They own nothing. ZERO.

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A woman sleeps on a sidewalk in central Kolkata. Extreme poverty afflicts millions in India.

 

A few weeks ago, when President Barack Obama visited India, I wrote a piece for CNN about how my homeland was poised to become a global power in the next few decades. The most recent World Bank forecast says growth in India is likely to outdo China’s.

But then came a sobering reminder of the widespread poverty in India.

The latest Census data says that 43 million households have zero assets to their name. That means about 215 million people own nothing. The Census listed cars, computers and televisions. But it also listed simple things like radios, bicycles and cell phones. Nothing. Zero.

As such, these people are largely excluded from society, marginalized by extreme poverty.

India’s extreme poor are often left out of the discussion on growth and a more fruitful future. But any measure of progress has to be diminished by these shameful numbers.

Recently, the Aam Admi  (Common Man) Party won a surprising and resounding victory in the Delhi elections, putting anti-corruption champion Arvind Kejriwal back in the chief minister’s slot. Aam Admi’s core support comes from the urban poor.

Whether or not you agree with Aam Admi, the win in Delhi, though largely symbolic, is a strong indicator that “inclusion: might just be the “it” concept in Indian politics in the years ahead. Politicians who forget about the millions without assets, the millions without clout, may have disappointments in store. India has to lift all boats. A global power cannot be a nation in which so many people own absolutely nothing.

Read my story about Obama and India on CNN.com.

We said we would not forget Haiti

 

I spoke with my friend Jean Mariot Cleophat by phone today. It has been five years since I first met him.

He was my guide for much of my reporting journey through Haiti after the massive 2010 earthquake that left Haitians is utter despair. They called in “La catastrophe.”

Reporters from around the world rushed to Haiti then, hungry to tell the story of the disaster. Ordinary people felt moved to make donations, by cell phone even. The world pledged billions of dollars.

Everyone said: Haiti will rise from its ashes and finally succeed in its long struggle to overcome poverty.

Mariot and me in May 2010 in Port-au-Prince.

Mariot and me in May 2010 in Port-au-Prince.

Everyone said: We will not forget Haiti.

But we did forget Haiti, by and large.

It is the fifth anniversary of the earthquake and the world’s focus is not on Haiti today.

The earth shook for a mere 60 seconds that Tuesday and 220,000 people died.

Millions were left homeless, desperately seeking shelter in camps that grew to become huge tent cities.

In their vulnerable state, Haitians braved killer hurricanes and a cholera outbreak.

There are places in Port-au-Prince now that show no hints of the catastrophe.

The palace has been fixed up and shiny new buildings built. There are new roads, new houses. The markets are do brisk business. But, said Mariot, they belie the truth about Haiti. They belie the plight of ordinary people.

I asked Mariot how his life has been.

“I feel without hope,” he told me.

Mariot is not yet 30. He is educated and speaks English fairly well. Since the last time I saw him in early 2011,he has gotten married and now has a four-year-old daughter.

He’s worked numerous jobs in international companies. He got himself OSHA certified and was working for a construction firm but when the World Bank contract ran out, so did his job. He’s moved to the countryside because it’s cheaper there than Port-au-Prince. I asked him what he was dong for money.

He said he finds temporary jobs here and there; makes $300-400 a pop. It pays for food. But it’s hardly enough.

“There are no jobs here,” he said. “What happened to all the promises of jobs for Haitians?”

That got me thinking about a conversation I had with a friend whose father used to work for a major cruise company. He told me how he had been to Haiti as a boy when tourists flocked to its turquoise waters and white sand beaches. I know there had been efforts to restart tourism in Haiti, a notion that irks those who see it as exploitative. But I wondered how much Haiti might profit from a booming tourism trade.

If we can talk about Cuba opening up to Americans who want to sun themselves in the tropics, then why not Haiti?

I don’t know what happened to all the people I met in Haiti. How did they recover? Were they able to regain a semblance of normalcy?

I think of them this week and pay tribute to their fortitude. And resilience.

Before he hung up, Mariot told me he lives by faith. Like all Haitians, he said, he lives by the grace of God.

Read my Haiti stories on CNN.com:

Buried alive for six days, survivors reunite

A day with Sean Penn in Haiti

Rescuer was woman’s last hope

Burying the dead

What it was a year later

 

 

Ferguson

Many businesses on West Florissant Avenue are boarded up ahead of the grand jury decision.

The convenience store where Michael Brown allegedly stole cigars is  boarded up ahead of the grand jury decision. 

I did not cover the story in August when a black teenager was killed by a white officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Nor did I have any idea that I would be thick in the middle of things one day.

But here I am, amid a deep freeze in Missouri, waiting with everyone else for a grand jury decision on whether the police officer, Darren Wilson, should be indicted in the killing of Michael Brown.

So far, it’s been an eye-opening experience. I am learning about a part of the country that I have not seen before.

Here are links to a few of my stories:

It’s her Ferguson — and it’s not all black and white

Ferguson awaits grand jury ruling

A tale of two streets

In the shadow of the storm, a quiet grave

 

 

‘Dead Man Walking.’ Live nun talking

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On my last night in New Orleans, Sister Helen and I visited death penalty attorney Denny LaBoef at her home. Denny took this photo of us.

My journalism brings me face to face with all sorts of interesting people. Over the years I have met extraordinary men and women and ordinary ones who have extraordinary tales to tell.

Occasionally, I run into exceptional people, the kind who make me stop to reflect, respect and admire.

Sister Helen Prejean is one of them.

I’d known about her work for decades — I first learned about her ministry on death row when I, as a young reporter, began covering criminal justice issues in Florida. When her book, “Dead Man Walking” was published, I read it and immediately connected with her. She vomited after witnessing her first execution in the electric chair. So did I.

Last week, I was finally able to spend some time with her. She came to pick me up at the New Orleans airport. “Text me when eagle hits tarmac,” were her orders.

She was waiting patiently for me in her Toyota outside Delta baggage claim. Immediately, I got a first-hand experience of her lead-foot driving.

Over the next few days, I came to know a woman who has dedicated her entire life to the sisterhood, to the Catholic church, to the poor and disenfranchised. I also came to know a woman who is full of life and laughter and joy in her heart, despite the fact that she has been dealing with executions for 30 years. I could not get over her verve for life. I also gained a couple of pounds eating Oyster Po’ Boys with her. They were deelish.

My story on Sister Helen published today on CNN.com. Shortly after, I received another text from her — yes, she loves her iPhone.

“Moniiiiiiii!,” it said. “You amaze me. What a comprehensive, lively, piece. U r an incredible, encyclopedic, compassionate journalist. Even the parrot joke! I’ll call soon.”

I felt tears welling.

I’m raising a glass of Scotch in your honor tonight, Helen.

Sister Helen is perhaps America’s best known abolitionist. You and I may not agree with her position on the death penalty or other issues for that matter.

I was inspired not because she is a death penalty abolitionist but because she is a woman of courage, compassion and conviction. And a whole lot of strength.

Journalists often lose their sense of all the good in this world because we cover so much misery and suffering. Sister Helen gave me back a little bit of my diminishing faith in humanity.

Read the CNN story here:

http://us.cnn.com/2014/08/06/us/executions-dead-man-walking-nun/index.html?hpt=hp_c2

Eat your heart out, Travis Bickle

Meet Linda Randolph. Her resume is impressive.

Public health pediatrician. Graduated from Howard University College of Medicine and the School of Public Health in Berkeley, California. She is president and CEO of Developing Families Center, Inc., a non-profit in Washington D.C. that serves low-income women of child-bearing and child-rearing age and their families. She has been recognized for her sensitivity and commitment to the complex needs of poor women, especially those of color. She’s been doing this sort of work for years — three decades to be exact.

I had the privilege of sitting next to her at dinner one night last week at the America Healing conference, sponsored by the Kellogg Foundation. Randolph nibbled on a slice of prime rib and mashed potatoes. Somehow the conversation migrated from maternal outcomes to the day that Randolph will retire.

Linda Randolph and I had dinner together at a racial healing conference last week.

Linda Randolph and I had dinner together at a conference.

 

“What will you do?” I asked. “Will you stay in Washington?”

Randolph is a native of D.C.

I wasn’t expecting the answer I got.

“I’m going to move to New York and drive a taxi.”

Whoah. Seriously?

Randolph said there were few women who drove taxis in NYC. She wants another cabbie to glance her way and take a good look when she’s behind the wheel of a yellow cab.

And she’s gonna make sure it’s a taxi with manual transmission.

She loves to drive stick-shift. More than 40 years ago, when she was still young and impressionable, Randolph drove from New York to San Francisco with a friend. He was from Costa Rica and had never shifted gears. But never mind that. They took turns at the wheel: 4 hours each. They drove like the wind and made it to the Pacific in 3 and 1/2 days.

So that’s what Randolph looks forward to. Out performing badass cabbies in the city known for them. I guessed her cabbie days were fast approaching. But how long would she work as a driver? She’s 72 now. Didn’t she want a few years of rest and relaxation?

Well, she said, her mama lived to see 99.

“When she died, she didn’t have a wrinkle on her face.”

Here’s to you, Dr. Linda Randolph, full of life and and now a source of inspiration for me. Here’s to you and many good years as a taxi driver.


My Christmas gift



This is the season when we feel compelled to give. We give our time at homeless shelters, buy bags of food for the hungry and write checks out to charities that help people in far-flung places. Sometimes, it’s difficult to choose an agency. Many of us are cynical about how effectively the money will be spent. Or we question whether it will do any good at all.

I do not pretend to know the answers to solving global poverty, but I will share with you a story about one family whose life is about to change radically.

Ibrahim Gulam lives in a part of central Kolkata that is usually not seen by visitors to the city. I would guess that many of my friends and relatives have never even been to this part of town. The main road still bears its British name — Colin Road.

the streets are overflowing with workshops and warehouses. Gulam lives in an area where plaster molding is manufactured. Some of the men and women look like aliens, their dark faces perpetually smeared with white dust.

Crime and drug addiction is rampant in this part of town. So, too, are broken hearts. Broken dreams.

You have to snake through tiny lanes bursting with humanity to get to the room that Ibrahim shares with his parents and three siblings. He and his brother sleep atop the hard bed, his mother and sisters share the floor and his father, an asthmatic who has not been able to hold down a full time job because of his respiratory ailments, lies under the bed.

In the summer, the heat and humidity are so intense that the whitewash on the walls peels off. Little adorns the dark, cramped room save scripture from the Quran. Ibrahim’s mother cooks on a coal-burning stove on the floor outside, where shoes heap up and the cement is incessantly wet from household use.

The family shares a latrine with countless other people. Often, bathing is done is public at the local tubewell.

The smells here are like nothing found in America — a mixture of life and waste and human misery.

Westerners dubbed this “the city of joy.” I heard a businessman on my flight back telling the flight attendant that he had taken his young son for a tour of Kolkata slums. He leaned back in his $4,000 business class seat and talked of how “fascinating” the lives of the poor were.

He should talk to Ibrahim.

To say that his life has been a struggle is an understatement.

I met him when he was in grade school. He was one of several children my brother and I sponsored. We paid for their schooling so that they would have a chance in life.

No one in Ibrahim’s neighborhood has finished high school. His father, Gulam Siddiq, studied in a Bengali medium school but dropped out in the second grade, later learning how to be an electrician. His mother, Rabyia Sultana, stopped in the fifth grade in her native Bihar.

I wanted Ibrahim and his siblings not to live the life of his parents. I wanted to do everything in power to preserve his joie de vivre.

I watched him grow, visited him when I went home every year. He did well in Navjjyoti, a school for poor children that my friend Vijay helped establish. He was admitted to the reputable Assembly of God Church school. So was his brother Zahid and sisters Anjum and Zahida.

Ibrahim is now 24 and will soon earn a degree from Seacom Engineering College. I visited him in early December and his latest report card showed him excelling in almost every subject.

His brother and sister followed in his footsteps and are also in college. His youngest sister will enroll in college next year. She wants to study microbiology.

Ibrahim’s mother beamed with pride as she talked about her children. She knows that one day soon, the family will leave that dismal room. On Ibrahim’s salary, they will be able to afford a flat in a nicer part of the city, put better food in their bellies.

Ibrahim had the fortitude to win against all odds — to study in dim light, distracted by the hub-bub of the slum. He persisted when I had half expected him to give up. Yet, year after year, he delighted me with his report cards. A few years ago, he came to visit me with his grades in hand. That’s when he told me: “I want to be an engineer. I want life to be different.”

In India, a nation of 1.1 billion people, sometimes, not even an education is a ticket out of poverty. But without it, a young man or woman stands no chance of success. There, vocations do not pay as well as they do in America. Labour is cheap and the life of an electrician like Ibrahim’s father is far from comfort.

I sponsor other children in Kolkata as well. I talk to their parents, who want to pull them out of classrooms and put them to work instead. Many of them are not supportive of their children and even punish them for wanting to sit down with their books. But it’s not easy persuading a poor person to give up another source of income.

Not all my kids have been as successful as Ibrahim. Ranjeet Shaw is struggling to pass his high school board exams, though he told me when I saw him a few weeks ago that he was not giving up. He has seen hope and he is not going to let it go without a fight.

I don’t have children of my own, but my Kolkata kids have filled that void in my life. And then some.