Pull Quote: “I want to help the kids and women. I don’t want to see the women being abused or the kids on the street… people taking advantage of them.”
By Leon Suseran
Carmen Kissoon responded to a need she saw with her own two eyes; children literally and figuratively
lost, with nowhere to go, no one to care for them and just roaming about aimlessly. She was so touched by their suffering that she decided to do something about it.
So many times, many of us look around and see the issues that confront us but not many of us are willing to look those issues right in the eye and say, ‘I will deal with you’. Carmen Kissoon saw women were suffering at the hands of their abusive husbands. While she could not have put an end to this epidemic in our society, she wanted to create a safe place for the abused women, somewhere that they could feel safe from harm.
Kissoon herself was a victim of abuse, so she knew how it felt and she could have related to the sufferings women faced. Carmen Kissoon is truly a ‘Special Person’ in our midst because since 1997, she has opened up her life and everything in it to homeless, abandoned, orphaned and street children. She has created a sanctuary for abused and battered women. She built on her own, with her own funds, the Camal International Home at Chesney/Kilcoy on the Corentyne and in March 1997, Guyana had a place that possessed solid walls that were safe for society’s vulnerable women and children.
Born at Albion Estate in 1938 to sugar boiler, Terry and housewife, Kay Gopaul, young Carmen attended the Albion School. Her only sibling was a sister, Radha Seth, who left the family and migrated to Canje.
“I had a beautiful childhood, very loving because we were only two children and my parents were well-to-do because my father was a barber, which was a part- time job, so we were quite happy,” she recalled. “I used to go and learn sewing, knitting and play in the streets with the kids, not like now; you’re scared to send out your daughters to play on the streets.”
At the tender age of 16, as was the custom back then, there was an arranged marriage between Carmen and Ramnarine Kissoon at Guava Bush, Albion. The union bore six children: Aheelyah, Savitree, Rama, Shyam, Urmela and Dave. She was a kindergarten teacher at one of the bottom-houses in the village for a short period.
Her husband was a security guard at Albion Estate but was fired during the 1964 riots. “He wouldn’t tell the estate who burned the canes. He saw who burned it and wouldn’t tell them, so they said if he won’t talk, they would fire him. And they did.”
He then started to work with the Alphonsos as Supervisor to build the New Amsterdam Technical Institute and a Canadian Contracting company encouraged him to take his technical skills to Canada, which he later did. He and his wife left for Canada.
In those days, one had to go to Canada or the USA first, and then apply for a visa after one arrived in either of those countries. If granted, one stayed; if it was not granted, one had to return to Guyana.
The couple left these shores in 1970 with $300 to Toronto. They started a new life.
“We had nothing. You had to work hard. We worked 2 jobs and I went to College.”
She studied Social Work at George Brown College in Toronto and graduated in 1979. Later, she took up a post at the Ontario Correctional Institute as a counselor and dietician, also volunteering some of her time to the Canadian Foundation for World Development (CFWD).
It was the beginning of her passion to work with troubled individuals and counseling them. Working with prisoners was good, she said, because she gained a lot of experience talking with them, particularly about why they did what they did.
“I kept my distance (from the inmates) because we had a lot of training and warnings and in the prisons. You’re in a room that you sit and talk to them and in every corner there are buttons on the walls to call for help should anything go wrong,” she recounted.
Carmen then expressed the desire to return home to Guyana in 1992 to practice all that she had learnt and studied. She entered a 12-month crash course with Help & Shelter through the University of Guyana.
“They taught us Guyana-styled Social Work. The training we got here was far different because in Canada, if you are abused and in a shelter, the government will help you. They would give you money and put you in a shelter, but not in Guyana.”
She noted the difference in how developed countries like Canada and developing countries such as Guyana handle domestic disputes between husbands and wives.
“In Guyana, for example, the main aim is to try to mend the couple’s relationship, through counseling, and we talk to them and find out their problems and send for their [the women’s] husbands. But in Canada, you just say, ‘If he gives you a slap, don’t wait for the second slap.’”. She noted that immediately the police are summoned via 911 and the husband is locked up.
“In Canada ,if you are a battered women, they first send you to a shelter and see that you are protected, and on top of that they give you money until you find a job”, she explained. Kissoon opined that this system can work here if the government assists these battered women.
She stated that last week, the Probation Department here in Guyana called her asking her to take in a battered woman with three kids “and I told them I am sorry I can’t take her, and that they should try another shelter, since the Camal Home is filled.”
“Now when you take in small children it’s a lot of expense, especially since the government doesn’t help you,” she noted emphatically. She listed the numerous expenses to care for little babies. Currently, the home has 37 children, including three babies.
She returned to Guyana in 1987 to do some volunteer work with CFWD and served as a liaison officer and assisted in several outreach programmes here. During the outreaches, she saw numerous children begging on the streets, she was moved to do something about it. “I saw the need, the kids begging in the streets and market, Georgetown, Berbice… I saw the kids sleeping on the pavements and this motivated me to come back home.”
Kissoon and her husband then re-migrated to Guyana back in early 1992 and bought three house lots in the Albion area for $117,000 and construction began on the Camal International Home for Homeless Children and Battered Women. She noted that her husband supported her on the venture.
“Right here, my husband would sit and make the tiles, and every day he was making some until we were ready”, she noted. After the new party came into power in 1992, Kissoon received a lawyer’s notice demanding that construction of the home cease immediately until an investigation would have been carried out to see whether the land was acquired legally (since there was the fear it was not, since they purchased it under the previous administration). Kissoon said this halt in the construction was a real setback. She had all her paperwork and documentation.
“We lost a lot of material because all of the rafters and everything started to warp due to the heat of the sun.” Added to this, her husband died in 1996, but Kissoon did not give up on her pursuit. She was even more determined to finish what she and he had started.
She immediately contacted the then Minister of Human and Social Services Indra Chandrapal who, after hearing what Kissoon had to say, gave permission for the project to continue. The home was opened in March 1997. She stated that she chose the name ‘Camal’ because Hindus refer to a beautiful flower by that name, “so our logo has two hands holding up a flower”.
“I want to help the kids and women. I don’t want to see the women being abused or the kids on the street… people taking advantage of them. There is so much more work the government can do with street-kids,” she asserted.
Kissoon said the most urgent thing the government can do is to “hire more people to work as social workers and monitor these kids”.
“In every school, we need a social worker, because a lot of kids have problems at home. They need more Child Protection Agencies,” she stressed.
Today, Kissoon dedicates her time to being there for the children and battered women. At present, the home doesn’t have any of the latter, but one left last week with her five children.
Kissoon loves what she does with a passion, and this is obvious because she would not have ventured into it so selflessly, with her own funds. She explained that should anything happen to her, the children need not be worried. The work will be carried on by the more mature among them, who make up a special Committee of the home.
“I am 73 now, and if something should happen, then everything is intact, they [her children] know what they have to do”.
Carmen does get assistance to run the home from donors in the community and St Francis Community Developers, who have made very notable contributions to the home and to her work over the years.
Kissoon, who resides at an oblique angle to the home, is at the facility at 7:00 am daily, to ensure that the children have their breakfast, shower, and are ready for school.
“At midday, we look forward to them coming for lunch and after that there is snack time at 2:30 and then dinner at 4:30. We read stories to them, they do their homework and do their yoga, and then the small ones, they go to bed at 8:00pm and the bigger ones go to sleep a bit later, then I am gone home.”
Our ‘Special Person’ said that she never gets tired of doing this job which she has been doing for nearly 15 years since she finds the strength “from God”. Kissoon is a Satya Sai Baba devotee.
Kissoon is a new mother all over again since she also cares for and nurtures three babies at the home, along with a 3- year-old and his 4- year- old brother.
Currently, there is a one- year- old baby, Daniel, who was abandoned by his mother who left for Suriname. The Probation Department brought the three children to the home a few weeks ago.
“This is a home where anybody can come,” she noted. Kissoon has worked tirelessly to sustain her work over the past decade and a half, and to make the occupants comfortable.
“Maybe God chose me to do this so I continue without a fuss. I get great satisfaction if I save one child. I know I have done something really positive if one child is saved,” she noted.
Carmen admits that she does get a bit discouraged and frustrated at times when she hears about stories of adults hurting children sexually and getting off in the courts, or not getting stiff penalties, “and then they go and commit other crimes again and the police or authorities sometimes make the children look like the bad ones”.
“If society embraces the problems that exist and essentially make it their own problems, our country can be a better place for vulnerable women and children.”
Through the years, Carmen Kissoon has touched the lives of scores of women and children who seek shelter and care. It takes a person with great resolve and courage, even foresight, to have executed such a venture, despite experiencing the numerous challenges and setbacks. But the fruit of her labour (and that of her husband) has multiplied over the years and now shines through the smiling little girls and boys one is greeted by when entering the gates of the Camal International Home.
Mrs. Kissoon is a simple human being. There is very little fuss about her. She was sitting in her hammock tending to one of the babies when Kaieteur News visited. The children love her. Her staff loves her. Interestingly, her home for the kids is surrounded by an abundance of flowers and greenery. It has a playground for the kids. She worked and toiled to make it just as comfortable as any ordinary home – one in which the kids would enjoy their lives.
It’s a home full of love, unity, compassion and care, and its owner is a vessel of kindness. Our society would indeed be a better place if there were more Carmen Kissoons among us. When we step into action, take off our gloves, and use our bare hands to deal with and tackle the problems around us, like Mrs. Kissoon, with support from her husband, did, we make our environment and surroundings a better and safer place for ourselves, our womenfolk and our children.
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