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Kalim Khan, right, looks at his Facebook profile (with Saify Ali Khan) at the Star Cyber cafe in Lado Sarai near the Ummeed Aman Ghar home for boys in Mehrauli where he stays, in India, on Jan. 29, 2013. (SIMON DE TREY-WHITE FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Kalim Khan, right, looks at his Facebook profile (with Saify Ali Khan) at the Star Cyber cafe in Lado Sarai near the Ummeed Aman Ghar home for boys in Mehrauli where he stays, in India, on Jan. 29, 2013. (SIMON DE TREY-WHITE FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

New Delhi street kids forge alter-egos on Facebook to connect with world Add to ...

Raju Shaikh has two Facebook accounts. One he uses much as about a billion other people around the world use theirs: He posts pictures of himself chilling with his pals, lists songs and movies he likes.

On the second account, he mentions his studies – software engineering at New York University – and his former work at ESPN, and things he likes about living in New York. He chats with his friends on this one, too. Except he hasn’t met any of them. Not yet.

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At present, Mr. Shaikh’s reality is somewhat less glamorous than his second Facebook page suggests. He lives in a Delhi shelter for homeless boys who share a history of violence, fear and hunger. The shelter is crowded and noisy but it has computer classes, and there, Mr. Shaikh and his young friends have discovered Facebook. They use the site to record the life they have now – parties at the shelter, goofy poses with friends.

But they also use it as a sort of practise ground, to try on the life they are determined to have one day.

For Mr. Shaikh and others, Facebook is a lifeline to a fiercely imagined future.

“The first account bored me – it was my friends from here and I already knew what they were doing,” he says. That’s when his New York alter-ego was born. “So I started the new one so I can improve my English and make new friends and one day have someone to visit in the U.S.”

Mr. Shaikh made his way to the shelter six years ago, as a child of 10, having lived by his wits on the streets for years before that. He has overcome almost unfathomable odds to reinvent himself as a poised, stocky ninth grader with an emerging mastery of digital animation.

On his second account, he has 30 friends, scattered over Germany, France and Korea. He’s particularly fond of one, a pretty 20-something “Christina-in-the-Yoo-Ess” as she is known to the admiring boys at the shelter. Mr. Shaikh “friends” them through a trusted technique of young people in Internet cafes the world over. “I send friend requests to anyone who looks kind on Facebook.” Some, it seems, accept.

The shelter is called Ummeed Aman Ghar, which means House of Hope, and it is one of four homes run for street kids by Dil Se (From the Heart in Hindi), an outreach effort founded by the prominent Delhi-based social-justice activist Harsh Mander. Its residents spent brutal years on the streets of the Indian capital before they came here, evading alcoholic and abusive parents, sleeping rough in monsoons and icy winters, garbage-picking and stealing and sniffing glue to survive.

At the shelter, they are offered classes in dance and music and computers. In the past couple of years they have embraced digital life.

On Facebook they are friends with each other, with girls at the girls’ homes run by Dil Se and, sometimes, with family members and people from the village from which their families came. But most prized is a connection with people outside their small community – a reminder of the ways they are connected to the larger world, and can one day perhaps move into it.

They are Facebook friends with the shelter staff, with volunteers, with 20-somethings who sometimes come to act as mentors, with kids from an elite private school with which they did an exchange program as part of an empathy initiative.

The boys do most of their surfing at an Internet cafe a 15-minute walk from the home, a hole-in-the-wall establishment tucked beside a Chinese-food stall and a Hindu temple, with a dozen desktop computers crammed in front of plastic chairs. Surfing costs 10 rupees, or 20 cents, a half hour. The boys wangle computer time by offering to do clerical work for shelter staff, which they speed through, and then spending the rest of their purchased time surfing.

Although Facebook has a Hindi-language interface, and their English is shaky, they do their posting in English or in “Hinglish” – a mix of Hindi and English, most of the Hindi transliterated into Roman characters. This is the vernacular of aspiration in India today.

And like almost anyone else on Facebook, the life they present there is a largely happy one: They post pictures from parties at the shelter, pictures from group outings, pictures where their arms are slung over the shoulders of their friends. There has been much in their lives that was dark, but the dark doesn’t make it on to Facebook.

Mr. Mander, who advises the national government on equity issues, mostly works on hunger big-picture issues such as malnutrition and caste discrimination. But six years ago he decided he wanted also to do something tangible for one of the most visible signs of what he calls “the lack of empathy” in modernizing India – its street children. Save the Children estimates that there are 50,000 of them in Delhi alone, with children as young as three fending for themselves.

Many – especially the girls – are almost instantly seized by networks of human traffickers, and sold into domestic or sex work. Those that escape that fate live feral, or in packs of other children, scraping by on money earned begging or garbage-picking for recyclables. It is this group that Dil Se targets in particular.

The 140 girls in Dil Se’s female shelters don’t have Internet access these days. They used to, but when the staff found out that the girls had skipped school one day to meet up with some Ummeed boys, Facebook friends, they cut the Internet off. In a country where expectations around girls and their behaviour remain starkly different than those for boys, it was a predictable reaction. A rueful Mr. Mander has begun the process of engaging his female staff with the idea that the girls must have the same access as the boys do and that Internet access could help the girls learn to navigate interaction with young men with safety and supervision.

The boys, meanwhile, are intently exploring all the kinds of connections they can make. Like Mr. Shaikh, Saify Ali Khan, a gangly 15-year-old with an easy twisting smile, has two Facebook accounts. One, with 210 friends, is an account for his friends back in his village in Uttar Pradesh. The second, with 155 friends, is tied to his new life in the city. He has lived at the shelter for five years.

Mr. Khan said he follows most closely the accounts of Dil Se fieldworkers who do outreach to kids still on the street, trying to build a fragile trust they can be coaxed into the centre’s residential education programs. “It reminds me of how people are being treated,” he says of the young people who remain on the pavements. But Facebook also helps him maintain tenuous connections in a life that has had great upheaval. “I need Facebook because sometimes my friends go away. People go off – this way we can always be in touch.”

Most of the boys have about 200 “friends.” One, B.K. Kumar, a graceful long-limbed 16-year-old who plans to be a hip hop choreographer in Bollywood one day, says he has only 59, but adds, with a touch of snobby hauteur, “That’s because they’re really my friends.”

His real friend Raju Shaikh, however, is defensive of his Facebook-only friend collection.

“I tried making friends as [myself] Raju, but it didn’t work out,” he said. So he invented his New York alter-ego, and found that far-away strangers were more eager to get to know him. “I don’t let myself think, ‘I’m not who they think I am.’ ”

Editor's note: Harsh Mander is a social-justice activist in Delhi, not a whole group, as incorrectly stated on Wednesday, due to an editing error.

 

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