At the age of 18, Shraddha* hopes to become a teacher and is busy completing her diploma in education. She scored over 85 percent in her grade 12 subjects and is also good at singing and dancing. But she is a special child, orphaned by AIDS.
She lost her father in 2007, and her mother in 2010 to AIDS. Shraddha and her younger sister Sweta*, were left orphans in Nagpur city in western India.
Within days of their mother’s death, Sister Pooja Kollamparambil took the girls to Asha Kiran (ray of hope), a home for children that the nun manages in Mhasala village, on the outskirts of Nagpur. It takes care of children orphaned by AIDS.
If the nun had "not found us, we might have landed up in a brothel now," Shraddha said. Sister Kollamparambil, who belongs to the Sisters of St. John the Baptist and Mary Queen, said when the mother's condition deteriorated, the owner of their rented accommodation requested the nun take care of the girls.
The sisters are among eight girls and 10 boys housed in the center, which also helps five other children of single parents. "One thing that binds them together is that their parent or parents were living with HIV/AIDS," the nun said.
Rahul*, who is in grade five, said after his mother died of the disease two years ago, his father left him at the shelter, saying he was not able to take care of him.
"She cared for me like a mother. It gave me a new life. Otherwise, I would have been either begging or doing some menial jobs on the street for food," the 11-year-old boy said.
Every child in the shelter has a story of rejection, exploitation and a miraculous escape from a life that may have resulted in prostitution or child labor.
"My children are HIV negative and my focus is to build a life and career for them," the 42-year-old nun said. She began the center in a temporary shelter in 2011 and moved to a new building in June 2015.
The challenges that children of HIV/AIDS parents face hit her during the three years she was coordinator of the Nagpur Multipurpose Social Service Society, under the archdiocese of Nagpur.
As part of her work to help people living with the infection, she visited family homes and met "women and children, who suffered socially, physically and mentally."
"Even when women got HIV from their husbands, the husbands’ families refused to accept the truth and women were thrown out from their own homes," she recalled. "In one case, when a man died of AIDS, his relatives sent his wife to her parents' home and tried to sell their children."
In many cases, parents in advanced stages of the disease could not take care of their children and abandoned them. Neighbors, shop-keepers and others took advantage of the children "and nobody actually bothered about them."
"Innocent children were the worst victims of HIV/AIDS parents. I felt God’s call to work for them," she said. India has 2.1 million people living with the infection and 40 percent of them are women, according to a 2015 government study
. It also has some 138,000 children under the age of 15 living with the disease.
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Sister Kollamparambil says most women get HIV from their husbands and their children become victims of negligence. "Considering all this, I felt the need to dedicate my life for these children, who have no where to go," she said.
Shraddha said when she gets a job, she will support the center and others like it that support AIDS orphans.
*Names of all the children have been changed to safeguard their identities.