The academy in Delhi defying locals and giving dignity and opportunity to slum-dwelling children

The academy in Delhi defying locals and giving dignity and opportunity to slum-dwelling children

In a West Delhi slum, former street beggar Khushi, 14, rises in complete darkness. It’s 3.30am. Blindly she gathers boots, shinguards and clothes, trying not to wake her mother, sister and two younger brothers in the cramped seven by five metre space that serves as bedroom, kitchen and living room.

She slips out the curtained doorway and navigates broken concrete and rubbish to join a dozen fellow My Angels Academy players, former beggars and “ragpickers” (trash scavengers) between the ages of five and 16. The air is thick with the reek of burning plastic. The children obediently await an older boy before they walk to the only available open space within walking distance of the Indira Camp Number Four slum in Vikaspuri. 

With Shakeel Ahmed, 21, leading the group, they set off at 4am carrying two mesh bags of balls and gear. Before Ahmed joined the Angels football academy 13 years ago, he was an eight-year-old thug who mugged victims with his older cousins. Lean and muscular, he now works in marketing and escorts children to football practice through the rough Vikaspuri streets before dawn. 

Stray dogs howl as the group heads past. The children rarely speak or make noise. Ahmed keeps alert – the neighbourhood is not safe. In fact, a brutal 2016 killing of a dentist in Vikaspuri by residents of Camp 4 has allegedly provoked a powerful lobby of the dentist’s former colleagues’ push for full-scale demolition of the slum.

My Angels Academy and nearly all the slum’s 5,000 residents have no connection to the crime but may come to share in the punishment.

The children reach the dirt pitch obscured by darkness before their 4:30am start time and join others wrestling long socks over heels and toes, seated on the ground. Two spotlights do almost nothing. Another wave of two dozen kids enters from a different gate, led by a different senior Angel. Within minutes, approximately 80 bodies fill the field.

Sandeep Kumar, 29, a former child beggar who now works as chief cashier at a local Indian Bank, works with the youngest in a small auxiliary cage while Ahmed calmly issues drill commands to the main group on the larger pitch, joined by former teammate Mohammed Tanjeer, 20. Training must conclude by daybreak, otherwise wealthier residents may call or bribe the police to roust the slum children off the pitch. 

Sylvester Peter, 44, arrives just as Tanjeer divides the large pitch into two scrimmages. Peter wears a baseball cap, collared synthetic short sleeves and tracksuit bottoms. Children not actively involved in drills call out “bhaiya!” (“older brother”) and run up to shake his hand. Peter stresses the importance of manners and the children remember to firmly shake hands with eye contact whenever greeting an adult.

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A native of Vikaspuri, Peter founded and runs My Angels, a football academy that teaches children in poverty life skills through sport. Both genders and all religions are welcomed. Roughly 200 students in all attend for free. The deal: children must make a firm commitment to no drugs or alcohol, no profanity, daily baths, regular tooth brushing recorded in a journal, perfect attendance record at school and strict punctuality at early morning training.

The children also have two hours of early afternoon classes in a rented room elsewhere in the slum; they’re taught by graduates and older academy players before a late afternoon session for football training, yoga, meditation or dance. Some study with senior Angels after the second practice. They have a jam-packed schedule of football and productive pursuits all day. 

“It is the fundamental right of a child to play,” said Peter. “Football is a tool for underprivileged children to reform their lives and counteract the negative mentality the slums have taught them. Ninety percent of Angels were once beggars – today none. Thirty percent were drug addicts, today not one. Football has played a major role in developing the self-belief in Angels, restoring their dignity, giving them an equal opportunity to show their talent.”

Tanjeer was eight and sniffing glue when Peter found him in a dumpster. He grappled with the transition to the Angels’ discipline at first, relapsing into substance use and begging. In 2012, he and Ahmed played on Angels teams that beat Arsenal and Barcelona-affiliated FCBEscola sides. At 15, Tanjeer earned an invitation to an FCBEscola training camp in Delhi in 2013. The Indian chapter of Liverpool’s academy in Pune offered him a spot in 2014. Today, Tanjeer plays for Delhi second-tier club Royal Rangers and coaches the 4:30am sessions. 

The sky eventually brightens, illuminating sporadic patches of weeds and grass. On the field, with neck-length black hair pushed back with a plastic headband, Khushi plays on one of two mixed-gender teams. She knits the play together with incisive passes and dribbles. Boys her age and older pass her the ball because, simply put, she has superior close control and is one of the best players. But she doesn’t steal the show. Tinku, 11, one of the smallest but speediest boys in the other game, has an eye for a pass and good positioning. He even has a backflip that he whips out after scoring goals. 

My Angels Academy survives entirely off Peter’s earnings as a motivational speaker, counsellor and holistic trainer together with limited donations, including those of employed Angels themselves. Senior Angels commit between 30 and 50 percent of their own incomes to the academy. Operating expenses come to about $50,000 a year, although any small surplus in funds finds immediate takers. 

“Our average monthly expenses are around $2,500, which is bare minimum as we are always short of funds and managing somehow. However, the need can be easily doubled if we want to run the academy smoothly. We are forced to compromise on many things, especially nutrition. We are unable to provide even 250ml of milk and one banana after the training session. This is why I have incorporated yoga and meditation into their daily activities, to give them inner strength.”

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Peter founded My Angels in 2009 but has worked with children in Vikaspuri his whole life. He first confronted deep poverty in school through his young classmates. He began by sharing his lunches in elementary school. In high school, he campaigned the school for better bathroom sanitation and exercise facilities and prevailed – both were upgraded. As an adult, he created My Angels Academy.

In 1997 Peter convinced Kumar, then six, to stop begging at intersections and to dedicate himself to health, exercise and education. Now Kumar works at Indian Bank, coaches before work on alternating mornings, teaches English and maths after work and donates 50 percent of his income to the academy. “I am a beggar who became a banker,” said Kumar. “I could never have imagined that. Bhaiya taught us that to achieve, we must work hard. We would win in football and it gave us confidence.” 

Five young women from Angels have gone on to careers in classical Indian dance choreography. Tanjeer has his own football training to attend. In addition to coaching, Ahmed does computer work and admin for the academy. After practice, everyone has work to get to. Some academy students do still face pressure to return to earning money on the street, but for Khushi, no longer.

“I used to beg at a temple and try to hide,” said Khushi. “I stayed very dirty so that people wouldn’t come near me. I was negative and I felt ashamed, like I had done something very bad. Bhaiya sat down and talked to me. He told me to go to school and to get my body healthy with football. He talked to me about problems in my life. With a football, I am happy. Bhaiya teaches, ‘Shoot for the goal!’ I want to play for the India national team one day. That is my goal.”

Khushi won the most trophies of any player in the Delhi Youth League in 2016 at 12 and won the 2017 Ambedkar National Games in New Delhi as the youngest in a My Angels mixed-age girls team (ages 12 to 18), a tournament the Angels under-18 boys also won. In November 2017, the high-school Delhi team for the National School Championships chose Khushi to represent the capital. She scored in her first match. 

Practice wraps up at 6:30am. Khushi rushes to make school by seven. By 1pm, when school is out, the sky burns a bright hot blue, quick-drying wash lines draped with flamingo pink, peacock blue and magenta. Residents duck past in crowded alleyways. Khushi returns to help with her three younger siblings while her mother works, a housemaid. 

She walks past children scavenging through garbage heaps. Naked toddlers roam on litter-strewn broken concrete slabs ringed by trenches of sewage and trash, as a swarm of women move about in tight quarters. Men loiter by scorched engines and abandoned machinery. The acrid smell of burning garbage overpowers. Fifteen working toilets service 5,000 residents. Baths mean a bucket of water in the walkway. Angled wooden ladders grant access to second and third-floor dwellings, some without roofs.

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Born in outer Bihar province, 700 miles east of Delhi and just south of the Nepal border, Khushi was a year old when thieves looted her parents’ store, leaving them destitute. The family relocated to Vikaspuri, 20 hours away by train. Khushi’s father worked as a rickshaw puller but died soon after relocating.

Angels founder Peter remembers: “When I met her, Khushi was both cute and violent at the same time. Dirty fingernails, unkempt nails, shabby appearance but twinkling eyes. I recall an incident when she mischievously kicked a boy and gleefully scooted away. Then I knew with love and affection she could be transformed into an Angel.”

Khushi has faced down poverty, violence and trauma in her short life. She has hours of daily family responsibilities in addition to school, practice and homework. She keeps meticulous hand-written records of nutritional intake and times of baths and tooth brushings. My Angels Academy takes it seriously and she does, too. She wants to remain a part of the academy. Her natural smile makes a strong case for her honesty.

“Angels is my family,” Khushi said. “I have learned so many things. In my community, of my age, girls are mostly working as housemaids and a few of them even get married. I learn football every day, [and] dance, yoga, meditation. We learn about nature and wildlife. I am fortunate to have met Sylvester bhaiya. When he is with us, we are not scared or worried. I just want to help in his work of helping others.”

At 3pm, Khushi reports to the original rented schoolroom. The size of the academy has outstripped the original 10 by 18 room, but together with another larger facility called the computer room – a communal space with nine computers, an admin area for the academy and a meditation space – the academy can accommodate everyone. Different age groups have different schedules, managed across shared-rights spreadsheets and monitored by six WhatsApp groups. The academy maximises every square foot of space at all hours of the day.

Students work on reading, writing, art, English and maths until 5pm with four senior Angels and two paid full-time teachers. Kumar teaches maths and English. Peter teaches the whole spectrum. In addition to the gadget-tech, everything gets recorded in written ledgers.

Khushi stocks up the family’s clean drinking water, provided at a specific time, before evening training. After training she helps prepare dinner, cleans and finishes end-of-day chores, her homework and final tooth brushing. She settles to sleep beside four bodies at 11pm for the next 3:30am wakeup. 

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Nine senior Angels hold All-India Football Federation D-level coaching licences to keep up to national standards. The previous generation coaches the new – seniors teaching juniors – and pass those values on to others that will do the same, generating a positive loop of self-sustainability. All senior Angels stay connected to the club and generally commit 30 percent of their salaries to the academy.

Although Peter structures Angels as gender and class-equal, the rest of Indian society does not typically share his perspective. Slum children must fight to survive. Survival trumps football, but Peter sees sport, art and dance as integral to happiness, and success on the field as a powerful teaching tool. Football is not just the sugar that makes the medicine go down. “Winning is important in building belief,” said Peter. “Winning vindicates their work. Angels are recognised not only for academics or sports but for every small positive step. I try to teach them in such a manner that it becomes their habit.

“Apart from academics and sports, they learn personal hygiene, environmental protection, sex education, gender equality, education, life skills, dancing, painting, yoga and meditation, dance – both boys and girls do all household work [and] share the cooking. I combine my lessons with sports to instil life lessons – the hardship of losing, the joy of winning, team spirit, patience and anger management. I never wanted to open a player-producing factory but an institution which is known for upbringing a good human being.”

Ball skills are not a requirement for entrance. Peter admits new students he believes can stay disciplined and stay the course. Not for sport, but for life. 

Jeb Brovsky, a former Major League Soccer defender for the Vancouver Whitecaps, Montreal Impact, New York City FC and Minnesota United, visited the academy in 2011. In the off-season, he was holding free coaching clinics for underprivileged children in Goa when he heard of the academy and wanted to learn more. “Speaking with Sylvester, training his kids in the slums and getting invited to the My Angels Academy room – all the kids were in there, even outside the doorway, with the biggest smiles on their faces – it was one of the most fulfilling moments of my life.” 

Brovsky witnessed the daily challenges Angels face first-hand. “While we were training inside that small cage in the park, there were men outside of the cage with gold chains waiting for a few of the kids to go back on the street and start begging. Sylvester resolved it and got back to training. It’s so hard to separate the social aspect to the football aspect because all these kids are going through so much, but they manage to do it.”

Peter also counsels children individually to work through any psychological trauma. He pays medical bills and helps some families with food rations or money in emergencies. Unlike other academies, he doesn’t select children based on perceived athletic potential – he helps those who need helping, with no agenda.

Parity on the pitch does not represent the goal – Peter aims higher than participation prizes. For him, winning instils self-belief. “My Angels’ youth teams can’t necessarily beat all comers, but they have beaten some big names over the years.” Peter cites one such victory against Bangalore Super League club Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) academy as an opportunity. In February 2018, two players then trialled with HAL, after which the club offered Rahul Oram, 22, and Rohit Munda, 18, one-year contracts.

My Angels have also beaten youth sides from the Indian outpost of Boca Juniors and youth sides from Indian Super League clubs Bengaluru FC, FC Goa and Delhi Dynamos. “In football, it doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor. You line up on the same on the field,” Peter says. “The importance of trophies is to prove a point. Here, being mediocre would not have worked. Whatever opportunity we get, we grab it. We have to defeat the number one school in Delhi and anywhere, because a draw also wouldn’t be sufficient to prove this point. I’m proud to say that we have defeated the best teams and academies in India.”

Brovsky sees the logic of football success in self-empowerment. “Not only do I agree with the winning aspect and the way that Sylvester looks at it, but I applaud that because he’s in the business of changing lives. He’s trying to empower these kids. Winning validates what they are trying to do, validates it in an external way, not just charity. He wants these kids to be leaders in the world, to take control of their own lives.”

Peter has received death threats from neighbours within the slum. When teams travelled the expensive 36-hour train to Bangalore in summer 2017 to face Bengaluru, neighbours gossiped regarding his intentions. The police have been called to morning training by average-income Vikaspuri residents who believe slum dwellers should not use the park. Funds for transportation, school supplies and medical expenses remain ever-present struggles. Peter’s first marriage fell apart due to his dedication to the academy. Bulldozers potentially await word to flatten the premises.

“People view the slum as cheap labour and antisocial elements,” Peter says. “I fully sympathise with the doctor – he was brutally murdered – but at the same time, who is the murderer? You punish them. My simple thing is, those who have done wrong, please punish them. What wrong have these kids done?

“Because of the murder of the dentist,” Peter continues, “the doctors seem set on destroying the slum, but people don’t understand the simplest part, that Angels also live here. Angels are different than the devil, so if you want to eradicate somebody, eradicate the devils. [But] my disappointments are never higher than my spirits.”

Many roadblocks have emerged along the way. Someone may or may not step in to avert the demolition, but, in the worst-case scenario, Peter will undoubtedly preserve the group to the greatest extent possible, even if they already operate at the limit. “We get exhausted but it is a different feeling as we love to do what we do and we have a smile on our face at the end of the day, which is incomparable to the exhaustion we get in a corporate life.”

By Rob Kirby @robertpkirby

Image credit: Vijay Pandey originally for Vice.

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