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Spreading the light of education in Pushkar

Nov 26, 2010

Mara Sandri, an Italian from Dominican Republic, runs a foundation Fior Di Loto in Pushkar through which she has been successful in educating girls, providing medical assistance to villagers, and a monthly stipend to senior citizens and widows in the area.

Pushkar, Rajasthan: Room No. 215 of Sarovar Hotel in Pushkar has a special guest. A regular to the holy town in Ajmer district of Rajasthan for two months every year, Italian Mara Sandri, 54, makes this hotel room her temporary home. This year though, her stay has been extended - just when she was getting ready to leave India she met with an accident and with a broken right leg she has been in bed for two months now. 

But Sandri is not alone in the city. She receives a steady stream of visitors daily - schoolgirls, who come to look after her and spend time with her. With one rod and three screws in the broken leg, she can barely walk, but doctors have advised her to slowly get back on her feet. 

"All the love that I have given these girls for the last eight years is coming back to me now," she smiles, as a gaggle of bright-eyed youngsters surrounds her. For these girls, Sandri is simply Mara Madam, who comes to India around Diwali time and gets them all a new dress for the festival. 

But besides the yearly presents that Sandri brings for these youngsters, she has given them another precious gift - the gift of education. Her foundation, Fior Di Loto, whose Indian chapter runs a school in a rented building in Pushkar, provides free schooling to 264 girls from poor families. In addition, the girls get two sets of school uniforms, two pairs of shoes and socks, and lunch and transportation from their villages to school and back. The foundation also funds the education of 58 other girls. 

The foundation's school is up to Class X. For the higher classes and a college education, the girls are admitted to other schools and colleges, with the expenses - fees, uniforms, books - being borne by the foundation. 

Sandri set up Fior Di Loto in 2003 - by registering it in the Dominican Republic as a tax-free organisation. The initiative began with her funding the education of 42 girls handpicked by her from Pushkar and its adjoining villages. 

"When I went around the villages along with Jyoti Swaroop Maharshi, a local resident and Brahmin priest, to select girls to sponsor, it was a big challenge. Villagers weren't ready to believe a blonde with blue eyes. They thought I was kidnapping them to take them to Europe. They had weird ideas about foreigners wanting to help them. There was absolutely no trust. But we did manage to convince parents of 42 girls in the beginning, and it set things going," recalls Sandri. "We went on to start our own school in 2007 with 182 girls," she adds. 

But why did the Italian choose faraway India? It all began when Sandri first set foot in the country in 1983 on a long vacation after quitting a government job in Italy which she had for nine years. "I came here with my boyfriend, Enzorusconi, to enjoy a long holiday. We went to Nepal and Sri Lanka, too. I spent around a week in Pushkar. I came back to India in 1985 with him and then alone in 1991 and 1998. In 2002, I returned with a friend, Guadalupe Tapia Paykar, who is a Dominican settled in Los Angeles with her doctor husband, a son and a daughter. I took Lupe to Pushkar Lake and told her I felt spiritually connected to the place. That's where I met Jyoti Swaroop Maharshi, who made us perform a 'puja' at the 'sarovar'," she says. 

In 1991, Sandri left Italy to settle down in the Dominican Republic, and start a 25-room hotel.  "I grew up in very poor circumstances. When I was just two, my father, Sandri Primo, left the house to marry another woman. My mother, Giacobazzi Flora, then worked very hard to give me good education. Therefore, I understand the importance of education. When we settled down in the Dominican Republic, we bought a house in Juan Dolio and I started giving language classes to 70 poor children in the area," she says. 

The Pushkar school was just an extension of this initial step. When Sandri found out that Jyoti Swaroop Maharshi was keen to start a school for poor kids, she jumped at the idea. He was made the Indian president of Fior Di Loto. After setting up the school, the foundation diversified into helping the disadvantaged sections of the local community by giving, for example, economical support to the elders, widows and families in need, medical assistance, two-room tenements and wells. "We provide Rs 400 (US$1=Rs44.3) every month to 25 old people as pension; we have built six tubewells, 10 two-room houses with a toilet for families of girls who study in our school, and we pay for the groceries of another 25 families," says Jyoti. 

The foundation has also paid for the heart surgery of 12-year-old Kunal Sharma in a Bangalore hospital. This year, he needs another surgery. Similarly, Shilpi Parashar, 15, whose two sisters study in the foundation's school, will undergo a spine surgery supported by Sandri's organisation. 

The money for all this good work is raised through donations. "We are a group of 300 friends and well-wishers who have sponsored one girl each," reveals Sandri. "I was in a government job in Italy and could build up a lot of contacts there. In the Dominican Republic, I tell visitors to my hotel to drink one beer less and pay for the education of these Indian students." Sponsoring a girl child costs Euros 200 a year. 

Sandri says she wants to provide free education to at least 1,000 girls in Pushkar and to a similar number in three other locations. She wants to drill more tubewells, increase the number of senior citizens and widows entitled to monthly support, and provide college education to the most talented girls. "Every year, we award 12 girls - one from each class - for performing well academically. We also give them a special Diwali dress," she says. 

Sandri will remain in Pushkar until her broken leg is fully healed. She will then go back to the Dominican Republic to look after her hotel, where one room is always reserved for her mother, who shifts to the island during the winters. Then, as next year winds to a close, she will return to Pushkar with more gifts for the girls and new Diwali dresses. 

It's not for nothing that the girls wait for Mara Madam all through the year.

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