An Indian man has adopted 22 children who were abandoned by their parents after contracting HIV.
Rajib Thomas – known lovingly by his kids as Papa Reji – has been taking care of formerly-homeless HIV-positive children for almost a decade now.
All of the children live with the 44-year-old in his Mumbai home, along with his wife and two biological teenage kids.
While his wife Mini Reji cooks all three meals for the two-dozen children, Papa Reji takes care of their education and healthcare.
‘It was the year 2007 when I met an HIV-positive girl outside a hospital and she asked me to get some noodles for her,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t get it that day but promised to come back again.
‘The next day when I went there, I got to know that the girl was no more. I was devastated after hearing the news, so it was then that I thought of doing something for these children.’
After that, Papa Reji spoke to HIV/AIDs specialist Divya Mithale about taking the children in, and she arranged for him to take in two abandoned babies.
‘In 2009, I rented a bigger space for my wife and two children, and my other two HIV-positive newborns,’ he said.
‘Initially it was tough to make ends meet, but we survived the hardships by giving up comfort and helping the children.
‘Gradually people started donating mattresses, food and money when they saw us working for these children.
‘My family of four slowly expanded to 24, as more and more children with HIV were sent to me from different hospitals.’
Mini added: ‘We make sure that none of the children feel left out at home. We scold all of them as much we love them.
‘We celebrate their birthdays here and take immediate care when someone falls sick.’
Papa Reji is visibly proud of his ever-growing family, and says they have become his life’s purpose.
‘These children all call me Papa and it is the duty of a father to protect his children,’ he said. ‘So I am not doing anything extraordinary – just taking care of my children.’