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Jalandhar, Punjab – Situated on a dusty lane in the city of Jalandhar, the greyish-brown abode with five rooms and a small courtyard, Unique Home for Girls, is home to 60 sisters and their mother, Prakash Kaur Bibi.
For those who live here – toddlers learning to take their first steps, bright-eyed schoolgirls with well-oiled plaits and young women at the threshold of adulthood, the Unique Home is much more than just a home for abandoned girls. This is the only family that’s ever wanted them, and Bibi, the “mamma” they’ve never had.
“Hello! Ki haal hai?” – how are you? – welcomes six-year-old Zainab in Punjabi.
She envelops visitors in bear hugs and plops herself down next them, wanting to know more about the strangers who’ve just stepped into her home.
“All of them are my daughters and I’d trade my life for theirs in a heartbeat,” says Bibi, who was herself abandoned by her biological parents and grew up in another home for girls in the city.
In a state, where the birth of baby boys is met with jubilation and the birth of baby girls with angst, Bibi wants to give girls a fair chance at life through her work.
Dressed in a simple beige tunic and loose pants, with a white headscarf over her turbaned head, Bibi tells about her life’s work.
It was her own childhood of abandonment that inspired her to create a home for abandoned babies. She wanted to establish a proper home where they’d feel loved and cherished, and be given everything they needed to grow up to be responsible members of society.
“[God] put the seed of this dream in [my head],” says Bibi. She was just 24 in 1993 when she started the Unique Home from a single room.
For the past 23 years, she has been rescuing barely alive baby girls abandoned at birth by their biological parents.
Wrapped in plastic bags or threadbare blankets, these newborn babies are left out to die on train tracks and rubbish bins, next to busy roads and in the middle of paddy fields.
Little Zainab was found wrapped in a black plastic bag and dumped in the garbage bin. The six-year-old with hazel eyes has Down’s syndrome.
Most of the babies are very ill when Bibi finds them, and the first thing she does is rush them to the local hospital for much-needed medical care.
“These children take much longer to meet their growth milestones because of the severe neglect that they face right after birth,” explains Satnam Singh, an elderly man who has been volunteering at the home since the beginning.
Once the babies reach Unique Home after the hospital, Bibi and her team of older girls nurse the babies back to health with diligent care.
Unique Home has since installed a cradle outside the house, “so parents can leave their baby girls directly with us instead of leaving them out to die,” says Singh.
Times were tough in the beginning, with insufficient space and funds to even meet their day-to-day needs.
“Initially, people from the neighbourhood would donate a few grocery items to Prakash and the girls. There wasn’t always enough to eat three square meals a day,” tells Singh.
But slowly more people came to know about the home and help from well-wishers began to trickle in. Not long after, in 1993, well-wishers formed the Bhai Ghanayya Ji Charitable Trust to help to run the Unique Home for Girls, and ensure the welfare of the baby girls who came into this home. The main Trustee of the home is Bibi, while the other members of the trust include doctors and businessmen who live and work in Jalandhar. The trust helps to manage the funding of the home as well as engage in fundraising that provides for daily needs.
In a yearly tradition of festivities, the family celebrates the birthdays of the girls with a gigantic 100kg cake. “Since we don’t know their actual birthdays, April 24 is everyone’s birthday,” Bibi explains. “It’s the day we celebrate them.”
“Don’t abandon your daughters; not everyone is lucky enough to reach the Unique Home,” reads a message on the Unique Home website . The children who come through the portals of Bibi’s home are indeed fortunate. Each little girl receives, among other necessities, a good education.
All the girls attend the best schools in the area and some of the brighter ones are even sent to top-notch boarding schools.
One of the senior girls, Sheeba, has gone on to study medicine in the UK, while Lucy, a young woman in her early 20s, is close to completing her master’s degree in education.
For the young women who choose not to pursue higher education or a career but would rather get married and make a family, the home helps in finding good suitors.
“We take care to find a good match,” says Singh, adding that whether the girls choose marriage or a career, they adjust well to life outside Unique Home.
There are house rules and routines that the children follow, as in all families.
Everyone wakes up at 5:30am, with the older girls helping the younger children to get ready for school. After a quick breakfast, everyone is off for their lessons, and this is when Bibi attends to the numerous chores that go into running a large household.
From buying produce and grocery items for meals, to shopping for uniforms and dresses, Bibi relishes these chores. After all this, she has energy left over to supervise the construction of the new home that’s being built a short distance away on a three-acre plot of land. The home was purchased through the fundraising efforts of the trust.
In their current five-room living quarters, the girls share three rooms between themselves and use the other two as an office and dining area.
Once the girls are back, they dive into a hot lunch of chapati, rice and curry which Bibi has prepared, and then get ready for the tutors who come in the evening to help with extra lessons and homework.
“Once we move to our new quarters, the girls will have plenty of space to play and run around after their evening lessons,” says Bibi. She plans to start a home for mentally challenged children on the new premises.
Weekends are for playing, with treats and outings planned for the girls. From fast-food joints around town to fancy restaurants that serve up authentic Punjabi food, Bibi, like any mother, likes to indulge her daughters and takes them where they request to go.
During the summer holidays they go to the hills outside the city – an annual tradition to which everyone looks forward.
Despite the many challenges and the magnitude of the task, Bibi keeps her unwavering faith. “God always finds a way to provide for us,” she says.
Over the years, more and more people have come to know about Bibi’s work. The Unique Home now gets help from well-to-do Punjabis in the city, but also from a large network of well-wishers across the country and the world, Bibi says.
In a few months, she will be moving into a new home with her daughters – a three-storey bungalow with light-filled rooms and landscaped gardens overlooking rolling fields.
It’s a haven for children, with plenty of space for everyone as well as separate family suites for Bibi’s married daughters, who visit her often.