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Miracles in Tikiapara

He has created a community educational and medical haven in the heart of Tikiapara, Howrah, and mobilized a movement for social change in an extremely
Tikiapara Samaritan School
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Mamoon Akhtar is a visionary who has moved mountains.  His inspired work underlines how, when communities local and global – in this case Muslims, Jews, and Hindus – come together, momentous changes occur.  

Mamoon was forced to drop out from school in the seventh standard when his father could no longer pay his fees. The pain of having to leave school made Mamoon strive to ensure vulnerable children can access a quality education. He has created a community educational and medical haven in the heart of Tikiapara, Howrah, and mobilized a movement for social change in an extremely impoverished area with eighty percent of the population below the poverty line. 

He started teaching 5 children in just one room in 2001. In 2003 he chanced upon a newspaper clipping that had a photo of Lee Alison Sibley interacting with children. Lee was then the wife of the US Consul General of Kolkata. Mamoon had a hunch that he needed to reach out to her and wrote to her. Lee visited the school with books and pencils for the students. She also brought along a journalist.

Students of Tikiapara Samaritan Mission School
Students of Tikiapara Samaritan Mission School

The journalist wrote about the visit and Mr. Ramesh Kacholia, in Mumbai read the article and made the first donation to the Samaritan Mission. Lee also was impressed by Mamoon’s passion and vision and worked with Jewish communities abroad to raise funds for the school. Mamoon continued his educational work in the congested streets of Tikiapara and with support also conducted health outreach programs and other community activities.  He dreamt of finding a space to bring all the work onto a campus.

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There was a two-acre plot at the heart of Tikiapara that had belonged to the Belilious family.  The Belilious family were Venetian Jews, traders and rabbis, who assimilated into the Calcutta Baghdadi Jewish community during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Led by Raphael Belilious, they made Hong Kong their home in 1861. His son, Emanuel Raphael Belilious, a philanthropist, was described in the British press as one of the “princes of the colony.” Emanuel Raphael became Chairman of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation in 1876 and appointed to the Legislative Council of Hong Kong in 1881. Isaac Raphael and his wife, Rebecca, remained in Calcutta. 

Like many wealthy Jewish families of Calcutta, the Belilious family were very invested in philanthropy. Rebecca Belilious was a donor to the Jewish Girls’ School as well as the Elias Meyer Free School, both still in operation. Isaac established the Howrah Isaac Raphael Belilious Institution in 1891. It supported a school and a charitable dispensary to provide primary health care to the poor. When he passed away in 1910, his wife Mrs. Rebecca Belilious formed the Belilious Trust Estate for its upkeep. There was also a very large park, the Belilious Park, one of the only open spaces in Tikiapara. It has recently been made into a mall in an area where green open space is non-existent.

Over time the Belilious grounds, on Belilious Road, where the school and dispensary were located, had been severely encroached upon.  It was a site for drug peddling, boot-legging and the large tank on the grounds used as a dump for chemical waste.  In 2014, the Howrah City Police and government collaborated with Mammon to save the Rebecca Belilious school that had three buildings in a dilapidated state. The police helped the Trust to combat the vested interests to rebuild the school on the premises. The community joined the Samaritan Mission effort to redevelop the 150-year-old Belilious institution. Corporate houses also invested in the project.  

Rebecca Belilious Samaritan School
The school now has a sports academy with astroturf

Renovation of the buildings and clearing of the grounds and tanks began in 2014 and an evening school was started with three hundred children attending it on the very first day.  Thereafter major renovations to the school started. Today the Rebecca Belilious English Institution, Samaritan Mission School (High) and Mission is at the center of a raft of health and other educational training facilities.

The Rebecca Belilious school is a handsome building with large playing fields.  It has 3511 students.  There are smart boards in each classroom, well equipped physics, chemistry and biology laboratories and a Sports Academy that includes an Astro-turf football ground. Over the last three years the students have all passed the Madhyamik examinations.  In just eight years, the Samaritan Mission High School has been recognized among the world’s top 10 inspirational schools by a UK research organization. Mamoon now manages three schools in Tikiapara reaching 6500 students paying negligible fees with access to strong educational facilities.

ambulance
Charitable healthcare services are also part of the Trust’s programs

The charitable dispensary that Mamoon started as a primary health center has been scaled up to become an 80-bed hospital with 8 doctors that provides orthopedics, pediatrics and family planning services.  Patients receive quality health care fees as low as Rupees 30 a month for most health care services.  Seventy thousand people receive free cataract operations annually.  There is a pharmacy on the premises providing medicines at very subsidized rates.  Mobile healthcare vans serve 600 patients a day in 6 localities of Howrah.  

In addition to the school and hospital the Samaritan Health Mission has a computer training center and a vocational training school.  Courses are offered for nursing aids, beauticians, and tailoring.  Those trained in nursing find jobs in the hospital and the tailors receive full time employment making uniforms for the students – a uniform costs Rs 400.  Mamoon’s work continues to grow organically to respond to community needs.  He  is now in the process of building two hostels on campus to meet the needs of vulnerable children.

charitable dispensary at Tikiapara
The dispensary is now an eighty bed hospital

Mamoon’s ability to build a wide range of partners including the community, government bodies, the police, corporate as well as individual donors is a testament to his vision.  His work is driven by his passion to meet the needs of his community, especially the needs of women and children.  His commitment to building on the legacy of the Belilious Trust is consistent with his vision to bring communities together to make miracles happen. As he says, “While Rebecca and Isaac had no children of their own, today they have so many children. I know they are smiling upon us.” 

This is truly a Calcutta story where a Muslim visionary, Jewish and Hindu philanthropists, work seamlessly making miracles happen in Tikiapara. 

Images courtesy: Jael Silliman

Jael Silliman, born in Kolkata, was educated at Wellesley College, Mass., Harvard University, University of Texas, Austin. She received her doctoral degree in international education at Columbia University. She has written extensively on gender and economic development, and women’s movements in the developing world. ‘The Teak Almirah’, ‘Where Gods Reside: Sacred Places of Kolkata’, ‘Jewish Portraits, Indian Frames: Women’s Narratives from a Diaspora of Hope’ are some of her published works.

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