As we mark World Hunger Day today it has perhaps never felt so relevant and significant. The pandemic has seen the number of people at risk of starvation nearly double, reaching over 270 million. This figure is so huge and shocking it is hard to truly comprehend. But each number is a story - a father, a mother, a child. And on a day like today, it is impossible for me to forget that one of those children used to be me.
The slum community in Asia where my family lived housed 10,000 people with only two toilets and one tap. Growing up, hunger was a familiar feeling. The gut gnawing emptiness of going to bed with only water to fill your stomach.
Every day my father went out to find work. Every day he would desperately try to provide for us, but it wasn't always possible. On the days he couldn't find work, we went hungry. But that wasn't the heart of the problem. Many people think poverty is about a lack of resources. But that isn't what poverty truly is. Poverty is being in a state of hopelessness, a state of powerlessness – being scared to dream in life.
Now, as a result of the pandemic, millions more children are being left feeling this way; without a stable family income, uncertain if they will have food for today, let alone tomorrow. One of the frontline team members at the charity Compassion UK said that the reality for most people living in extreme poverty around the world is "if I don't work today, I don't eat today", so loss of income has a devastating and immediate impact.
The pandemic and the lockdowns that have accompanied it have hit families and economies across the world hard, and for many it is far from over. According to the UN World Food Programme's live Hunger Map, 904 million people across 93 countries do not have enough to eat with 26 countries at a high or moderate risk of further deterioration.
The magnitude of the problem is massive, but change is possible. I know that because it happened to me. When I was four years old, people from the local church came to my community and told us they wanted to help. Facilitated through the charity Compassion, they would not only to meet my physical needs, but provide me with an education. I remember my parents' excitement. Suddenly the future held hope. Hope of change.
I became the first child to go to school in my family and one of the first in my entire community. When I received my first school uniform my father helped me rip open the packaging like a child receiving their Christmas gift. Education was such a huge opportunity, not just for me but for my whole family — one of my fondest memories is showing my parents how to write their names. I received nutritious meals during the day, hygiene supplies for the family, and the opportunity to see a doctor when I was ill. I eventually graduated with a 1st class master's degree in business.
It was my local community, through the local church, who were best positioned to understand and meet my family's needs. Now more than ever we need people on the ground who know the needs of their community. Not just their physical needs, but their emotional and spiritual ones as well, who know how to give them hope. The drivers of food insecurity around the world in the aftermath of the pandemic are complex and the solutions need to be holistic if we are going to bring lasting change.
Food is a basic, fundamental human need and a crucial building block in breaking the vicious cycle of poverty. But it is only ever one step. Whilst I needed food to thrive and concentrate at school, to grow and care for my family, it was education that brought hope and empowered me to make positive changes, not just in my life but in my family's and my community's.
It is my passion to bring the hope to others and break the cycle of poverty where there is one. I founded a charity, called Pursuit International that is helping children and young people living in residential care in India, become independent and self-sufficient adults. The pandemic has presented new challenges in the fight against poverty. There have been widespread job losses, hygiene concerns and heightened risks of domestic abuse. The scale of the problems may seem overwhelming, but there is hope.
Many organisations, like Compassion UK and its church partners, have long recognised the need to empower children and their communities, not just to survive in the face of poverty and crises like Covid-19, but to thrive into the future. For some, it's helping them to generate an income, equipping parents and care givers with the tools and training to start their own business, for others providing the seeds and education to enable them to establish small farms to feed themselves and sell any surplus produce. Across the world, people are being empowered to make positive changes to be freed from the poverty of hopelessness; even in the face of a pandemic they are starting to dare to dream.
Jane'alam Sheikh was born in Mollahati slum in Kolkata where his parents lived in a dwelling less than 2m x 3m. Neither parent had any schooling and Jane's father's work was irregular. At the age of four years old his father registered him in a Compassion project at his local church. He was able to attend school, where he excelled, eventually graduating with a Masters in International Business & Management from Manchester University. Since then he has founded the charity Pursuit International, helping other young people in Kolkata find hope and freedom from poverty like he did. He and his wife, Naomi, were married in 2016 and live on the south coast of England. To find out more about how Compassion programmes run by local churches across 25 developing nations helps to empower children like Jane'alam and give them a hope and a future, go to compassionuk.org