Thursday, June 13, 2013

K M Philip and Biju Samuel: Family matters


Priests from Kerala reunite those roaming the streets of Mumbai with their families.

Billed the City of Dreams, Mumbai gets its share of runaways - children and adults escaping abuse, poverty or pressures at home - who often end up homeless, rain-soaked and disillusioned. Thanks to pastors K M Philip and Biju Samuel, who in 1999 set up the Social & Evangelical Association for Love (SEAL), some have found shelter and several have been reunited with their worried families.

Today, the New Panvel ashram that's spread across 13 acres is home to 210 residents. Some are mentally ill, some are battling HIV and tuberculosis, and some just don't know where home is. But SEAL's beginnings were modest.

In 1999, the pastors were returning to their Mumbra home after attending a social work session in Parel when they spotted an elderly man lying on the Elphinstone station foot over bridge. Covered in dust and grime, he was being stamped over by commuters rushing to catch their train. They took him home, bathed him and took him for a check-up at Kalwa Medical College.

"He said he was from Bhopal and was in Mumbai to visit relatives in Thane. He had no idea how he had reached Parel," says Pastor Philip. They tried to contact his relatives but the address he had furnished didn't exist. "And that was a bit odd because he seemed to remember it with clarity. It struck us that perhaps the address belonged to Bhopal, not Thane," the 45-year-old pastor says. Letters to Bhopal on the same address led them to his brother who called saying he had been missing for 42 days. His 65-year-old wife was in the city searching for him. After a call, she was reunited with her 72-year-old husband.

A few months later, the pastors took in an eight-month old boy. His mother was unable to care for him, and because he was HIV+, orphanages had refused him entry.

Some of those rescued refuse to give any clue about their hometowns. Others are unable to because of memory loss. In such cases, the 25 members at SEAL study their behaviour, dialect and food habits - to extract a clue and then trace their families through a network of contacts.

Reunions aren't easy to come by. "Some don't want to return. We work towards reconciliation by counselling both sides. Our success rate is 90 per cent," pastor Philip says, adding that over the years, they have managed to reunite more than 190 people with their families.

But it's been a struggle. The ashram has had to relocate repeatedly due to protests from neighbours against children battling infections living in their neighbourhood. In 2006, when the pastors built the New Panvel ashram, villagers attacked them, hoping to halt work at the site. But that didn't deter them.

Funded by private donors, SEAL also started a school in 2004 for its younger residents. It's where pastor Philip's own kids study too. It is as yet an unregistered institution but follows the State board syllabus.

Pastor Philip says his is not a 9-5 job; it's more like running a large family. "The children call us (his wife and him) Mummy and Papa. I want for them what every parent wants for their child."


Faces behind it Pastor K M Philip, 45 Pastor Biju Samuel, 37

Nominated for Providing a safe haven to the country's lost children and reuniting them with their families

GETS MY VOTE Pastor Philip has dedicated his life to changing the lives of destitutes, who would've become one with those forgotten on the streets of Mumbai - Dilip Moorkoth, volunteer with SEAL

Mumbai Heroes Part of Mumbai Mirror's 8th anniversary celebrations, the Heroes campaign looks beyond everyday do-gooders and simple acts of kindness. This initiative will honour people or institutions that have decisively - and positively - changed Mumbai for the better. If you know a hero, tell us about them @