Why Iranian-American Shahla Ettefagh Moved To Rishikesh To Start A School For Underprivileged Kids

Shahla Ettefagh
A decade ago, Shahla Ettefagh moved to Rishikesh, India, with the purpose to start a school for underprivileged children. She knew the path wasn’t easy but she did it anyway. Starting with teaching just nine children in her apartment in 2002, Ettefagh completed her school’s four-story flood-free school building in April 2016, accommodating more than 600 students. With the name of Mother Miracle, she today runs a fully functional educational institute in Shisham Jhari, an impoverished locality in town, that aims to help as many underprivileged communities as possible.

Ettefagh, who managed a successful commercial interior design company and an adult community art school in the San Francisco Bay Area from 1984 until 2002, put to use her degrees in Architecture and child psychology respectively in building Mother Miracle and executed her vision of constructing a 41,300-square-foot school for students. Among other honours, she is the proud recipient of the Mahatma Gandhi Samman Award, which was awarded at the House of Commons in London, UK. She recently received the Ellis Island Medal of Honor in New York, as well as the Fastest Growing Education Excellence Award in New Delhi. Her school is a result of grit, which gives underprivileged children a chance through education, empowerment, and compassion. 

In an interview with SheThePeople, Shahla Ettefagh talks about her inspiration behind Mother Miracle, the challenges she faced while setting up the school, how education is the way forward to transform lives for underprivileged children, why more women need to take up entrepreneurship, and what it takes to move to a foreign land and run an institution.

Her inspiration behind Mother Miracle

While she started the school in 2002, her journey of getting inspired started in 1995 during her visit to India with her friends. “I had come across a 3-year-old girl during a tea break on a journey with my friends; the girl was in ripped clothes and was looking for food. I gave her tea and something to eat and sat close to her for some time. I felt a slight motherly instinct, and I moved on when it was time to go. While a few days passed, I couldn’t get the sight of these children out of my mind. I loved India and I loved children, and while in Assam, I swore to return to India one day when I was capable enough to aid disadvantaged children.

It wasn’t just one instinct, adds Ettefagh, “it was a series of realisations personally and professionally that made up my mind. I began to seriously consider retiring from all my professional commitments back in America, and it was a terrific moment because my son had recently graduated from college and had been employed, and it was easier to leave that way.”

Shahla Ettefagh

Photo credit: Mother Miracle’s official website

Challenges to begin and go on

The school now accommodates more than 600 children and 60 plus staff members as of 2022. It hasn’t been an easy journey for Ettefagh considering this was a big foreign land for her and her purpose even bigger. Shahla relocated to Rishikesh in 2002 and started residing in a small flat across the Ganges. She continued to encounter obstacles, including picky government officials, con artists who stole her money, and floods. Nevertheless, she persisted. Speaking of hardships, she shares, “It wasn’t easy but I started to donate books, food, and uniforms to find a way. I taught English, art, and computers. Despite the logistical problems, students started coming. The school started and grew in statistics. It was a huge achievement to create a flood-proof school in Rishikesh’s poorest neighbourhood and I wouldn’t have done it had people not believed in me,” says a grateful Ettefagh.

Shahla returned to the United States year after year, seeking funds from friends and colleagues since she realised she couldn’t build a successful educational model on her own. Her English-medium school now follows the curriculum of the Uttarakhand board. They make it a point to distribute uniforms and NCERT books to all students, while significantly distributing sanitary napkins to female students. The school offers a basketball court, a volleyball court, a hockey field, art courses, computers, scientific labs, a clinic, dance classes, a canteen, WiFi, modern restrooms, and more. Ettefagh offers school facilities and premises for vocational programmes for the local community as well post school hours. There’s also an associated French café which caters to tourists. The revenue collected from all of this is then circled back into the school’s functioning costs.

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 odds and arranged ration and all kinds of help for the children’s families and communities in Rishikesh. She is now glad to be back in Rishikesh and looking forward to more innovative ideas for children to learn.

Suggested reading: Woman Gives Free Education To Underprivileged Kids In Bihar’s Saran District

The institute’s Transformative model

Ettefagh’s vision around the transformative model for the school came from the concept of giving the best to the children, transforming their lives and furthering that transformation across communities like a chain. “We not only aid one kid via our revolutionary methodology, but the influence spreads to each child’s parents and siblings, thus breaking the cycle of poverty for a much broader community. Each success story from one of our students supports this assertion.

It’s this model of teaching that has paved for several ex-students of the school to come back and show gratitude in several ways as they look to encourage current students as well. Ettefagh reflects, “it’s rewarding, to say the least,” adding that, “the alumni have gone on to seek careers in engineering, neurosurgery, and as well as PhD and master’s degrees in the United States and India, and that each youngster generously helps their disadvantaged relatives after they have a stable job. Furthermore, several Mother Miracle graduates give back by sponsoring a student at the school. This completes the cycle and ensures the institution’s long-term viability.”

What keeps her going?

These kids come from difficult backgrounds, they experience poverty, division, and helplessness in more ways than one. What keeps her going when it comes to handling all of them under one roof? “Most of the parents are uneducated construction labourers or daily wagers. They realise this is the last opportunity their children would ever have to come out of poverty,” Ettefagh explains. Strictly against corporal punishment of any sort, she advises guardians to not make their children, particularly females, perform chores after school or to physically hit them. “Every household has a story, and while the children are already burdened from the troubled families and backgrounds they come from, this is one space where they can feel like kids.”

Shahla Ettefagh

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

Efforts to end caste snobbery

Ettefagh put an end to all caste snobbery among the school staffers. While it must have been difficult to make a change in the land among people where caste atrocities and division have prevailed for years now, she came around to getting people past it.

“In the beginning days, there were times when I sensed class and caste divide among my employees but it was important to make them understand that no matter what job they performed, everyone here was a professional. The symbolism is astounding to see that this institution is a result of all castes coming together to contribute and work together to help educate 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 has been far from easy. She comes 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 realise our purpose. “I made a life in America and earned my privileges, but I also lived understanding compassion and the ability to help those who needed it. That’s where it comes from,” she says. Shedding light on how she thinks we can build a conscience around realising our gift of helping people, she suggests, that it doesn’t necessarily have to be a bigger help as helping people is a by-product of kindness, adding that, we need to become kinder not only for our families and friends but also for strangers whose stories we know nothing about. “Privilege is a responsibility and if we have the power and intention to change lives through our words and actions whether or not it’s monetary help, I think that will be the real deal.”

Importance of female leaders and mentors

Acknowledging that patriarchy has been a huge roadblock in women’s journey across the world, Ettefagh stresses that the challenges are never-ending for women who grow in the role of leaders or mentors. “Imagine, coming from a privileged place in America, I was rebuked when I started Mother Miracle. Very few people believed in me, while the naysayers said I can’t take up such an unconventional responsibility. But then, if you want to do it, you move forward amidst the noise,” she recalls.

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