

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