UC Berkeley Students Become Ambassadors of Peace

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday November 20, 2008 - 10:02:00 AM

In Behrampada, a slum in Mumbai, India, the fight for water starts as early as five in the morning. 

Water, if not the source of all problems in this predominantly Muslim community located a stone’s throw away from Bandra West—home to some of the city’s elite and Bollywood’s best—accounts for a major part of it. 

When Ayse Ercumen, a graduate student at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health, landed in Behrampada during the summer to conduct the Safe Water for a Safe World project, she was blown away—not by the squalor, the stench or the staggering expanse of the slums, but by the stark poverty which is so easily associated with India, but cannot be explained until you actually set your eyes upon it. 

Ercumen was one of four students from the International House at UC Berkeley to travel to places as far-flung as Kosovo, India and Cambodia to carry out Davis Projects for Peace, made possible by a $1 million grant from Kathryn Wasserman Davis, who met her late husband Ambassador Shelby Cullom Davis when they were living at the I-House New York in 1931. 

On Oct. 12, I-House residents in Berkeley released four doves to honor each of the four winners and celebrate their efforts to bring peace into the world, whether by bridging the gap between Cambodian and Vietnamese children, teaching computer skills to Romas or simply telling a 5-year-old in one of Asia’s largest slums that dipping a dirty finger in a bucket of drinking water could kill him. 

A 2004 report from the World Health Organization indicates that annually there are 1.8 million deaths from diarrhea, and approximately half a million of these occur in India, a fact which Ercumen, who is originally from Turkey, finds simply astonishing. 

“There is a disproportionately large portion of diarrheal deaths in India,” she said during an interview with the Planet at the I-House on a recent Sunday. “It has one-fourth of the world’s diarrheal deaths, even though its population is not one-fourth of the world’s. The importance of our project lies in the immensity of the problems we chose to tackle. In a world where two million people, mostly children, die every year from easily preventable enteric diseases, any step to try to provide adequate water, sanitation and hygiene to those who do not have access to it is a valuable endeavor.” 

The Safe Water for a Safe World project was modeled on Haath Mein Sehat (health in your hands), an initiative started by UC Berkeley graduate student Ashley Murray to educate slum dwellers about issues such as sanitation, hygiene and water testing. 

Although Ercumen was living in an apartment in Dadar, home to the city’s upper-middle-class, she almost always spent her time inside one of Behrampada’s tiny squatters, learning her way in the dark, wet, narrow, maze-like alleys and witnessing for the first time its hundreds of thousands of inhabitants, heaps of garbage and open sewers, where children often defecate because they don’t know any better. 

“It would not be an exaggeration to say that we were living in the slum,” she said smiling. “You often hear about them, you read about them, and I am from Istanbul, so I am not unfamiliar with them, but I think there’s a difference. What I saw in Mumbai was beyond my expectations just because of its sheer dimensions. The first thing you notice is the abundance of people and the lack of space. The next thing is the sanitation.” 

Private and public latrines dot Behrampada’s square mile-long stretch and are shared by the 175,000 or so people who live there. 

The private ones charge around 1 rupee (around 2 cents), are fairly clean and come with water, and the public restrooms are free. “You don’t pay, you don’t get water and they are dirty,” said Ercumen, wrinkling her nose at the memory. “You bring your own water.” 

Most houses, she said, now have taps in front of their building but at times arguments break out between families who share a tapabout who can get to it first to collect water. 

“Water is not the heart of the problem,” Ercumen said. “The quality of water is.” 

In Behrampada, there is no round-the-clock, water pressure on the pipes, so residents start rationing water in matkas (earthen pots), drums, jugs, mugs, buckets, bottles, cans—pretty much anything they have—between 5 and 9 a.m., which Ercumen said was one of the main problems. 

“Since there is no continuous water pressure in the pipes, you get negative pressure, and you suck up whatever is surrounding the pipe,” she said. “Half of the time it’s stuff from the sewage lines or fecal matter which makes the quality of water bad. Also the fact that the people collect the water so early in the morning and store it the entire day makes it more susceptible to get contaminated inside the container.” 

Most of the samples Ercumen collected from the houses in Behrampada showed contamination in the stored water, she said. 

Teaching a bunch of toddlers and their families—most of them uneducated—about boiling drinking water, disease transmission and personal hygiene was a Herculean task for Ercumen, given the language barrier and the fact that she got diarrhea herself during her stay there, but the experience helped her became a stronger person. 

“It was extremely hot and then the monsoons started, and it was extremely wet, and there were times when I didn’t want to do it anymore, but at other times It was so gratifying that I just wanted to keep doing it,” she said. 

Around the same time Ercumen was battling cultural differences to save the residents of Behrampada from an endemic, UC Berkeley Integrated Biology senior Sina Akhavan was trying to give Roma children in Kosovo a chance to build a career for themselves in the near future. 

A passion for Flamenco music led Akhavan, who is of Iranian descent, to spend his summer in Preoce, working on Project Sastimasa with Voice of Roma, a non-profit based in Sebastapol. 

“I thought to myself, how can I contribute? and I realized that teaching Romas English and computer skills was one way,” he said, sitting inside the historic Great Hall at the I-House right before the dove-release ceremony. 

Arriving in Preoce—a small Roma village near Pristina, Kosovo’s capital—a month after the country declared its independence in February, Akhavan, a native of Redondo Beach, said he was struck by how fast people aged over there. 

“The environment is toxic,” he said. “Some of these communities are built on top of a lead mine. The government doesn’t collect trash in the Roma enclaves of the town. So people just throw trash right outside their houses or burn it.” 

But the garbage and the smoke were nothing compared to the political tension in the air, Akhavan said, which kept the Romas from leaving certain pockets of the village and driving freely on the streets or playing loud music in their cars for fear of attracting the Albanians. 

About 90 percent of Romas are unemployed and most survive on humanitarian aid, he said, which was enough to buy flour, but not adequate to buy sugar or water.  

A lucky few get around 60 euros every month from family members who have migrated to Germany or Italy. 

“It’s a minimum remittance economy,” he said. “That’s where the project came in. We wanted to teach them English and how to use computers, not to work with the Albanians or Serbs but rather the various international organizations such as the United Nations and the European Union.” 

Akhavan said that it angered him when people referred to Romas as gypsies. 

“It’s a myth,” he said. “They have no representation and no support. Nobody supports their cause. I want to demystify the belief that they are magical people. They are people who need international help.” 

Donated laptops, a make-shift classroom and elementary school English texts brought the program to an exciting start. 

However, teaching 3- to 28-year-olds Microsoft Word and Powerpoint proved to be a bit of a challenge for Akhavan and the other volunteers in the project, especially since younger students were often distracted at night after going through a grueling schedule at school the whole day. 

Another problem was the power failures which kept happening every three hours, interrupting lessons and forcing the teachers to hold classes by candle or cellphone light. 

A typical day in Preoce would start with kids screaming, dogs barking and roosters crowing, Akhavan said, followed by lots of Turkish coffee. 

“Everywhere I looked there would be kids running around barefoot,” he said. “I was invited to people’s homes again and again and again. It’s like its own world. A few dozen houses but enough people and enough drama for it to be fun.” 

Project Sastimasa is still alive in Preoce today and Akhavan plans to pay his students a visit soon. 

“When I left I was able to see a sliver of hope appear before my students,” he said. “In a reality of gross unemployment and dire poverty, hopelessness, like a pandemic, spreads and affects almost all. But this opportunity brought, in some small way—a chance at hope, a chance at a better quality of life.” 

For more information on the I-House Davis Projects for Peace visit: ihouse.berkeley.edu/a/news/DavisPeaceProjects.html.