Throughout his life, Amin Sheikh has been many things. From working on a tea stall, begging, robbing, singing in trains, selling newspapers to being a tour guide and a driver, he has done it all. But what sets him apart is his desire to give other children like him a better life. Read his inspiring story.
I started working at a tea shop when I was 5 years old. And one day I broke the glasses that I was carrying. I was very upset because I knew that I was going to get beat up if I go the shop. And if I went home without the money, my mother and step father would also beat me. So I ran away and started living in a railway station. I started begging and robbing to survive. I was raped on the very first night.
It took me 3 years to learn how to protect myself. Before that, anyone could come and punch me or drug me and take everything that I had. It took me even longer to understand that this how the world works. This is how the country & society is. I did many odd jobs at the station. I worked as a coolie, I used to sing in the trains. People used to hit me and abuse and tell me that I didn’t know how to sing. But I didn’t know if I was a good singer or a bad singer, I was just a 5 year old child trying to survive.
Sister Seraphine – My Angel
3 years later I found my sister who had also run away from home. That same night somebody stole her. I didn’t know anything, where had she gone, who took her, nothing. But thanks to the taxi man who helped her run away when he saw that she had polio. Then I got my sister back, and she didn’t have to live at the station for very long. Because three days later, an angel came into our lives. Her name was sister Seraphine. She was a very sweet & kind nun, working for an orphanage called Snehasadan.
She said hello and asked for my name, and I took a stone and banged her head with it. I asked her to go away or I would kill her. I did that because sweet & kind people didn’t exist for me. Many people took me to their homes, promising to take care of me and treating me like their son. And that is all I ever wanted as a 5 year old child, for someone to love me and take care of me. And so, I trusted these people. But then they would take me home and make me their servant, telling me to clean their floors & wash their dishes. And my trust had been killed by people like this.
She was badly injured but still didn’t give up on us. It took hours of explanations & convincing for me to finally allow her to take us with her to Snehasadan. There were children of every religion in Snehasadan, there was no division. We were just happy to have two meals a day, two pairs of clothes and a roof over our heads. The best part about Snehasadan was that the people there taught me values, and that is what is missing in the world today. People today have everything but they are still not happy, they suffer from depression, they go to hospitals and take medicines. This is the condition of people who have everything. And on the other hand, there are people who have nothing but a million-dollar smile on their faces.
Father Plassey & Eustace Fernandes – The Two Men Who Changed My Life
Father Plassey is my Hero & my God. That man has brought in 43,000 children to the orphanage in 52 years, and given them a better life. He didn’t live for himself, he lived for others, and no one does that in today’s world. He got me to work for Eustace Fernandes, the renowned artist and creator of the Amul Girl. I became his driver and his Man Friday. He lived in Bandra and people from all over the world used to come and visit him. And these people, they used to call me Amin, whereas people here always used to call me ‘Paper-wala’, ’Chai-wala’, ’Boot Polish’, ’Chotu’, etc. And whenever these people went out to restaurants and stuff, they used to ask me to come & eat with them. But I was scared, and I used to tell them that I’ll wait in the car. Because that’s what I had always been taught, if you’re a driver then you must behave like a driver.
Then I started to speak in English, even though people used to make fun of me. I spent many years working for Mr. Fernandes and he used to get me a present every Christmas. In 2002, when he asked me what I wanted, I told him I don’t want anything. But he insisted and said that I must think of something by the time he came back from church. When he came back and asked me, I told him I wanted to go to Barcelona.
He laughed at me in front of his friends and asked me if I was drunk. I told him I wasn’t and that this is what I wanted for Christmas. Then he said, “Look, the bloody driver wants to go Spain. He thinks its so easy for me to take him.” I started crying and went to my room to sleep. He came after some time and asked me to wake up. I had been crying a lot and I told him I’ll see him tomorrow morning. He told me, “Don’t be so stubborn. Wake up right now.” I saw the beautiful Christmas card he had made for me, inside it he had written “Merry Christmas Amin, Let’s go to Barcelona”. I started crying even more and I thanked him.
The Journey To Barcelona
I still remember as I was walking through the Airport, I was so scared that I was shivering. I told Mr. Fernandes, “Sir, the policeman is looking at all the passports, I don’t think he’ll allow me.” He told me to just keep walking. I walked through the door, everything was very beautiful. I arrived to the counter and just out of habit as a beggar, I told the person behind the counter to give me a window seat, as it was my first flight. Mr. Fernandes hit me on the hand and told me not to beg. Nevertheless, I got the window.
We landed in Milan and then took another flight to Barcelona. From the plane I saw a huge mountain covered in snow and started shouting, “Sir, look at the snow” and all he said was “Enjoy Amin”. His family & friends were waiting for us when we landed in Barcelona. I was very impressed with the cleanliness there but what really hit me in the heart was that I didn’t saw a single child or a single family living on the streets. And I asked my boss, “Sir, the country where we come from, we talk so strongly about spirituality & humanity but why are we disconnected with the reality?”. He simply said that all the places and all the people in the world are different. I said, “Sir, differences are good and its nice to have differences but why are we so deaf, dumb & blind?”. And he just said, “That’s how it is. There’s nothing we can do about it”.
I lived there for 45 days. In no restaurants did I see people dividing on the basis of class. It didn’t matter if you cleaned the streets or if you’re a doctor, lawyer or engineer, at the table you were just a human. And I said to myself, “There’s something we are doing wrong. Why don’t we in India understand that we are humans first and then anything that we want to be?”. And nobody, not your friends & neighbors, and not even your family have the right to decide what you should be.
I saw girls kissing girls & boys kissing boys openly. I started trekking & climbing mountains. I saw crystal clear water. But you’ll only see garbage floating on the surface on water when you go to Mahabaleshwar, Lonawala or Pune. And when you’ll ask these people to stop littering, they’ll say “What’s your problem?”. That’s the kind of society we’re living in. We just talk for the sake of talking and wait for someone else to come and clean up the mess.
Back to India
Mr. Fernandes died of cancer 7 years later and I lost the best boss I had ever met and the best father I could ask for. He was my best friend, someone who understood me. Whatever I am today, its because of him. I was in depression for about 3-4 months, due to the loss.
I even wrote to Oprah Winfrey in America, saying that I was a street child turned tour guide from Bombay, and I wanted to open a library-café for other street children like me. I asked if I could come to her show but there was no answer. On the Christmas of 2010, one of my friends from Barcelona, Martha Miguel called me. She is a doctor who has built two hospitals here, one in Nepal & the other in Odisha, even though she had nothing to do with this country. She had written a book so that she could have 24×7 electricity in the hospitals. She called me because I knew a lot of people in Spain, and she wanted me to ask my friends to buy her book. I asked her how did she write a book when she is a doctor. She said, “Are you stupid or what? Anyone who wants to write a book can write a book”. That was when I asked myself “Why am I waiting for someone else to build my dream?”
Writing My Own Story
I started writing my story without paying any attention to grammar & spelling. It took me 11 months, during which period I lost it twice. A lot of my friends helped me in correcting the grammar & spellings and in the overall designing of the book. One of my friends from Paris booked an appointment with one of the big publishing houses in Paris, but they didn’t publish my book. She tried a lot, knocked a lot of doors, but she couldn’t get it published. I went to Barcelona and tried there also, but it didn’t happen.
My problem is that I have passion, but no patience. I took whatever money I had, and I published the book myself. I went to all the book stores in Bombay, none of them were ready to sell my book for charity. I had printed the book, all I was asking of them was to keep it on their shelves but they all wanted 35%, 37% or 38%. As a child, I used to beg and sell newspapers at traffic signals to survive, I decided that I would do exactly that to build my café. It took me 7 years to sell 20,000 copies in 9 languages. I collected Rupees 75 lakhs, by begging and selling my book.
Bombay to Barcelona Library Café
I took that money and searched for the cheapest place I could find. I rented a garage in Marol (Andheri East). I had to spend 52 lakhs to turn that garage into a café. All the while people were laughing in my face saying that no one would visit my café. The agent, the construction people, the carpenter, the painter, they were all cheating on me, and I was aware of it but I still let them. Because I knew that they were in just for the money whereas my vision was much bigger than that. I wanted to tell the world that if I, an uneducated child from the streets, from the garbage, could build my own café, then the world could certainly change for the better.
The café is running well today with my 11 boys & girls. Nobody is the boss, everyone has the same salary. The remaining money from my 75 lakhs, I invested in a mutual fund. So now, in case the café shuts down, each boy & girl working there gets 3.5-4 lakhs. Also, for the last three years, I’ve been taking 6 children to Spain every year, so that they know that there’s more to this world. The café is one of its kind, any underprivileged child till the age of 14 can come and have a glass of tea, a sandwich and a muffin for free.
My goal is to make a similar café in Barcelona, and that café will be run by refugees & homeless people. I want to build a bridge between the two cities, and tell the other side of the world that if a child from the streets of India can come and change their society, then they shouldn’t have any excuses.
My only philosophy is that if you don’t want to get your hands dirty and clean up the mess, don’t expect and wait for anyone else to do it for you. Don’t speak about change if you don’t want to change yourself.
How Can People Help?
I don’t want people to congratulate me and wish me all the best. I don’t believe in these hollow words. If anyone wants to help me genuinely, they can volunteer to do so. You could be an accountant, you could work in marketing or you could be doing anything. If you have a place, we could open a branch of the café in your name. The original idea behind the café was to grow our own vegetables and chicken, but unfortunately, that couldn’t happen. I had to settle for the cheapest place that I found.
Don’t ask me how you can help, ask yourself how you want to help. If you want to buy my book, the only places you can buy it is in the café itself and on the website. We have live concerts at the café for aspiring artists who don’t have a platform. We have done 78 concerts in the last two years. We have books from all around the world, we discuss social & psychological ideas.
So, let us all come together because a single good person can easily be defeated. But when a thousand people join hands, we can fight against anything in the world. And then thousands will become millions, and eventually the whole country and the whole world will change.