Sport, art or medicine — the medium of choice may vary for these foreign do-gooders, but what’s common to them is that they set out to make a difference in big ways and small.
They left jobs and families and made India their home. Sometimes for the people here, sometimes for the animals who have known no other friend in this country where there are too many hungry and homeless humans to be able to do much about surplus strays. And when they return home, it is always to come back to this country to which they find themselves inexplicably bound.
Andrea Thumshirn, 39, Rajasthan
She braved the heat and dust, bats and the hostility of locals. But as the force behind the country’s first international beach hockey tournament to be held this November, she is set to take the sport to many more villages
Claim to Fame: After three years of relentless efforts to introduce hockey in an Indian village, against a section of hostile villagers who had the Astroturf that she got from Germany removed from the school grounds, and unreceptive administration, Andrea Thumshirn is all set to create history by bringing India’s first international beach hockey tournament, along with legend Floris John Bolevander from the Netherlands, to Goa. Playing in the tournament, to be held between November 7 to 10, would be four teams from abroad, two from Mumbai, five from Goa and two from Garh Himmat Singh village in Rajasthan or ‘Bua sa (father’s elder sister) Hockey Village’. (Bua sa is the sobriquet Andrea earned after Chandu from the local royal family adopted her as his sister)
Desi Affair: Thumshirn permanently moved her home from Berlin to the village in Dausa district in August 2009. It was not easy to introduce hockey in a cricket crazy country. It started with the screening of Shah Rukh Khan’s Chak De India. Practice sessions started in the evening. Coaches were brought from abroad as well as India and now Indian national player and FIH player Sardar Singh is the new ambassador of the village. The idea of the international beach hockey tournament germinated as a part of her fund raising initiative for her Hockey Village India project. Initially, she experimented with driving an auto-rickshaw herself from Rajasthan to Goa but made little headway. Then the Goa tourism department showed interest but soon, “It became too complicated... But the tournament is happening, the teams are arriving,” says Andrea.
Back Home: The parents of the young former first league hockey player from Germany wanted her to take the first flight back home but she was a born rebel. Members of her large family keep calling to know when she would be back home.
Milestones: The village team has played Nehru Cup and KD Singh Babu Hockey tournament in 2012. She has now started an English medium school till class fifth.
Future Forward: Thumshirn has also decided to move on with her project. She talks about her next hockey village in Dholpur.
Susan Hapgood, 56, Mumbai
Claim to fame: Started non-profit art space and public charitable trust Mumbai Art Room in 2011
Desi Affair: There were very few spaces, says Hapgood, where an artist could explore his or her creativity without consideration of the commercial aspects of the work, or where all members of the public were welcome and encouraged to step in and experience contemporary art and design for free. Initially here to explore a new place and culture, Hapgood decided to build something permanent in her adopted city — and that is how Mumbai Art Room (MAR) was born. It wasn’t easy, what with the red tape and the differences in work culture, but in June 2011, MAR was launched.
Back Home: Hapgood is a professional curator and art historian, has worked for over 30 years professionally in the field of art in New York, having initially trained at the Guggenheim Museum. Prior to coming to India, she directed a contemporary exhibitions programme at a non-profit organisation in New York called Independent Curators International.
Milestones: Over the past two-and-a-half years, MAR has hosted art and design exhibitions, held several free educational workshops and called upon international artists to display works and hold discussions that explained them and their context. “The results have been exhilarating,” says Hapgood. “There is an incredible openness and curiosity about new work in India.”
Future Forward: In December, Hapgood and her husband plan to return to New York, but she will remain on the board of trustees of MAR. “Public art institutions, large and small, are crucial to the art ecosystem,” says Hapgood.
Christopher Turillo, 34, Lucknow
Claim to fame: This American started Medha, a programme to train undergraduate students in job skills with friend Byomkesh Mishra
Desi Affair: Christopher, popularly known as Chris among his students, did his MBA and MA from the US before moving to India. Along with Mishra, a former bank employee, he has been working on improving the employability skills of the students of Avadh Girls’ Degree College (AGDC) and Maharaja Bijli Pasi Government Degree College in Lucknow since January 2011. “I have been in India for six years now, three of which have been spent in Lucknow,” he says. Before starting on this project, Chris worked as an intern in Hazaribagh (Jharkhand) and also lived in Hyderabad for a while. “ I was touched by the plight of the underprivileged in India, particularly that of the girls. My wish to do something for them was fulfilled when I met Byomkesh and Medha was born.
Back Home: Christopher did his MBA from the University of Chicago and masters in International Relations from John Hopkins University. He gave up his life as a professional with an earning of more than Rs 4 lakhs per annum to start Medha, but says he earns more now while doing what he wanted to do. He visits his family in Boston twice a year. His girlfriend Stephanie, who is from New York, has thrice visited him in India.
Milestones: An Indian-American social set-up based in Lucknow, Medha is conducted in partnership with the National Skills Development Corporation (NSDC). The project aims at bridging the gap between the skills demanded by industries and those imparted by educational institutes. “Medha is based entirely on activity-learning techniques and includes a one-month internship. The curriculum has been developed jointly with leading employers,” explains Chris. The training includes both on-campus classes and tours to hotels and retail showrooms.
Future Forward: Depending on the response to the project, Chris and Byomkesh plan to take it to other colleges.
- Gulam Jeelani
Avis Lyons, 70, Kerala
Claim to fame: Runs a rescue and care home for stray animals
Desi Affair: On a visit to a beach resort in God’s Own Country 12 years back, British citizen Avis was moved by the plight of street dogs and the mindless killing to check their population. She came back a year later to set up Animal Rescue Kerala (ARK), a voluntary animal rescue home.
Back Home: A part-time businesswoman in London, Avis sold off her house there to settle in India. Avis was diagnosed with cancer two years ago. Though her doctors advised her to go back to her country for more advanced treatment, she was unwilling.
Milestones: Started as a one-woman initiative, ARK is spread over 3.5 acres and has animal shelters, hospital and two ambulances. Avis now has a Vet and four helpers to assist her. Even at the dead of night, Avis can be seen driving her ambulance to rescue injured canines that have been left to die on the roads. The shelter has more than 200 dogs and offers pets for adoption.
Future Forward: Avis was finally persuaded to go to UK for treatment, but shuttles between Indian and London. Her daughter too visits the shelter often. “They (the strays she has rescued) are like my sons and daughters. I am terribly attached to them. I want to entrust them in safe hands before I go back. I am looking for interested people,” she explains.
- Ramesh Babu
Franz Gastler, 31, Ranchi
Claim to Fame: US citizen Franz Gastler set up Yuwa, an NGO, in Ranchi in October 2009 to use football to combat child marriages, human trafficking and to instill confidence in young tribal girls.
Desi Affair: Gastler founded the Under-14 girl’s football club with 15 girls in Dahu village, Ormanjhi block, 20 kilometers from Ranchi. “A village girl Suman, asked me to start a football team for them. It was her idea. We asked her to organise some girls who were interested in the sport. She asked her family and friends to join and we started out with 15 girls in 2009,” says Franz. He had been an English teacher then. The league now boasts of having more than 200 tribal girls under its wing.
Back Home: A former Harvard Law School graduate and business consultant, Gastler came to India five years ago as a consultant to CII before being roped in to work with Usha Martin’s NGO in Ranchi. He resided in Rukka village in Ranchi district to understand and tackle the challenges arising out of backwardness. His zeal to do something worthwhile resulted in the birth of Yuwa during his interactions with the tribal girls. “Yuwa is not just a initiative but a movement now,” he says.
Milestones: Apart from raising the national ranking of Jharkhand in women’s football from 20th to 4th position, the Yuwa girls earned accolades in their first international match in Spain early this year. Yuwa became the first Indian organisation to win the prestigious Nike Gamechangers Award in 2012 receiving a grant for a new facility.
Future Forward: Gastler believes football can help the young girls gain confidence to challenge gender inequality in the tribal state and the teamwork can educate and empower them to help each other. Recently, central rural development minister Jairam Ramesh handed over documents of a 5-acre government land for a playground. -Manish Gupta
Gerda Unnithan-Kauffman, 77, Jaipur
Claim to fame: Gerda is honorary director of the Khejri Sarvodaya General Health and Eye Care Centre in the Jagatpura area of Jaipur. “I remember standing at a window in my house one day looking at a German soldier pointing a gun at my father. I remember having no food and no heat in the bitter winter. But life has been good to me. I am happy that I got a chance to give back to the society,” she says.
Desi Affair: Having lived through World War II, she is deeply influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence and selfless service. Gerda says she and her husband, Prof TKN Unnithan moved to Jagatpura in 1996 after he retired as vice chancellor of the University of Rajasthan. “The village headman requested us to set-up a health centre as no health services were available,” she says.
Back Home: Gerda met Unnithan at the University of Utrecht. “He was from a totally different culture and it opened a new window to the world. I was fascinated,” she says. The Unnithans got married in 1957 and moved to New Delhi. Gerda worked at the Netherlands Embassy while her husband taught at Delhi School of Economics and later at the School of Planning and Architecture. Later they moved to Jaipur. Gerda recalls that the erstwhile Maharaja of Bharatpur had gifted her husband a Rolls Royce. “It was such a big car and wouldn’t fit in the garage. I used it only for special occasions,” she laughs. Her daughter, Maya, is a professor at the University of Sussex and her son, Vikram, is a geophysicist based in Germany.
Milestones: The centre began from a garage in their house. The financing came from their own savings and donations from generous friends. Even today it is funded by donations. The centre has an eye care centre and an operation theatre for eye surgery, a gynaecologist to provide ante-natal and reproductive health services and a physician. Gerda has been knighted by the Queen of Netherlands for her work. Patients have to pay Rs 20 for registration but treatment and medicines are free. If a patient is referred to another hospital in the city, the centre bears the cost of treatment.
- Urvashi Dev Rawal
Catherine Schuetze, 43, Dharamsala
Claim to fame: A veterinarian from Australia, Catherine specialises in integrated or holistic medicine and veterinary acupuncture and has been working for animal welfare in developing communities of Asia and the Pacific region through her organisation “Vets Beyond Borders”, which she founded with other vet volunteers in 2003.
Desi Affair: At a time when India’s efforts to control the canine population in the country were being rendered ineffective, Catherine was in the country as part of a small project on animal welfare in Bodh Gaya in 2002. “I came to know about the problem of increasing dog population, birth control in animals and ant- Rabies programme while working on the project,” says Catherine, adding, “ In Australia there is no shortage of veterinary doctors. I thought I would be more useful in India. Moreover I love India.” A follower of Tibetan Buddhism Dr. Schuetze’s first big project was in 2005 when she collaborated with the animal husbandry department of Sikkim. “There were frequent rabies outbreaks in Sikkim. The authorities would kill thousands of dogs because they had no other alternative to check the spread of rabies,” recalls Catherine. “More than 90 per cent of human rabies cases are spread by dog bites, so if you control rabies in dogs you can eradicate it in humans.”
Back Home: Her life today is very different from her childhood in North Queensland and later on the Sunshine Coast, where she grew up with a menagerie of rabbits, guinea pigs, horses, cats, dogs, goldfish, and birds at home. Her grandmother, father and mother live in Australia. She visits them once a year. “I started living independently at the age of 18 years and my family has always supported my work, whether I am in India or in Australia.,” she says.
Milestones: Till date, Vets Beyond Borders has surgically sterilised over 30,000 street dogs and vaccinated over 65,000 dogs and cats against rabies. The organisation also provides medical care for thousands of stray animals. In addition to running programmes in India, Vets Beyond Borders is also a partner in projects in the Pacific Islands, Bali, Sri Lanka and undertakes research work in Vietnam and India.
Future Forward: Catherine wants to expand her project in pacific region, especially in Fiji, Samoa and Vanuatu.
- Naresh K Thakur