x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Dubai couple help bring harmony to lives of poor families in India

Harmony House was founded by an expatriate couple living in Dubai and has transformed the lives of more than 200 underprivileged children in India since 2010.

Children at Harmony House, a shelter in Gurgaon, India founded by an expatriate couple living in Dubai.  Simon De Trey-White for The National
Children at Harmony House, a shelter in Gurgaon, India founded by an expatriate couple living in Dubai. Simon De Trey-White for The National

GURGAON, INDIA // Kalpana Pandey was thrown out of her ancestral home in Lucknow in northern India after a confrontation with her father-in-law. With limited education – she left school at 13 – Mrs Pandey struggled to make ends meet.

She earned 1,500 rupees (Dh90) a month cleaning people's homes, but she quickly lost that income because she had to take her daughter Aina, then five, to work.

"If she sat on a chair, people would put her down on the floor and tell me they don't like it when my daughter comes along with me," Mrs Pandey says. "Where could I have left such a small child?"

With no money to pay the fees for a private school and no government schools within walking distance, there were few options.

Finally, someone pointed Mrs Pandey to Harmony House, a day shelter founded by an expatriate couple from Dubai that has transformed the lives of dozens of families and helped more than 200 underprivileged children since 2010.

Aina, now seven, has now been studying, playing and eating healthy meals there for the past two years.

Lucy Bruce, from the UK, and her husband, Gaurav Sinha, from Delhi, set up their own charity after frustrating experiences with other organisations.

"After investigating what would be the best option the only thing we came up with is if we did something ourselves where we knew that everything that was being pledged was going directly to the cause," Ms Bruce said.

At first, Harmony House had few takers: children who live on the streets are used to their freedom.

So Ms Bruce went into the slums of Gurgaon, 25 kilometres south west of New Delhi, knocking on doors and explaining to parents how their children could benefit.

Things quickly picked up, and the shelter is now at full capacity with 250 children and more than 600 on the waiting list. It is trying to collect funds to expand its second site, which will accommodate another 200 children.

In addition to providing children with nourishment and a safe, secure place, the shelter works with local private schools to set up an academic curriculum. Vocational programmes are available for older children.

"Many of the children who came to us three years ago couldn't identify a shape or count numbers," Ms Bruce said. "And that's literally a 13 or 14-year-old who didn't have that kind of basic education. They had no ambitions ... but now if you ask any child in Harmony House what they want to do, they all know there are goals that can be achieved and they're working hard to achieve them."

The shelter also offers self-defence courses and counselling to educate girls about sexual assault or abuse.

"A lot of girls have suffered, unfortunately, at the hands of their families or friends, so we train them what to do in these situations," Ms Bruce said. "Many of them don't even know they're being abused at the time, so we talk about what is or isn't acceptable."

The shelter looks after children from six months old to 16. Many come from large families with parents who cannot look after them because of work, illness or substance abuse. This often leaves children as young as seven with the responsibility of caring for their younger siblings, one of the main reasons the shelter provides a nursery.

With no corporate sponsors, Harmony House relies solely on personal donations, which come mostly from the UAE and the UK.

The existing facility costs between Dh30,000 and Dh40,000 to operate each month. Funds that can't be met through donations are partially covered by the couple's Dubai-based branding agency, Insignia.

Ms Bruce, who won the Emirates Woman Award in the humanitarian category for her work with Harmony House in 2010, also runs the Home Grown Children's Eco Nursery in Dubai, where a portion of the fees are given to the shelter.

Mrs Pandey's life has transformed since her daughter entered the shelter. She found the time to train as a security guard and has had a steady job for a month, working at a hotel and earning 5,000 rupees a month – almost three times her previous salary. Aina dreams of being a nurse when she grows up.

"Before I worried about where my next meal would come from," Mrs Pandey said. "Now, with the help of Harmony House, I am able to live a life of dignity. I can feed myself, support my husband and watch my child grow into a decent person."