In 1999, a poor farmer in western Assam’s Kajaikata village, Sabed Ali, agreed to his his brother-in-law’s suggestion that he send his five-year-old daughter with the latter to state capital Guwahati where he would provide her a good education. To Ali, who lived in a village that gets ravaged by floods every year and is bereft of development, the offer made sense. Besides, he was struggling to provide for his six children.
Little did he know that his daughter, Lilima Begum, now 22, would be sold off as domestic help.
Ali did not hear from Lilima or his brother-in-law again. But there was no way for him to trace them while living in a village 285km from Guwahati, near Bilasipara town of Dhubri district. After an endless wait, they presumed her dead and performed her last rites.
After arriving in Guwahati with her uncle, Lilima Begum was handed over to a police officer and his family who made her do household chores. She was not given enough to eat and was often beaten up
Meanwhile, Lilima was leading a deplorable life. After arriving in Guwahati with her uncle, she was handed over to a police officer and his family who made her do household chores. She was not given enough to eat and was often beaten up. Moreover, she said her employers would to tie her up with their pet Labradors while sleeping at night. The drudgery continued until December 2001.
“One day, I ran away from the house after they made me eat dog food,” she said.
Scared for her life, she ran with all her might and knocked on the door of a house in the neighbourhood to seek refuge. It turned out to be the house of a teacher, Tayaba Ahmed, who took pity on the girl and took her in. The police officer found out where the girl had taken shelter and tried to browbeat the teacher into handing her over. But when Ahmed put her foot down and refused to send her back, he left them alone.
Lilima stayed with Ahmed for four years, until the teacher’s sister, Sahiba Begum, came to visit them in 2005. An advocate, Begum offered to take the responsibility of the girl, who was 12 years old by then. Lilima started living with Begum in Sundarpur area of Guwahati. Begum wanted her to study, but as Lilima was past the age to start schooling, she could not get admission anywhere. So, Begum started teaching her at home. She also got the girl enrolled for beauty and knitting courses. “She was happy with us, but when she’d ask about her real parents, I didn’t have an answer.”
Between 2005 and 2010, Begum requested domestic help from Lilima’s home district Dhubri — that’s all she remembered about her home — to help find her parents. The search teams asked around all they could, but to no avail. After five years, Begum gave up trying. All this while, she treated Lilima like family. For a divorcee, raising a daughter was cathartic.
Child rights activist Illias Rahman Sarkar clicked a photograph of Lilima on his phone and posted it on Facebook on the evening of April 4, sharing her story… He appealed to his Facebook contacts to share the post and contact him if anybody had any leads.
Begum’s dormant desire to find Lilima’s family was revived in April 2017 when child rights activist Illias Rahman Sarkar, 25, visited her house regarding a case. On hearing her story, he decided to try tracing her family using Facebook. Earlier, Rahman, a student of mass communication and journalism, had stopped a child marriage in Assam by kicking up a storm about it on Facebook.
He clicked a photograph of Lilima on his phone and posted it on Facebook on the evening of April 4, sharing her story. Along with the photo, Rahman also posted two more photos taken when she was nine years old and 13 years old. He appealed to his Facebook contacts to share the post and contact him if anybody had any leads.
Within a day, the post had been shared 168 times and he started getting calls. Two days after writing the post, he got a concrete lead. One Abdul Hussain from Bilasipara’s Adhani village called Rahman. He thouhgt he knew Lilima’s family. He told him about Sabed Ali, who was an Imam at the mosque, and had lost a daughter many years ago. Since the girl’s face resembled her siblings’, he had a hunch that Lilima was the Imam’s missing daughter. He gave Rahman the family’s address the next day.
Rahman sent his cousin, who lives in Bilasipara town, to the village. The narrative the family shared about a relative disappearing with their five-year-old girl matched with Lilima’s story. Rahman got the family’s photograph on his phone through his cousin and showed it to Lilima, who was able to identify her father.
“I had been carrying the picture of my father in my mind for the past 18 years in the hope that I would meet him someday if he happened to come to Guwahati. I can’t tell you how I felt when I saw my father in the photo!” said an emotional Lilima.
“I had been carrying the picture of my father in my mind for the past 18 years in the hope that I would meet him someday if he happened to come to Guwahati. I can’t tell you how I felt when I saw my father in the photo!” — Lilima Begum
Within three days of Rahman sharing Lilima’s story on Facebook, the girl’s family was found. Five days later, Rahman, Lilima and her adoptive mother travelled to her village, Kajaikata.
“When I stepped in my father’s house, I felt like I had a rebirth,” Lilima said, adding that more than a thousand people had arrived at her house. “They had come to see a dead girl arriving out of nowhere after 18 long years. I can’t tell you how it felt, but certainly it felt the best,” she said.
Now, Lilima is catching up on the lost time with her family at her home in Kajaikata. Eventually, she plans to go back to Guwahati and make something of her life.
Examples abound on the internet of people finding long lost family and friends — perhaps the most famous being the example of Saroo Brierley, adopted as a child by a Tasmanian family, finding his birth mother and family in Khandwa, Madhya Pradesh, using Google Earth. The story was made into a movie The Lion last year.
In an example similar to Lilima’s, in May 2016, the collective effort of a few individuals who circulated the photo of four-year-old Avani Jain who had got lost at Nagpur railway station through WhatsApp and Facebook helped the girl reunite with her parents in less than an hour.
We at FactorDaily wrote the story of Puujita, a 13-year-old girl from north Bengaluru, who was found using Facebook and WhatsApp messages.
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Lead visual: Angela Anthony Pereira The ‘Tech Meets Bharat’ series brings to you stories on how technology is impacting and changing lives in hinterland India.