As the bell announces a break for lunch, 17-year-old Bilquees Hassan unwillingly tears herself from a quiet corner in the room she shares with three other girls and walks across the dim corridor toward the dining hall.
Of the 110 girls in this orphanage in Indian-held Kashmir, she is the newest arrival. Bilquees arrived only a week earlier and still vacillates between longing for her home and stepping into stride with the other orphan girls.
“I miss eating with my sisters and my mother, and I am reminded of father’s death here all the time,” she says.
Bilquees came to the orphanage from northern Kashmir’s Baramulla district. Her father, Ghulam Hassan, was a blacksmith who was crushed to death under an Indian Army vehicle in May 2010 leaving behind his wife and five children, including two daughters.
"I was the youngest of his children and he loved me the most,” says Bilquees, adding, with a smile: “He called me Doctor Bilquees.”
For five years, she says, her family tried to make ends meet, until finally Bilquees went to live in the orphanage where she receives a free education: a chance to realise her father's dream of her becoming a doctor.
Gulshan-e-Banaat, the "garden of girls," an orphanage in Srinagar’s Gopalpora area, is home to many with severed and difficult dreams such as Bilquees’s.
Established in 2002 after years of armed violence between Indian forces and pro-independence militants caused a spike in the numbers of orphans across the valley, the Gulshan-e-Banaat orphanage was started as a sanctuary from violence and to prepare orphaned girls for their future lives.
According to a 2010 study by Save the Children, a London-based charity, there are 214,000 orphans in the state. Around 41 percent of the orphans are below 18 years of age and many lost their parents in the armed conflict.
“On one hand there was a surge in the number of orphans while on the other hand there was no proper structure to take care of these children,” Sharief Ahmad Bhat who heads the Save the Children's Kashmir office told Anadolu Agency.
Bhat says most orphans have very little access to education and find themselves marginalised.
According to a study conducted by the Department of Sociology at the University of Kashmir, 57 percent of orphans in Indian-held Kashmir work in handicraft industries while others work as domestic servants, salesmen, waiters and drivers.
“At least the boys can work and survive and help themselves and their families,” says Zahoor Ahmad Tak, the patron of the orphanage. “But what about the girls?”
Tak says girls receive less attention after they are orphaned and are treated as a burden until married off.
“We try our best to raise them as independent individuals and give them access to the best education and make them feel that they are not left behind, that they have a chance to make something out of themselves even after their lives are touched by tragedies,” says Tak.
The rooms, books, clothes and accessories of the girls confirm it. Generous donors come with branded jackets and bags, cartons of books, and volunteers often teach workshops in art and cinema.
“Here I don’t have to worry about anything. I don’t know where the food comes from, or clothes or the books I read,” says Kounser Yousuf, a girl from the orphanage’s first batch. “But when I go home, I see my sisters and mother struggling for small things. They tell me I don’t know what real life is.”
The orphanage began modestly with funding mostly from the Austrian Kashmiri Social Project, an NGO founded by late Austria-based Kashmiri businessman Arshid Nabi Shontoo.
The support continues and today Gulshan-e-Banaat is housed in two large concrete buildings, one of which serves as the school and the other for boarding and lodging. Between the two buildings is a small playground.
Amid the hope, there is also concern. Most worried are the girls who have been at the orphanage for the longest.
Most of them, like Kounser, arrived when the orphanage started in 2002 but will have to leave soon after finishing their secondary education. They will be the first batch to leave the school.
“We can’t keep them here for long. They are in most senses segregated from the word and it is harmful for them to stay away from their families beyond a point. We want to help them secure admissions in professional colleges and then return to their homes,” Tak says.
The girls say they fear leaving the orphanage and confronting the world outside more than they fear the exams.
“I don’t want to leave this place. I have no idea of roads and markets and I don’t even know most of my relatives. I don’t know how I will manage to return to a home in my village where I have not lived in 13 years now. It is a fear I live with every moment now,” Kounser says.
Several studies have questioned the role orphanages play as safe alternatives for children. Experts argue that they provide only a short-term solution that can hinder a child's natural growth.
“They fail to meet the emotional needs of children. Such children are very vulnerable when they come out from the orphanages. They almost know nobody and have to start anew and most of them cannot cope with that,” says Dr. Arshid Hussain, a Kashmir-based Psychiatrist.
Hussain argues that orphanages displace and insulate orphans, making them "defenseless strangers” when released.
A recent study from Kashmir's Psychiatric Disease Hospital revealed that two-thirds of orphans have "over 40 percent prevalence of psychiatric morbidity."
The study pitches the need to emotionally, psychologically and financially support orphans in their own homes rather than a secluded environment.
The girls living in the Gulshan-e-Banaat say going to the orphanage was the best thing that could have happened to them after their parents were killed, but agree that they feel like they are being orphaned again.
“We will loose all familiarity, all security and all friendships once more. It is so sad that we don’t want to speak about it,” says Kounser.