From Chennai’s streets to Rio’s stadium – The Times of India

By Jo Griffin | March 20, 2016
Dancing to samba music, waving the Indian flag and beating drums as they proceed along the beachfront in Copacabana, five former street children and pavement dwellers from Chennai are having the time of their lives at the inaugural Street Child Games in Rio de Janeiro. But Team India also has its sights set on taking home medals when they compete in the finals of the Games, a mini Olympics for young people who have experienced homelessness. The finals and closing ceremony will take place on Sunday afternoon at the Urca military training ground, with the spectacular backdrop of Sugar Loaf Mountain and Guanabara Bay.

Six Olympic-themed events are part of the schedule: 100m, 10m hurdles, 400m, long jump, shot put, and the 4x100m relay. A festival of arts, and a Congress on the rights of street children are also part of the itinerary.

“Sport is important for me to lead my life the way I want,” said Hepsiba, aged 15, who lives with her mother at a homeless shelter. A talented runner who has won several medals in school and district competitions, and hopes to
become an athlete later on, Hepsiba will compete in all six events, and is particularly confident of winning a medal in the 100m and 400m sprint.

Team India — whose members were chosen from among 100 youngsters in a rigorous selection process — will take on young people from Argentina, Brazil, Burundi, Egypt, Mozambique, Pakistan, and the Philippines. For Simbu, all the other athletes are worthy competitors. “I have been taking good care of my health and eating good food to build up my strength,” said the 19-year-old, who aspires to work as an athletics coach in the future. “I have also been jogging every day in preparation.”

Sneha, who is also 15 and lives on the streets, is hoping the Games will further her ambition to succeed professionally at long jump. She said she is enjoying her stay at the athletes’ village in the Babilonia and Chapeu Mangueira communities in Rio de Janeiro, where she enjoys privacy and security that elude her on the streets of Chennai.

The five, who are supported by Karunalaya — Centre for Street and Working Children in Chennai, also participated in the Congress for children’s rights at the Copacabana Palace Hotel, where the focus was on the right to a legal identity. The General Assembly then presented a Rio Resolution on Friday calling for the global community to ensure there is better protection for the rights of street children.

The Indian contingent faced a lengthy and complex process to get visas for Brazil. Paul Sunder Singh, founder of Karunalaya, said, “We feel that the government should take a very clear policy decision about giving a legal identity to children living on the streets. Getting a legal identity should not be an expensive, tough, or complicated process. Secondly, they should be given a family card and documents to avail benefits from social security programmes.”

Karunalaya, a non-profit, voluntary organization that works for the protection, development and rehabilitation of runaway and destitute street children in Chennai, has also re-integrated street children with their families.
Usha, 18, lives on the streets with no basic facilities. At the Congress, she represented street children all over India as the team’s speaker. “I wanted to send a clear message to the next state government (to be elected in May), that they should take steps to ensure that no child in India should live on the streets,” she said.
While the rest are visiting Brazil for the first time, 18-year-old Ashok, a strong sprinter, is marking his second visit here. In 2014, he took part in the Street Child World Cup, a football tournament for street children from 20 countries that changed his life. Ashok, who ran away from home after being beaten up by his alcoholic father, still keeps in touch with the teenagers he met from Team USA who formed a strong bond with Team India.
Since then, Ashok has helped other youngsters get off the streets, and also trains youth in the slums. “These big events are a great opportunity to showcase our talents,” he said. “I now know how they work and how to get the best out of them.”

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