Repairing a school built on shaky ground

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An Edinburgh-founded charity based in India is helping Indian schoolchildren pick up the pieces after a devastating earthquake, writes Judy Vickers

LINED up in their wee sleeping bags, preparing, with prayers, for the night ahead, the young boys know they have much to be grateful for. Not that a bare floor, strewn with a few brightly-coloured duvets, looks like a lot, but then these youngsters’ beds were destroyed when an earthquake hit – and they are all too aware of how lucky they are not to have been in them at the time.

It was just after 6pm on a Sunday when the 6.8 Ritcher scale quake rippled down from its epicentre at Sikkim in India, around 90 kilometres north of the Dr Graham’s Homes, founded by an Edinburgh missionary, in Kalimpong. The terrified youngsters ran through falling masonry and plaster to the relative safety of the outdoors, the older children managing to push the younger ones out of harm’s way.

Out of the 700 pupils who were there at the time, not a single one was physically injured, a figure which could have been all too different, according to Jim Simpson, the chairman of the UK committee for the homes.

“If it had struck a few hours later, if they had been in their beds, many of them would have been killed,” he says.

He and his wife, Pat, happened to be visiting when the earthquake hit, and spent the evening helping to create makeshift beds for the youngsters – their own were littered with chunks of masonry – and comforting traumatised children, many of whom had escaped appalling poverty to be at the school in the first place.

She says: “There is nothing like putting your mattress on the floor alongside 30 of your friends, then to cuddle down under your duvet to sleep, perhaps, in the biggest bed in the world. Not, of course, before being led in your prayers, thanking Jesus, or your own deity, for safe deliverance from the perils of living in an earthquake-prone area.”

The event, in September, made a traumatic impression on the children at the school, which is rated among the top ten private academies in India. “I thought I was going to die. This was my last day,” says pupil, 11-year-old Rebecca Paull. “All of us were praying to God to help us,” adds eight-year-old Agnes Wilson.

And while the comments are touching, it is the names of the pupils – which also include Samantha MacKenzie and John Cameron – which are perhaps more interesting, particularly for Scottish readers. Because the school, in a far-off hillside town in Bengal, has strong connections to Scotland, and Edinburgh in particular, the city from which its founder, John Anderson Graham, set off from 122 years ago as a missionary.

His work in Kalimpong saw a magnificent church built – now severely damaged – as well as a leprosarium, a hospital and workshops for women, allowing them to earn a wage for the first time. But he became increasingly focussed on the problem of the “tea garden children”, youngsters born of relationships between British – often Scottish – colonialists and local women. Jim explains: “When the time came to go home, these men just abandoned them – it wasn’t socially acceptable to have an Indian wife or mixed race children in the UK at that time.”

Graham was determined to help these lost boys and girls, despite the opposition of the Church of Scotland and his bosses, and in 1900 welcomed the first six children into a rented house. Within six weeks he had another 26.

Now Dr Graham’s Homes, named after their charismatic and persuasive founder who died in 1942, have more than 1400 pupils, mostly fee-paying academically-gifted children, whose parents are attracted by the school’s prestigious reputation – its former pupils include the Prime Minister of neighbouring Bhutan. But 400 of the pupils provide a link to the school’s heritage – supported by sponsors in Scotland and worldwide, they are chosen because of their desperately poor backgrounds and are provided with an education – and a home – which would otherwise be beyond their wildest dreams.

The emphasis is still on Anglo-Indian youngsters, and parents of such children include one mother who works as an office cleaner – and lives in a cupboard in the office – “so there is no solid or tangible home,” says Jim – or another coping with six youngsters and a drunken rickshaw driver husband.

The UK committee aims to raise £230,000 every year to support these children but now has the added challenge of trying to raise a six-figure sum to repair and rebuild the school’s buildings, many of which are nearly a century old. And it is a race against time to raise the funds, not just to provide a proper home for the vulnerable youngsters, but also so that the parents of the fee-paying pupils, on which the school relies, don’t remove their children from an institution where they are having to double up in the remaining dormitories and be taught in a hastily converted dining room.

“We are doing our best to keep the school running as normal,” says Jim. “We will get some money from insurance and there is some from the government. But I would be surprised if we can get away with less than £1 million. However, we should see this as a silver lining to our cloud, to rebuild the school and ensure Dr Graham’s vision continues for decades to come.”

• For details on how to sponsor a child, visit www.drgrahamshomes.co.uk, or contact James Simpson, chairman and sponsorship secretary at sponsorship@drgrahamshomes.co.uk or 0845-094-8839.

To help with the rebuilding project, contact Morris Thomson, treasurer at treasurer@ drgrahamshomes.co.uk or 0131-339-6796.

jvickers@edinburghnews.com