Finding family: Devi’s extraordinary journey home to be where she belongs
To celebrate Women’s History Month, we’re sharing the stories of remarkable women who are part of the global campaign to end the use of orphanages by strengthening and supporting families.
This is the story of Devi, a little girl who lost her mum on a crowded railway platform and spent seven years alone in India’s orphanage system. Then she met Neepa, the woman who would help her find her way back home.
One fine morning in 2013, Devi was traveling with her mother when their train stopped at a busy railway junction. Without telling her mum, Devi jumped down to fill up her water bottle, while her back was turned, the signal changed their train pulled out, leaving Devi behind. That moment is still etched on her memory.
“I was very scared and worried when I saw the train start to move. I shouted and ran to get on, but I couldn’t. I was crying and left with no choices. I felt lost in this world,” Devi remembers vividly.
“That was the moment Devi really got lost for good; in India’s vast orphanage system”
With no idea what to do, Devi climbed on board the next departing train, little knowing it was headed in completely the wrong direction. Frightened and bewildered she approached a family with small children. At the next stop, they took Devi to the station master, who handed her over to the child protection authorities. That was the moment Devi really got lost for good, in India’s vast orphanage system.
For the next seven years, Devi was moved from institution to institution, but no effort was ever made to trace her relatives and reunite her with her family. She was just one more child among so many, struggling to survive with no sense of who she was or where she belonged.
“Devi was a very shy and anxious girl but she had somehow kept the light of hope alive and she let me know how desperate she was to get back to her mum.”
In 2015, Devi was sent to live in a shelter for girls in the heart of Ranchi city, the capital of Jharkhand state. This is where she first met Neepa, a social worker with the development NGO, CINI. With support from Hope and Homes for Children, Neepa and her colleagues are working to transform this institution into a short-term emergency care centre by finding long-term safe and loving family-based care for all the children currently living there.
“Devi was a very shy and anxious girl”, Neepa remembers, “but she had somehow kept the light of hope alive and she let me know how desperate she was to get back to her mum, even now.”
But seven years had passed since Devi had jumped down from that train. She was 14 years old and could remember very little about her past. “She could hardly remember her mother’s face”, Neepa recalls.
“Undaunted, they decided to retrace Devi’s journey with her, visiting station after station and asking local people if they knew of a child going missing seven years ago.”
With care and patience, Neepa encouraged Devi to tell her all she could remember and managed to piece together a picture of the last place she had lived. Devi’s parents had separated and Devi and her mum had been staying with her auntie, near a large railway junction on the line between Howrah and Mumbai.
“It was nearly dark and we had almost given up hope when something about the place where we were standing struck me”
“Devi told me their home was by a single track with houses of different sizes on both sides. But this was the only real clue we had to work with”, Neepa explains.
Neepa and her team checked with the local police and with the school authorities, but no record of Devi or her family could be found. Undaunted, they decided to retrace Devi’s journey with her, visiting station after station and asking local people if they knew of a child going missing seven years ago. But nothing clicked.
“It was nearly dark and we had almost given up hope when something about the place where we were standing struck me,” Neepa remembers. “Here there were similarities to the place that Devi had described, less crowded than the other stations, with mixed houses on either side of a single railway track. We walked on a few meters to speak with the local people and ask them if they remembered anything about Devi. Did anyone here recognise her picture?”
“When Devi’s father saw her again after seven long years, tears of joy rolled down his face”
On one corner, a couple were making coal balls to sell for fuel. When Neepa showed them Devi’s childhood photo, the woman recognised her immediately! “She knew this child had gone missing and said she knew her relatives. It was an amazing moment for all of us and kept the ray of hope alive. That woman showed us the way to her village and introduced us to the people she believed were Devi’s family.”
When Devi’s father saw her again after seven long years, tears of joy rolled down his face. Sadly, Devi’s mother had never returned but her father now had a new partner and a son. Devi’s oldest sister lived with them too. Neepa and her colleague, Rini, spent a long time talking to the family to try to see whether they would be able to welcome Devi back into their home.
“I’m really happy to be back home instead of in the orphanage because now I have love and a family to care for me”
The day that Devi officially rejoined her family was very moving for everyone. “Devi cried with emotion as she struggled to find the confidence she needed for the next stage of her extraordinary journey,” Neepa confirms. “Then she hugged her parents and smiled back at us as she stepped back into a life of love, affection and family care again at last,” she remembers.
Today, Devi is settling well into family life. She is enrolled in school and enjoying her studies. “I’m really happy to be back home instead of in the orphanage because now I have love and a family to care for me,” she told us recently. “I am free to go to different places, to markets or wedding celebrations. I am even learning our local language so I would say family is the best place for me.”
Too often, the voices and stories of women, especially those involved in the care of children, is marginalised and hidden. Throughout March, we’ll be sharing stories that demonstrate how the empowerment of women also helps to ensure children grow up with the love of a family and the safety of home.