Living, Learning and Listening: A Summer Researching Child Well-being in New Delhi

July 10, 2019

By Arthi Kozhumam ’21

Nine homes, five weeks and 119 total interviews and counting. 

From watching children prepare for their Udayan Summer Camp dance competition and seeing their talents for art and singing blossom during our lunch breaks, to perpetually looking for translators and finalizing logistics regarding our driver and housing, to cultural excursion trips and cups of coffee in between…we’ve had a whirlwind first half of our experience in New Delhi. 

Through Dr. Sumi Ariely’s Duke Global Health Student Research Training (SRT) program in New Delhi, India, we have spent our first five weeks interviewing children and young adults in the Udayan residential care program, as well as their caregivers and alumni of the program. The children living in the residential homes, or “ghars,” are ages 8 to 18, while the young adults are ages 18 to 21 and live either in or near a ghar. Alumni are generally older than 21, living on their own with a steady job. Caregivers live within the ghars, taking care of the children and, in some cases, the young adults.

View from apartment.
My view each day looking out from my apartment balcony—thinking about the upcoming day’s work, planning for this coming week, pondering what I learned the day before...and occasionally thinking about how much chai I’ll have that day.

We’ve collected height and weight measurements of all the children in our sample (as well as many that aren’t, because they adorably stood in line wanting to be measured). We also collected data on their school records and mental health counseling reports from the social worker’s files in each home’s office. We’ve asked social workers and caregivers about the homes, their daily life and their involvement in the children’s lives. We’ve asked caregivers and alumni sometimes difficult questions about life satisfaction and where they hope to be in the future. 

Based on the responses from people I have spoken to, their main intent in staying involved with Udayan Care ghars is for the children—their well-being, their education and future and making sure they grow up not isolated but in a welcoming community that each person deserves. This mission parallels the mission statement of the entire organization. 

The core mission of Udayan Care is to provide a “nurturing home for every orphaned child, an opportunity for higher education for every girl, and for every adult, the dignity of self-reliance and the desire to give back to society.” Through 17 ghars, Udayan Care provides a home and family-style parenting through in-home caregivers and social workers for around 150 boys and girls throughout the Delhi area and beyond. 

Our project is a longitudinal assessment evaluating physical and mental health outcomes of these children through various psychological measures—asking questions related to depression, anxiety, resilience and adaptability to trauma, attachment to friends and caregivers and other mental health considerations. By measuring height and weight and going through demographic mental health data, we also gain further insight into how these children are progressing over time and what their current needs may be. 

Our team is in the sixth year of this project, and we have changed a few things regarding our sample and subject population. This year, we are choosing to focus on a sub-sample of more at-risk children in Udayan Care while also continuing to collect baseline data on those new to the ghars. 

There are various academic reasons for this shift, but a key one for me is that this allows us more time to deeply interact with the children and learn about their daily lives and goals. Throughout the process, I’ve learned the importance of listening—no interruptions, no jumping in with information about life in America or the conversion rate from Indian to U.S. currency, just listening to what the children, young adults, alumni and caregivers have to say and, specifically, how they think Udayan Care could improve. 

For me, this project has never been about completing the largest number of interviews per day or finishing efficiently. I’ve learned about the importance of taking time to have my interviewees introduce themselves and talk about their day and what they’re excited about, and then asking them about their life and goals. I’ve talked with the young adults about American cars and how Duke University works, about auto rickshaws and the Indian public and government education system and about their favorite way to drink tea. 

I will always remember discussions with alumni about their jobs and fears about upcoming exams, their favorite sports and what their ghar friends are up to now. I will remember the conversations I’ve had with the children in the ghars and how they taught me numbers in Hindi as I drew calligraphy of their names. 

It is these wholesome interactions, removed from our numerical questionnaires and 1-2-3-4-5 response options, that I value the most. Reading over data of the children that we interview—learning about their history and their past and attempting to understand where they are coming from—has provided some of my most valuable understanding of the residents’ experiences and mental health. It is this type of qualitative data that provides the depth and richness to the numerical data we usually obtain.

My final four weeks in India will take me to eight new homes. I’ll engage in new experiences with the children and staff, explore more around Delhi and continue to learn and spend time with our Udayan Care research assistants, Riti Chandrashekhar and Ananya Rattani. 

Being of Indian origin but never feeling 100 percent connected with my Indian roots, I’ll also continue to get a new look into my own culture and way of living. Having completed a DukeEngage program in South India last summer and being South Indian could never have truly prepared me for life in Delhi—Delhi culture, Hindi and of course surviving Delhi heat. But having now stayed in India three times (two through Duke), I’m starting to feel that my younger self, who kept saying, “I’m not Indian enough to be here,” was wrong the whole time.

Originally posted on the Duke Global Health Institute website

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