By Haziq Qadri @haziq_qadri
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Videographer / director: Nagesh Oha
Producer: Haziq Qadri, Ellie Winstanley
Editor: Joshua Douglas
Reji Thomas, 44, lives with the 22 kids, his wife and two biological children in Mumbai, India.
The church pastor was inspired to adopt abandoned kids in 2007 when he was asked to pray for a girl who was diagnosed with HIV.
He explained: “A 12-year-old girl was admitted in a local hospital and I was called to pray for her. She was in a terrible condition. Her parents died of HIV and she was also HIV positive.”
“She wanted to have noodles that day and I promised to get it the next day. She died the same night.
"It was a terrible experience. That day I decided to take care of such kids.”
Ten years later, Thomas and his wife, Mini Reji are taking care of 22 abandoned children, 16 of whom are HIV positive. And Reji goes to hospital once a month to look for kids who are in need of shelter and food.
He said: “I have contacts in many hospitals here and whenever they get any patient, they call me. Some NGO’s are also looking for abandoned kids and they hand them to me.”
Reji’s wife and children are happy to share their home with their adopted family members, but initially they were against the idea.
Reji, who is helped with funding by local NGO’s, explained: “My family thought I was doing something wrong. Having kids with HIV positive was not a wise idea. But later it was fine with them. We now live like a family.”
Having his growing extended family in his small home was also difficult for Reji so he rented a bigger space to accommodate more kids.
“It was a challenging task for me and my wife,” he says. “The number of kids started increasing and we had only one mattress for five kids.”
Now Reji’s wife happily helps take care of the children, making breakfast and cooking for them every day.
Refi, who is known as Papa Reji to his adopted charges, said: “We live together in the same house, eat together and pray together. There is no difference between them and us. My wife is now proud to have all the kids with her.”
Reji celebrates the birthdays of every one of his children and takes great pleasure from helping his adopted family.
He said: “I feel good when they call me ‘dad’. I want to make them feel good here. We don’t restrict them at all. There are no laws here. They do whatever they like to do. This is not an orphanage. This house belongs to them.
“I want to be a normal caring dad to them. I have to look after everything. It makes me feel better.”
Most of the children study at a local school with Reji dropping them off in the morning and picking them up again in the afternoon. He also takes them for monthly health checks and ensures they receive proper treatment and medicine.
He said: “When these children came to us, most of them were in a terrible condition. We gave them proper medication and food. Nobody is physically weak now. “
Reji’s son, Justin Reji is proud of his dad for taking such a brave decision and feels happy to have more members in his family.
Justin said: “I was against the idea of having HIV kids in our house. But later I realized I was wrong. They are part of our family now.
"I am so proud of my dad. He takes more care of them and I don’t feel bad about it.”
And generous Reji has no plans to stop at 22 adoptions. He’s now planning to buy a bigger house so he can accommodate even more abandoned kids.
He said: “HIV doesn’t mean they don’t have a right to live and love.
"We should love them like we love our kids.”