Om Prakash Gurjar was just 7 years old when he was discovered by the organization of now Nobel Peace Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi. Om Prakash was in bonded labor to the landlord of his family’s land in order to pay for a debt that his father had inherited from his father. Om Prakash was in heavy labor starting at the age of 5, working from dawn until dusk. He was paid less than 50 cents per month. He is now in his early 20s and I had the opportunity last year to meet him in Barcelona, Spain, at the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates. This past week I have had the chance to meet with him again in India.
When I asked Om Prakash this week what he thought about during those years of bonded labor, he said he could only think of basic things like what he might eat and how he would survive another day. He had no idea that other people lived differently and thought this was what his life would always be like. In fact he compared his thinking to that of an animal. Satyarthi’s group rescued Om Prakash and other children in similar circumstances and went through the legal process of freeing them and caring for their needs. Om Prakash went to live at Bal Ashram in Rajasthan, where he lived out the remainder of his childhood under the care of Satyarthi and his colleagues.
When you think of what Om Prakash’s future held, it is even more remarkable where he has come since and what he has accomplished. For example, when he was invited to travel abroad with Satyarthi, he was unable to get a passport because he had no birth certificate. He did not even know what a birth certificate was. During the difficult process of getting a birth certificate, Om Prakash realized how important this document was to protect his rights and establish his legal identity. So after getting his passport, he worked to secure birth certificates for over 500 children. He also worked tirelessly to help secure the rights of children who came from backgrounds like his. In other words, he was rescued and has now become a rescuer. Om Prakash deservedly received the International Children’s Peace Prize in 2006. This prize is the international peace prize for children and is presented at the Summit for Nobel Peace Laureates. This boy once enslaved by a parent’s debt has traveled the world and met presidents and prime ministers and experienced so much.
In the years since he won the award, Om Prakash has worked hard to get a good education. But along the way he still seeks out those who are in need and finds ways to meet their needs. I spent many hours last week at the Poornima Paathsala in Jaipur, India with Om Prakash and the children of migrant laborers who make up the school program. Om Prakash has inspired many of his fellow university students to help support and staff the Paathshala. Each afternoon the children come to the university to get help with homework, play games in a clean and safe environment and learn more about the possibilities that are available to them.
When one boy was asked what he has learned at the school, I realized how far he had come. He said that at the Paathshala he had learned to use furniture, greet other people and use a pencil. When I had the chance last Thursday to visit the homes of many of the children, I realized that furniture was indeed something they would have not experienced before. Many live in grass huts; the luckiest of them live in small cement rooms with their families at the cement plant.
But much of this you just wouldn’t know when you meet these children at the Paathshala. They are joyful, funny and full of life. They are learning to read and write, learning lessons on how to overcome poverty, and most of all have a safe place where they feel loved. A few of the newer children to the program still have the wide-eyed look of being in a totally different environment than what they are used to. They tend to have old and tattered clothing — and not much of it. They tend to be dusty and unsure of themselves.
You can contrast the new arrivals with one young girl who has come faithfully to the Paathshala for several years. She has beautifully braided hair and clean clothes and wows everyone with her bright smile and even brighter mind. The lesson I have taken from Om Prakash and my week in Jaipur is that we are all saved and rescued by many people in our lives. Maybe our lives haven’t been so disadvantaged as these children I have met, but we have had so much good given to us from our families to friends to influential teachers. But saved for what? Rescued for what purpose? In order to become rescuers.
Matthew Whoolery has a Ph.D. in Psychology and is a professor at BYU-Idaho. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.