03_Nuevas_Rutas_Agostina Di Stefano_1
New Route Publié le 01 juin 2019

Agostina Di Stefano: The Argentine teacher who empowers a community in New Delhi through her school

At 35, she managed to combine teaching with social assistance, causing a positive impact on the children of Motia Khan and their families.

Agostina always understood teaching as a means to cause social impact. She devoted seven years of her life to teaching English lessons at schools located in very deprived areas of Buenos Aires. In 2014, she packed her suitcases and, together with her boyfriend and their one-year-old daughter, left the city of Buenos Aires to relocate to New Delhi, India, where she would experience a very strong and hostile cultural change.

During her first days in India she visited different organizations and got familiar with several social projects. Time later, she found her place in a shelter that, despite being plagued by rats and dirt, provides shelter to extremely poor families. It was then that she experienced a strong connection with Chenna, a girl in a state of severe parasitosis. As days passed, she began to get involved with other people in the shelter as she listened to their problems, and she felt she had to do something about it.

Question: What does Mothia Khan mean?
Mothia Khan is the name of the neighborhood where both the school and the shelter where I started working are located. The idea of founding the school, also called Mothia Khan, arose with other French expatriates. We visited a shelter and started working there, curing and assisting burned and malnourished people. Then, we began to offer breakfast twice a week. Finally, I began to visit them every day.

Q: The act of founding a school is a great challenge. What drove you to do so?
The main reason to found the school was peoples’ desperation. I couldn’t accept the fact many children had no documents, that they couldn’t go to hospital or school because no one payed attention to them. If a child that lives in the street goes to school, the authorities make excuses not to leave him or her in. These people don’t have access to what most citizens in the world consider “basic”, such as going to hospital. And this is not precisely because they live 25 miles away or in a rural area: It’s within their reach, but the hospital staff doesn’t give them proper attention. Therefore, these people stop going to hospital or sending their children to school. That seemed very unfair to me and I really wanted to change it.

Q: What difficulties did you have to face?
Mainly, the language barrier and the difference between cultures. My approach was “I want to learn from this community, I don’t intend to impose anything or tell them how things should be done”. I believe that thinking that way was very important and made things easier. My proposal is always to share what everyone thinks and has learned so far. Also, to see what I can learn from them—surely a lot—and them from me. I was always one of them. And this is something I’d like to emphasize because many people come here with an air of superiority and a “this is how things are done” kind of attitude. I don’t agree with that. It doesn’t mean you are not going to be successful in India by being like that (in general, it is a very permissive society) but that was never my idea.

Q: India is inserted in a very particular context and more than once you have managed to overcome obstacles. What challenges does Mothia Khan face daily? How do you overcome them?
First, our daily challenge is making the school grow, getting more funds so that we can offer more medicines, provide better nutrition to children and reach more people. Then, another difficulty is to adapt the activities to what the community is ready to deal with. For example, I really want to talk about the menstrual cycle, but I don’t think the community is ready for that at the moment.

Q: Motia Khan is a support for the families of children who attend classes. Can you tell us more about these families?
A: Children’s parents sell vegetables or work as rickshaw-pullers, as guards in a shop, in sewing workshops or own a food stand. In general, salaries are very low, they earn between 150 and 200USD. In that area rents are very expensive, and half of their salary is used to pay for it. Therefore, only what’s left from that salary is spent on living. If there’s a setback, if an accident occurs or someone gets sick, they get into debt and can’t prosper, especially due to poor working conditions. At 40, they already have a very tired body or are underweight due to poor diet and hard life.

The staff of Mothia Khan always tries to help the student’s parents. Teachers identify the problems of the different families and we try to solve them. They are fond of us and they like their children to attend our school.

Q: What values and messages do you want children to learn?
A: We want them to have confidence in themselves. We want the girls to know that they should study for a better future, to raise their voice and fight for a future with more justice and gender equality. In the case of the boys, we want them to be more open-minded and stand up for the girls. Also, to try to break a bit with what’s left of the caste system and with the tradition that in a way determines that they are children who don’t have the same rights as others.

Photos: Agostina Di Stefano