Her Fire Burned Bright

Posted on Aug 1, 2018 | 0 comments

By Kim Burnett, Shadhika President and CEO

Donors and board members would sometimes ask me why we were supporting Uddami in Kolkata. At first glance, it seemed like an outlier for Shadhika support, just being a computer-training center.

When I got these questions, I would just reply, “Wait until you meet Rabia.”

Rabia was Uddami’s Director, and a product herself of Uddami, like all of the teachers there. Rabia was found on the streets as a child and taken to a Kolkata orphanage at an early age. Once there, the orphanage stopped her schooling at class 5, saying it was more important for her to learn the skills of being a wife and mother than to go to school. But Rabia had a fire inside of her for learning – to be more than that.

One day the founders of Uddami came to the orphanage, looking for students. Rabia fought to get herself seen for this opportunity and eventually convinced the headmaster to enroll in classes. She thrived in Uddami’s courses, her flame inside fully ignited. She eventually became a teacher there and later, took over as its Director.

Along the way, she sent herself back to school to complete her schooling. Everyone told her it would take 3-4 years to complete to class 12. She did it all in a little more than a year.

Rabia’s story in and of itself has always been inspiring, but what made it even more so was how, with every accomplishment, she attained personally, she reached back behind her and pulled others like her up too. It was hard to walk a block in Kolkata with her without someone stopping her and thanking her for what she did for him or her. She helped so many complete their education, learn computers, get their first jobs, escape from child marriage, and more. She was deeply involved in making sure those in her life lived up to her full potential and was tough on those whom she felt were not doing so.

Of course, she was at times completely trying of one’s patience, especially when trying to get a grant report or some other form from her. The urgency of life around her was always more important that these routine procedures. Still, over the years, she and I found a way to work together. I tried to learn patience and she tried to learn paperwork.

Rabia had big dreams for Uddami and I am grateful that Shadhika helped her to realize some of those dreams. Together we added a spoken English course and a Life Skills course to their computer curriculum, which is helping Uddami students get the additional skills they need to secure jobs in the formal economy and to help them negotiate on their own behalf at home and in their relationships. On our last visit, just one week ago, her eyes lit up as we brainstormed ideas for developing a new capstone class for her students where they would complete a Human Rights curriculum and then incorporate all of the skills they have learned at Uddami to then develop community projects to advance and advocate for those rights.

Just last week on Sunday, I received a phone call telling me that Rabia had died. She slipped in the bath and sustained a massive blow to her head. Such a small way for such a big fire to go out. Next week is her birthday. She would have been 33.

Last year she joined me at my husband’s family’s home in Kolkata to celebrate Diwali. Together, we lit fireworks to celebrate, carefully igniting each other’s sparklers off of the end of another’s as it was dying out. Yes, her light has gone out, but luckily for us, she passed her flame onto hundreds, if not thousands of others, over her short, amazing life. Like so many others, Rabia burns bright in me, a Northern Star that will guide me for years to come.

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