By Martin D’Souza | Opening Doorz Editorial | January 23, 2018

He could be dubbed the Pied Piper of drug addicts. But unlike the rat catcher who was hired by the town of Hamelin to lure the rats away, and instead also did away with the children in retaliation for not being paid, Fr. Barnabe D’Souza (sdb) played a different tune, one that changed the lives of many street children who would have otherwise been staring blankly into space.

First, he became one with them in their environment, befriended them and slowly ‘lured’ them to a way of life they could never have comprehended. Angel of the Junkies, is how one newspaper article in Bombay aptly titled him way back in the early nineties. He has been just that for over two decades, with the intense work he has put in for the Young At Risk, who were left on the boundaries of civilization, to get them back on a ‘high’ in life!

Scores of drug addicts who have passed through the therapeutic care of Fr. D’Souza are now leading respectable lives with families of their own. Fr Barnabe D’Souza gives us an insight on how, why and when he actually immersed himself into an area he passionately pursued until he was transferred to France in May 2014, as Deputy Secretary General of the International Federation of Catholic Unviesities (IFCU) .

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The quest to care for drug addicts…
In March 1993, I had come from Bangalore for my diaconate ministry and was posted at Shelter Don Bosco for three months. Given the freedom to follow my longtime dream of working with street drug addicts, there was a question that was constantly with me during that formation period: How do we apply the Salesian preventive system to working with street drug addicts? 

This quest began a journey with intense outreach on the streets of Bombay, picking up young street drug addicts from train stations, the garbage rooms, from areas of prostitution, etc. sitting for hours with them on the streets, sleeping on railway platforms or on open parked trucks; carrying them to hospitals for detox, bathing them, giving them a haircut, understanding their stories, being present with them, to learn from them as well as to find a next step. All this led to taking them for a detoxification process.

After detox, the aftercare…
Once detoxed, we needed to have a place for their convalescence and so after an intensive ‘Salesian style’ camp they were housed in a small hut at Antop Hill, Wadala. Here, they began doing crafts and working at skills that they were habituated to before their drug abusing habit. Nine out of those 14 boys from that first batch became drug free.

This was the first learning period that began consolidating a philosophy and a method of working with street drug addicts. This particular experiment had a tremendous impact on the ‘Salesian method’ that developed into a five-phase porgramme that was begun in a vacant building (the old Don Bosco, Lonavala school teachers quarters) at Shelter Don Bosco, Khandala in 1999.

This facility could house less than 15-20 street drug addicts. After the first couple of batches came ‘clean’ the children at the Shelter Don Bosco’s monthly melas began seeing these ‘clean’ companions (just a few months earlier like them) but now on stage already talking to them about the importance of education. This role-modeling, boosted the demand as between 90-100 boys wanted to join the programme.

Fr. Tony D’Souza the then Provincial and his Council, saw the need and provided land for a larger facility. Thus was born ‘Maria Ashiana a Don Bosco therapeutic Centre’ in Lonavala. Asha Foundation from Switzerland came forward to support this facility.  This place has seen the ‘placing into society’ of many boys who would have otherwise withered and died on the streets.

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Understanding the young hooked on substance abuse…
I have understood that street drug addicts like to be looked upon humanely, be treated with dignity and gain recognition. Their situation often demands that they dress shabbily to avoid being abused. They do not get opportunities to showcase their talent or do self-reflection to discover their self-worth. They have circumstances that make them feel unwanted, despised, abused, exploited and they accept these situations as part of their destiny in conformity with the negative labels society gives them.

Once they get caught up in such a mind-set, programmes and interventions meant to enhance their talents and skills always fall short. My experience of success and failure with these young drug addicts has taught me that our programmatic interventions should first work on their mind-sets, on their belief in their own dignity, in understanding that they are worth something and that they too can contribute. There needs to be a radical rethinking in terms of how we (in institutions) deal with street children and adolescents.

If we view street youth as being contributory and having something to offer rather than as empty vessels needing to be filled and helped, we would design programs that reflect this thinking. We should respect street youth as whole beings with complex and interconnected life experiences.

Interventions should be founded on what the youth bring to the institution: their stories, dreams and choices. Rather than foster dependency, efforts should be made to allow young people to articulate their own reality and define their goals and objectives. Local culture and prejudices often prevent street youth from accessing basic social and health services and hinder their efforts at breaking away from social stigma.

This is exactly what Maria Ashiana a Don Bosco Theraputic Centre, Lonavala creates through a Salesian family environment, and offers a hope to live life as contributive citizens of society.

(Fr Barnabe D’Souza was with Shelter Don Bosco from 1995-2009. He also set up Shelter Don Bosco Theraputic Community in 1999 and  ‘Maria Ashiana a Don Bosco therapeutic Centre’ in Lonavala in 2004. He has also authored various handbooks which are excellent resource material for those working with the street children in their quest to empower them.)

 (From the book Forever Grateful to Don Bosco: Success Stories of the Young at Risk)

Also Read: We believe in helping the child who is at risk: Fr Gregory Almeida

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