New Delhi: “My mission is to offer these children love, laughter and life. There is nothing like a sweet smile of a child and these kids never got the parental love”, says Solomon Raj, Appa (meaning father in Tamil) of over 80 HIV positive children. Solomon Raj, who calls himself 55-year-young is not only a father, but a grandfather as well and runs Shelter Trust, a home for the HIV positive people and by the HIV positive people, in Chennai. Currently, Shelter Trust is home to 35 kids – starting from 4-year-old to 18 – all smiling through the positivity and challenges of HIV.
It all started in 2004 when Solomon Raj and his wife, Felvia Shanthi decided to adopt a kid, as they were unable to have a biological child even after eight years of marriage. In an interview with NDTV-Dettol Banega Swasth India, Solomon recalled,
Within one year of a marriage, society wants to see babies. Since nothing was working out for me and my wife, we decided to adopt a child, but I didn’t want to go baby shopping – picking the most beautiful kid and checking if our physical features are in sync. I was clear that if we have to give life to someone, it should be someone extremely deserving. It was an emotional thing and I had decided to adopt a HIV positive child because while working at a de-addiction centre, I saw a couple of people pass away with HIV and witnessed the trauma their families, especially children went through.
Solomon sent the word across to hospitals and positive networks. While the search for a child was on, the couple had a biological child and the thought of adoption took a backseat until Noori, a transgender woman called Solomon. He shared,
Noori’s call came with a child up for adoption but since I already had a kid, I politely refused the offer. I was showered with the choicest of abuses for backing out. To get away from the guilt, I thought of calling different NGOs and supporting the child financially but nobody was ready to take the child. The six-year-old boy had lost five family members – parents and siblings to HIV. He could vividly remember who died first. I immediately called my wife and got Arputhraj, our second child home.
The adoption of an HIV-positive child was laced with stigma and the challenges for Solomon and his family. Because of lack of knowledge and awareness about the disease back then, initially even his wife was scared that their biological child would catch the infection.
Talking about how the couple took care of Arputhraj, Solomon said,
We would lock the child inside the home as I and my wife went to work. During my 45 minutes lunch break, I would come home, feed the child and go back. But every time I would come home, Arputhraj was either standing by the window, crying and calling out to everyone that he wanted to be set free or he was sleeping in the corner. My blood pressure would shoot up seeing him lying in the corner; the first thought would be, he is dead. This was obviously taking a toll on my health so I decided to take him with me to work. For the first few days, everyone was appreciative of me doing the so-called noble deed. They would have lunch with us, treat Arputhraj like their own kid but suddenly everyone’s behavior changed. Some women got a urinary infection and they thought Arputhraj is to be blamed for it, as he used the same washroom. Also, for how long could I take him to work?
Even Solomon didn’t have much knowledge about HIV and believed Arputhraj would die of the disease in two years or so. Hence, the thought of admitting Arputhraj in a school never struck him. The core idea was to take care of the child and provide for him as long as possible. To address Arputhraj’s loneliness, Solomon decided to adopt one more child so that he has a company at home. He said,
I called Noori, narrated the entire story and asked if she knew another HIV-positive child. Her only response was “you are my god”. Apparently, she had just buried a woman and had Sangeetha, a six-year-old girl to look after. I brought her into my small home.
A working couple with two HIV-positive children and no one to take care of had already uprooted the family in more ways than one. But this was just the start of the journey Solomon had embarked upon unaware. Within the next 7-10 days, an old man with his two grandchildren knocked on Solomon’s door early in the morning and pleaded to adopt the kids. The man had come from Andhra Pradesh. Back then, medicines for HIV-treatment were available only in Tamil Nadu.
Apparently, someone at the hospital had told him that I am looking for children with HIV so he brought them to my home. He said, the kids’ parents have died and he is too old to take care of them and started crying; he fell on my feet. I had no choice then to send them back as my house was too small and my mother-in-law and wife already had issues with the adoption of two kids. I requested the old man to admit the kids to a hospital as they were too weak and give me some time to think about it. I contemplated for a couple of days and had disturbed sleep. My own consciousness didn’t allow me to sleep. I thought if children are suffering, I will make it a lifetime mission to take care of them.
The next week Solomon got those two children to his humble abode and soon the word spread around Chennai that Solomon Raj has come here as the guardian angel and is taking care of children affected with HIV.
In 2005, Solomon decided to legalise the process; he created a shelter and registered it as a non-governmental organisation to streamline the process. He said,
If anything happens to any child, I would have been held responsible as it is unauthorized to have kids like that. So I took the legal route and before adoption, each child is produced before the child welfare committee and I have a license for everyone.
As the number of children grew, their ‘appa’ took a one month sabbatical from work to look after his children. For a month, Solomon juggled between his home and the Shelter Trust. He said,
Early morning I would come to my house, freshen up and leave at 6am to be with the children at the shelter. On my way I would get Idli and Dosa. During the day, I would play with them and then again go out for half an hour around 11am to get some batter to prepare South Indian delicacies. For months kids didn’t know I stepped out every morning. No one was willing to help me. My wife wanted to adopt but after getting a biological child, she took a step back. However, she was cooperative enough to allow me to do what I wanted to do.
After a month, Solomon met an HIV positive commercial sex worker who had no one and was looking for a shelter. She started living with children and taking care of them. Over time, another sex worker pitched in to provide her support. Solomon’s place of work was cooperative enough to offer flexible working hours. This also gave him room to manage three jobs at once to provide for his extended family.
In the last 18 years, Solomon has raised over 80 kids. Unfortunately, some of them succumbed to the disease which as Solomon says was too traumatizing for him and he had to seek psychological support. Five of the kids are happily married and have a family of their own. While some are pursuing higher education, others are employed at the Shelter Trust itself. He said,
All my kids and grandkids regroup on festivals like Diwali and Christmas. After a child turns 18, they can’t stay at the NGO but I can’t let my child go away like that. As per the norms, I take the child out of the system but take them in as trainees.
Solomon’s second child, 25-year-old Sangeetha works at the Shelter Trust as a cook. Sangeetha likes serving others so she is happy cooking for everybody and feeding them. She also knows tailoring and wants to excel in that in the near future.
And his first child, 23-year-old Arputraj is pursuing a Masters in Social Work. He wants to follow the footsteps of his ‘appa’ and become someone who can help others. He said,
When father doesn’t refuse adopt anyone, I also want to become someone who can help others.
Talking about other children, Solomon said,
One is doing bio-medical engineering, two are doing visual communication. Many have completed BSC in Computer Science, M.Com and Business Management. Though these children are academically low as they are always catching up on studies. They fall sick and miss on studies but most of them are doing great.
The COVID-19 pandemic was particularly tough on the kids as they are already immuno-compromised. Even Solomon couldn’t step out to buy groceries as that would mean exposing himself to the infection and probably getting it back home. During COVID, the shelter lost the first commercial sex worker who had given 14 years of her service.
Solomon signed off saying,
Food, shelter and clothing are considered the immediate basic needs for survival. But for my kids, timely medical help is one of the key parameters of their life that I aim to provide. Currently, everyone is undergoing Anti-retroviral therapy (ART). For us, education and positive recreation come next.
NDTV – Dettol have been working towards a clean and healthy India since 2014 via the Banega Swachh India initiative, which is helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. The campaign aims to highlight the inter-dependency of humans and the environment, and of humans on one another with the focus on One Health, One Planet, One Future – Leaving No One Behind. It stresses on the need to take care of, and consider, everyone’s health in India – especially vulnerable communities – the LGBTQ population, indigenous people, India’s different tribes, ethnic and linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, migrants, geographically remote populations, gender and sexual minorities. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign will continue to raise awareness on the same along with focussing on the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children, fight malnutrition, mental wellbeing, self care, science and health, adolescent health & gender awareness. Along with the health of people, the campaign has realised the need to also take care of the health of the eco-system. Our environment is fragile due to human activity, which is not only over-exploiting available resources, but also generating immense pollution as a result of using and extracting those resources. The imbalance has also led to immense biodiversity loss that has caused one of the biggest threats to human survival – climate change. It has now been described as a “code red for humanity.” The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene. Banega Swasth India will also be taking forward the dream of Swasth Bharat, the campaign feels that only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and the country can become a Swasth or healthy India.