- 25 Oct 2023
[TW: Mentions of child abuse and sexual assault]
The cozy tables at the Bombay to Barcelona Cafe give me comfort on a busy day as I sip on a steaming cup of hot chocolate. But I can't help but think of the incredible journey that has brought me to this point.
My story began in the slums of Mumbai, where I was born into a family trapped in the relentless cycle of poverty. My parents struggled to provide for my two sisters and me, and at the age of five, I found myself working at a bakery for a meager two rupees a day, laboring for 10 to 12 hours. But life took an even darker turn when my parents separated, and I was left with no choice but to work at a tea shop.
Working at the tea shop was a nightmare. I endured relentless bullying, physical abuse, and humiliation. All that the young Amin longed for, like any other child, was a place of love and compassion, a place where I could be safe and free from harm. But life had plans to challenge me further. One day, I accidentally broke a few glasses at the tea shop. Terror took over me, and the best idea for me was to run. Returning home was not an option, as I feared the wrath of my stepfather, who had been abusive in the past. So, I ran away to the Malad railway station, hoping to find a solution to my dire circumstances.
What I found there were children just like me, begging for alms and scavenging for food in trash cans. Witnessing their suffering broke my heart, but my own fear and desperation kept me from returning home, so I decided to spend the night at the railway station. That fateful night at the railway station marked a horrifying turn in my life, as I fell prey to physical abuse. It took me six long months to learn how to protect myself on the unforgiving streets. I had to become tough, ready to defend myself at any moment, for the streets were ruthless and no angel would come and save me. I learned to beg, clean garbage, polish shoes, and carry suitcases just to make ends meet and spent three harrowing years at the Malad railway station.
Then, one day, an angel did come. I was in a fit of aggression, trying to defend myself when she found me. I tried to throw rocks at her and wouldn’t believe it when she said she’d take me to a safe home. But after three hours of convincing, I hesitantly agreed to go with her and landed in my first true home, Snehasadan. For the first time in my life, I experienced comfort, compassion, love, and, most importantly, safety. The orphanage gave me back the childhood I had lost and paved the way for a brighter future. I spent a decade there, along with 41,000 other children whose lives were transformed by the orphanage over 52 years.
While I was at the orphanage, I had many names. One of which was paperwala (paperman) when I started printing my own newspaper called Amin Newspaper Supplier. Soon, Father at the orphanage found me a job as a driver for a renowned artist named Eustace Fernandes. This opportunity was a gateway to education for me, something I had never dreamed of before. Mr. Fernandes taught me not only English but also how to present myself with confidence. As I worked with him, I started meeting people from all around the world, and for the first time, I was not just ‘Chotu’ or ‘the Garbage Boy’. I was Amin. And suddenly, my name was my favorite thing to hear. After working alongside Mr. Fernandes for four years, Mr. Fernandes surprised me with the best gift I could ask for. A ticket to Barcelona dated April 27, 2003.
My visit to Spain was nothing short of magical. From jumping out of planes, diving into deep seas, and climbing mountains, I did everything. It was also the first time I was welcomed to dine at a dinner table, not just as a driver but as a fellow human being. This experience opened my eyes to the stark contrast between the streets of India and the compassion I found abroad. Children in India are trapped in a cycle of obedience—first to their parents, then to their teachers, and later, to societal pressures to conform, get married, and conform some more. There is little room for creativity or individuality, which takes away from the natural self. Those 45 days in Spain taught me more about humanity than any book or teacher ever could. But after seven remarkable years together, I lost my mentor, father figure, and guide to cancer. I was plunged into depression, but my clients-turned-friends in Spain refused to let me give up.
I had a dream of opening a library cafe in Bombay, and I knew it had to become a reality. But I lacked funds. So, I decided to do what I did best; connect with people through my story. Writing a book without ever having read a book in my entire life seemed impossible, but the incomparable support I received made it a reality. After selling 26,000 copies of ‘Life is Life: I am Because of You’ in 10 languages for over 6 ½ years, the Bombay to Barcelona Cafe in Mumbai finally came to be.
A cafe entirely staffed by children who hail from slums, streets, or orphanages, it was a place where they found their own identities. We, as a family, have been through a lot, yet here we are, a decade later, running strong and changing the lives of 80 children. Every year, we take one child to Europe, showing them a world beyond the cafe and our country. Our cafe does not charge any GST; we pay it ourselves. Out of the seven children we have taken to Europe, one has become a fashion designer who designed an outfit for the Queen of London, while another is a teacher who we are helping to establish a school. I may not have excelled in traditional education, but I have always excelled at serving people, and that is why the cafe holds its status as one of the top-rated cafes in Mumbai.
I want my story to reach the world with the sole motive of inspiring people to be more human, to shed the mantle of superiority, and to lend a helping hand to those in need. This is how we achieve true equality. I have come this far because of the goodness in people, and I want more people to be like them. I refuse to conform to the world's expectations; I want to create my own terms and make a difference.
Beyond the cafe, we have established an NGO in Spain that has been active for nine years with 25 dedicated volunteers. Most of the children I work with have come from orphanages, the streets, or broken families, and we provide them with the support and opportunities they need to succeed. We have 35 children at our cafe and 18 students at my school, all fully aided. No street child who ever enters the cafe leaves with an empty stomach, and that’s what I stand for.
You can be a part of this change by supporting the initiative through my website or buying my book. It is sad that most of us prefer our comfortable couches over caring for the millions of children who are tormented every day on the streets across the country. It’s high time we care more about others and stand for what humanity truly is.
Exclusively written for Giving for Good Foundation by Bhairavi Hiremath
With words as her medium and a diary full of scribbled ideas, she is usually found looking for ways to use her writing to impact for Good. If she’s out of sight, she’s probably either reading, petting cats, jamming to retro Bollywood, or of course, writing!