In the 1960s, against the backdrop of the Cold War between East and West, Cuba crisis, assassination of President John F Kennedy, the first humans in space, Neil Armstrong’s moon landing and more, Swissair Captain Kurt Bürki and his wife Edeltrud were just starting out on establishing their lives and careers. Thankful for the good life they had in Switzerland, the couple decided to give back to society. “It took almost 10 years. But then in 1976, we visited friends in Kolkata and immediately started working on the idea of a street kitchen for neglected children from the streets. Today, almost 45 years later, the Usthi Foundation includes many projects in India and Nepal, focusing on education and health,” says Bürki.
In line with Bürki’s thoughts “to try to accept the situation and bind the problem within my strategy to go ahead”, Usthi has stepped forward to provide emergency relief to affected families in the current time. The first relief operation was carried out at the beginning of May and targeted single mothers and families of Usthi’s schoolchildren in Hyderabad. The second operation was conducted at the Usthi schools in Hudarait, 20 km from Kolkata, and Penthakata, near Puri. With the financial support from the Swiss Embassy in New Delhi, more than 730 families were provided food packages.
Since 1976, the Foundation and its partners in Kolkata, Odisha and Telangana have supported more than 50,000 children and young adults. In 2020 alone, Usthi has taken 1,800 children under its care, enabling them to attend schools and supporting them with after-school tuitions. Every year, about 1,200 young people, in particular single mothers and school dropouts, complete the Usthi professional skill-training course. The skilling is broadly based on the concept of the Swiss dual education system.
What has been his biggest achievement over the last almost 45 years? “It is not easy to choose one. These past years in India and Nepal include uncountable small and big stories of love and suffering. I feel proud to have survived India for 45 years and still be totally motivated to go ahead. India, with its contradictions, with the power of unlimited human capital and the glory of its people, has become my second home,” says the now 80-year-old gentleman.
It’s not just skill that Usthi focuses on. In 1983, the Foundation set up a hospital in a tribal region in Odisha to provide healthcare to 133 villages. In addition to running the facility, it continues to engage in training social and health workers in nutrition and health in 50 villages; and runs early child development programmes known as the ‘Health and Education Project’ (HEP) in about eight villages surrounding the hospital. A further emphasis is to support young women to strengthen their role in society. For example, Usthi provides safe homes, psychological care and education for abused and trafficked women and children and helps them integrate back into society.
“We may have brought in some ideas and funds, but we have got back much more in terms of deep affection, love and calmness to face misery and emergencies that we have to accept. I am a happy man. Usthi, a child of my late wife and myself, is in good hands,” says Kurt. His vision, he reiterates, is still of a world of more justice and less discrimination among all and he hopes that some day it will be a complete reality.
“India, with its contradictions, with the power of unlimited human capital and the glory of its people has become my second home.” —Kurt Bürki