Published: 18th September 2019
Widowed at the age of 20, Sifiya Haneef is building shelters out of ruins through the power of education
Sifiya Haneef speaks about finding the courage to make her way through adversities by believing in her own strengths
What magic has kept Sifiya Haneef going? This is the one question that has been ringing in my head following our one-hour conversation. Married off at the age of 16, Sifiya moved to Bengaluru with her husband. At the age of 20, she became a widow when her partner passed away in a drowning accident. With nowhere else to turn, she went back home to Palakkad with her two sons, the youngest just 1 year old. When it seemed like she was facing more obstacles in a single day than the number of years she had lived, Sifiya decided she wanted to take charge of her own destiny.
"I wanted to continue studying and begin to earn so I could support my sons and myself," she says. But the idea was alien to her family who was afraid that a young widowed girl working would get people talking. She continues, "They wanted me to remarry or stay at home. But I didn't really listen to anyone. I knew some English from my time in Bengaluru and I used it to get myself a part-time job and I put myself back in school." She recollects days when she would come back to her sons late in the night and spend a few minutes with them before burning the midnight oil for the next day's classes.
As is the case with most people who are tailor-made for tough times, a sense of uneasiness began to set into Sifiya's heart. She says, "I did not borrow from anyone at any point. The idea of depending on anyone felt like a huge commitment. And I only wanted to have that with myself. Anything that I have built so far is my own. I knew that I wanted more for myself and my sons." So, she got on the phone with a few friends in Bengaluru and took the next bus to the city with her youngest son and the promise of a new job. On arrival, she was received with closed doors and unanswered calls.
HOME MAKER: Sifiya provides people by building shelters, constructing toilets and distributing medicines
Sifiya explains that she truly broke down that day. For two days, she slept at the Majestic bus stand with barely any food and a feverish toddler to look after. It was the generosity of a stranger that saved her. Seeing her weeping alone on a bench, an old woman took her in and looked after both of them for the next 8 months. "She had a widowed daughter of her own, so she helped me out of empathy. I got a job at a call centre while she looked after my son. She barely even took a penny out of my hand."
But unable to stay apart from her first son any longer, Sifiya returned home. However this time, she had learnt an important lesson about helping others who suffer like her. She says, "I started thinking about other widows, those who don't have the means or the education to even struggle through. I decided that I would use a portion of my salary and incentives from my old job to help as many of them as I could. By the end of 2013, I visited the homes of five widows and was greeted with a startling reality. There were households where mothers had to lock up their mentally challenged children before going to work just to survive."
Today, Sifiya helps over 100 families. She helps them by offering food, clothes and money on a monthly basis. In 2014, she set a Facebook page called Chithal to reach out to people and began crowdfunding resources. I ask her why she chose the name Chithal, which means termite in Malayalam. "I was very apprehensive about using Facebook and revealing my identity, so I used this name. Termites pop up in places you never expect to find them. I think the same can be said about my story of finding a way to show up whenever it felt like life got the best of me!" That's the moral of this story, to find the strength to unapologetically be yourself. And that's the magic that has kept Sifiya going.