Three young children from India took the center stage at the Asia Society in New York on Tuesday evening as it hosted a photo exhibition on HIV/AIDS ahead of the World AIDS Day on December one.
The Lila Acheson Wallace Auditorium of the Asia Society, usually the venue of many a scholarly debate and discussion on problems facing Asia, saw three teenagers become little heroes, who have either been affected by the HIV/AIDS disease or have witnessed its impact from close quarters, narrated their personal experiences behind each photograph.
Although only one of the teenagers, 14-year-old P Meroz, could speak English, the Ninth grade student from Vijayawada city translated his Telugu-speaking friends' tales in English for the 100-odd members of the audience consisting mostly of school children from New York city.
The New York school children repeatedly applauded as each one of the three spoke of their struggle and survival.
"I could not take the daily beating from my father, who was an alcoholic, and I ran away from my village home some years ago and somehow reached Vijayawada. The city strange place for me at that time," recollected Pothala Venkata Ramu.
In Vijayawada, Ramu, now 19, contacted sexually transmitted infection while working as an assistant in a trucking company to make a living. He subsequently received medical support through a non-profit organisation - Vasavya Mahila Madali.
VMM works for social development of women and children, particularly from the underprivileged communities. Ramu joined the NGO last year and is studying for his college degree at present.
K Revathi belongs to a family in Vijayawada where every member is HIV positive. An aspiring doctor, she said she was especially moved by her brother's illness.
"It hurts me when my brother is not well," the 16-year-old told the audience, adding, "To fulfill my wish, I am studying hard and I am determined to achieve my goal."
Meroz, whose parents are both medical doctors, said he was inspired to change the society that he lived in after seeing many HIV patients at his parents' clinic.
"I thought I must help them and the first thing I did was to contact Revathi's brother, who was very sick and getting treatment in my parents' clinic. I gave him my toys. He was very happy," Meroz said.
The three children were brought here by Picturing Hope, the Abbott Fund's 'Step Forward' program in India that provides psychological support for children by providing them with education and resources, including cameras and journals, to explore their feelings, strengthen their sense of self and find a voice with which to tell their stories.
Picturing Hope's key learning tool is photographs, which the children in developing countries impacted by AIDS and lacking access to adequate health and social services, take with cameras provide by the organization.
The children, whether in India or in other participating countries like Romania and Burkina Faso, examined the larger story that their individual photographs told and came together to educate each other.
The three Indian children said their photographic ventures had brought them closer to the community and also overcome the traditional societal taboos and the barriers imposed by the community on the families affected by the dreaded disease.
"This has an educating effect as well. When your neighbors see a photo taken by one of their own showing that a child is fine even after she hugs her mom or dad, gradually they tend to believe that you will not die by touching a person inflicted by HIV/AIDS," Revati, whose family was once shunned by relatives, said.
The city school children too raised some questions, some of which left Meroz and his friends bewildered.
One for instance wanted to know why there was no education or awareness about HIV/AIDS.
"Do they not teach you in schools," quizzed one among the audience.
To this, Rita Roy, divisional vice-president of global citizenship and policy at Abbott, said, "India is a country which is huge, beautiful and traditional. There when you have a disease like the HIV/AIDS, it creates fear, superstition, misunderstanding and a lot of stigma and discrimination."
She also mentioned about the lack of adequate communication channels, especially in rural areas, because of which awareness was lacking.
"People like your age there face tremendous barriers and discrimination even on play grounds because of HIV," she told the school children.
Renowned professional photographer Craig Bender, who has documented the lives of children affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Tanzania and has been instrumental behind the Picturing Hope program, said he wanted to give the children in India and elsewhere the ability to tell their own stories, something that was continuing.
"They can develop the program and grow it stronger," Craig said, adding, "They have brought out very powerful images. I wish I could be as courageous (as them)."
The three Indian teenagers also performed a brief dance recital to the song 'Vande Mataram,' symbolizing what they said was the unity among those who are afflicted with HIV/AIDS and how they lived together in India.
Meroz and his friends were happy that they could come to America to share their experiences.
"When we go back, we will show the photos that we have taken here and what we have learnt and seen. That, hopefully will make some difference," Revati told rediff.com.