By Ashok Marwah
About two years ago, I got a call from a friend of mine, Theresa Orlando, who was the Director of “Myriams,” a homeless shelter for women. Theresa said that she had an Indian girl in the shelter who cried continuously. She did not know what to do for her. I went to Myriams that same day to meet this girl. It turns out that she was Dr. Shalini Devi, a PhD from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur (one of the premier engineering institutes in India). She was crying but after some time, I was able to draw out her story.
Shalini had been a Post Doctoral student at the University of Pittsburgh but lost her job five years earlier, and subsequently lost contact with her family and friends. No one knew of her status. She had saved $46,000 while working and she used that money to stay in her apartment in Shadyside for five years until her money was depleted. She even stopped taking the bus so that she could stretch her money further. Her sole activity was to go to Oakland to the Indian grocery store and carry bags of grocery back to her apartment.
She knew people in the apartment building but she shared her plight with no one. When the money ran out and she could no longer afford to pay the rent, the Pittsburgh Police were contacted to escort her out of the apartment. The apartment management kept her things in storage and the police brought her to Myriams and Theresa Orlando. That is where I got involved.
Over the next 90 days, my wife and I visited Shalini frequently. I spoke to her Professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Our friends and members of our Vedanta Group also visited her. We could not figure out a solution other than to insist that she contact her family. I gave her my calling card but she did not use it. I had been talking to Theresa Orlando during this time also and I knew that at the after 90 days, Shalini would be left on the streets of Pittsburgh. Her visa had lapsed and she was an illegal alien at this point. The shelter could not get government funding for her and had no option but to leave her to sleep on the streets of Pittsburgh.
Shalini did not have a passport or the money to return to India. I took her to a photographer and managed to get her passport photographs, helped her complete her passport application and sent it in to the Indian Consulate. I followed up with a call to the Indian Consulate. Apparently, the Consulate had been contacted by Shalini’s family – they had been trying to locate her. The Consulate promised to help Shalini in any way they could – they rushed her passport to us.
After the 90 days in the homeless shelter ended, we decided to bring her to our home. Although reluctant, she agreed to come home with us. The first thing we wanted her to do was contact her family in India. Although she appeared to be shy and quite docile, speaking to us with hesitation, she was very loud and vocal when she spoke to her mother on the telephone. It was nice to know that there was some strength left in her.
It turned out that her brother Amar lived in Toronto so we contacted him right away. He was absolutely delighted to find his sister. He wanted to come to meet her but he was on a limited visa in Canada and could not travel to USA. Shalini and Amar spoke frequently from then on. A couple of their friends came to visit Shalini from Canada.
It was not all work during the three weeks she stayed with us. She turned out to be a wonderful “Orissa” cook. Our challenge now was to get her back to normal (she had not been taking her depression medication) and reunite her with her family in India. Plans were made to send her to Mumbai to her sister. Her passport was ready. We purchased her ticket for Mumbai and in the meantime also started a campaign to raise some money for her through our Vedanta Group and the IIT Alumni Association. Money started pouring in to help this young girl caught in unfortunate circumstances. It was very gratifying to see that people from far off places sent money so that Shalini could resume her life in Mumbai.
Her return journey to Mumbai turned out to be eventful as well. Her Air India flight from New York was cancelled, but after a two-day layover in Newark, she finally reached Mumbai. After prolonged questioning by the Indian Customs, trying to figure out how she stayed in USA for over five years without a visa, she was finally free to join her family.
We have kept in touch with Shalini and spoken to her psychiatrist and her family in Mumbai. She is adjusting well. And as I started the Shalini story, it now has a happy ending. It is gratifying to see that Shalini is going to make a life of her own in Mumbai and the memories of Myriams in Pittsburgh will slowly fade away.
Editor’s Note: One might wonder how a woman who is obviously smart and well-educated could get into such a situation. She would have wandered the streets of Pittsburgh, homeless and penniless, but for the intervention of one kind soul. I think this story highlights the hope immigrants bring with them. These young, talented individuals come to America in pursuit of the American dream. They truly believe that through hard work, they can achieve success and help care for their families. Many parents mortgage their homes or borrow money from friends to provide their children this opportunity to “make them proud.” The thought of returning in defeat is too shameful to imagine – perhaps a fate worse than death.
* Names have been changed to protect the young girl’s identity.