How Iranian-American Shahla Ettefagh moved to Rishikesh to open a school for underprivileged children

Ten years ago, Shahla Ettefagh moved to Rishikesh, India, with the aim of establishing a school for underprivileged children. She knew the path was not easy but she did it anyway. Starting by teaching just nine children in his apartment in 2002, Ettefagh completed his school’s flood-free four-storey school building in April 2016, which can accommodate more than 600 students. With the name of Miracle Mothershe now runs a fully functional educational institute in Shisham Jhari, a poor locality in the city, which aims to help as many disadvantaged communities as possible.

Ettefagh, who ran a successful interior design business and community art school for adults in the San Francisco Bay Area from 1984 to 2002, put his degrees in architecture and psychology to good use. respectively to build Mother Miracle and executed her vision to build a 41,300 square foot school for students. Among other accolades, she is the proud recipient of the Mahatma Gandhi Samman Prize, awarded at the House of Commons in London, UK. She recently received the Medal of Honor from Ellis Island in New York, as well as the Fastest Growing Educational Excellence Award in New Delhi. Her school is the result of courage, which gives disadvantaged children a chance through education, empowerment and compassion.

In an interview with SheThePeopleShahla Ettefagh talks about her inspiration behind Mother Miracle, the challenges she faced while establishing the school, how education is the way to transform the lives of underprivileged children, why more women have to get into entrepreneurship and what it takes to move to a foreign country and run an institution.

Her inspiration behind Mother Miracle

While she started school in 2002, her journey of inspiration began in 1995 when she visited India with her friends. “I had met a 3-year-old girl during a tea break during a trip with my friends; the girl was wearing torn clothes and looking for food. I gave her some tea and something to eat and sat with her for a while. I felt a slight maternal instinct and moved on when it was time to leave. As a few days passed, I couldn’t get the sight of those children out of my mind. I loved India and I loved children, and while I was in Assam I swore to myself that I would return to India one day when I was able enough to help underprivileged children.

It wasn’t just an instinct, adds Ettefagh, “it was a series of personal and professional achievements that decided me. I started to seriously consider retiring from all my work commitments in America, and it was a great time because my son had just graduated from college and had been employed, and it was easier to leave that way. .

Photo credit: Mother Miracle official website

Challenges to start and continue

The school now accommodates over 600 children and over 60 staff from 2022. The journey has not been easy for Ettefagh given that it was a big foreign land for her and her even bigger goal. Shahla moved to Rishikesh in 2002 and began residing in a small apartment across the Ganges. She continued to encounter obstacles, including picky government officials, scam artists who stole her money, and floods. Nonetheless, she persisted. Speaking of difficulties, she shares, “It wasn’t easy, but I started donating books, food and uniforms to find a way. I taught English, art and computer science. Despite the logistical problems, the students started to come. The school started and grew in statistics. It was a huge achievement to create a flood proof school in the poorest neighborhood of Rishikesh and I wouldn’t have done it if people didn’t believe in me,” said Ettefagh gratefully.

Shahla returned to the United States year after year, seeking funds from friends and colleagues, as she realized she could not build a successful educational model on her own. His English school now follows the Uttarakhand council curriculum. They make it a point to distribute uniforms and NCERT books to all students, while also significantly distributing sanitary napkins to female students. The school offers a basketball court, volleyball court, hockey court, art lessons, computers, science labs, clinic, dance lessons, canteen, WiFi, modern restrooms, etc Ettefagh provides school facilities and premises for vocational programs for the local community as well as after-school hours. There is also an associated French cafe that caters to tourists. The income generated by all this is then reinjected into the running costs of the school.

COVID-19 proved to be a bigger challenge for Ettefagh as she was stuck in the United States during the pandemic. With her spirit, however, she fought all the odds and organized rations and all kinds of help for the families and communities of the children of Rishikesh. She is now happy to be back in Rishikesh and looks forward to more innovative ideas for children to learn.


Suggested reading: A woman offers free education to underprivileged children in Saran district, Bihar


The Institute’s Transformative Model

Ettefagh’s vision around the school transformation model came from the concept of giving the best to children, transforming their lives and continuing this transformation through communities as a chain. “Not only do we help one child through our revolutionary methodology, but the influence spreads to each child’s parents and siblings, breaking the cycle of poverty for a much larger community. Every success story of one of our students supports this claim.

It is this teaching model that has seen several former students of the school return and show their gratitude in many ways as they seek to encourage current students as well. Ettefagh reflects, “It’s gratifying, to say the least,” adding that “Alumni have gone on to careers in engineering, neurosurgery, as well as doctorate and master’s degrees in the United States and in India, and that each young person has generously helped their disadvantaged relatives after finding a stable job. In addition, several Mother Miracle graduates give back by sponsoring a student from the school. This completes the cycle and ensures the sustainability of the institution. .

What drives her forward?

These children come from difficult backgrounds, they experience poverty, division and powerlessness in more ways than one. What motivates her when it comes to managing them all under one roof? “Most of the parents are uneducated construction workers or day-to-day bets. They realize that this is the last chance their children will have to get out of poverty,” says Ettefagh. Strictly against corporal punishment of any kind, she advises guardians not to force their children, especially girls, to perform after-school chores or physically hit them. “Every home has a story, and although children are already burdened by the families and troubled backgrounds they come from, this is a space where they can feel like children.”

Shahla Ettefagh

Shahla Ettefagh with students and staff. | Photo credit: Mother Miracle official website

Efforts to end caste snobbery

Ettefagh put an end to all caste snobbery among school staff. Although it must have been difficult to change the country among the people where atrocities and caste division had prevailed for years now, she managed to move the people beyond.

“At first there were times when I sensed class and caste division among my employees, but it was important to make them understand that no matter what job they were doing, everyone here was The symbolism is astounding to see that this institution is the result of all castes coming together to contribute and work together to help educate the children, residing in the slums, in a school run by an Iranian-American Buddhist.

How privilege comes with responsibility

While Ettefagh lived a privileged life in America, her life was far from easy. She is from Iran and moved to America as an immigrant with her son, raising her son as a single mother. Our life experiences, she says, are what drive us to become better human beings and achieve our purpose. “I made my life in America and earned my privileges, but I also lived understanding compassion and the ability to help those in need. That’s where it came from,” says she. Shedding light on how she thinks we can build a consciousness around realizing our gift of helping people, she suggests that it doesn’t have to be more of a help because helping people is a byproduct of kindness, adding that we need to become kinder not only to our families and friends, but also to strangers whose history we don’t know. “Privilege is responsibility and if we have the power and the intention to change lives through our words and actions, whether it’s monetary assistance or not, I think that will be the real deal. “

Importance of female leaders and mentors

Acknowledging that patriarchy has been a huge obstacle in women’s journey around the world, Ettefagh points out that the challenges are endless for women growing up in the role of leaders or mentors. “Imagine, coming from a privileged place in America, I was reprimanded when I started Mother Miracle. Very few people believed in me, while naysayers said I couldn’t take on such an unconventional responsibility. But then, if you want to do it, you move forward in the middle of the noise,” she recalls.

As an exemplary example of a fierce leader herself, she adds that women can and should play innovative roles as mentors, especially when it comes to social entrepreneurship. With the right opportunities and self-confidence, there will be more to come in the future,” she concludes.

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