They Never Stop Waiting

They never stop waiting for their mothers to come back.  They cannot be with us because they are always 3 or 7 or 10 years old, sitting on a railway bench, or standing on a street corner.  “My mother told me to wait here until she comes back.”  And so they wait, or they go looking but they will not find her, yet they never stop looking.

Two nights ago, one of our girls left in the evening, in the pouring monsoon rain, thunder and lightning, barefooted, to find her mother.  She climbed a ladder and spread the rusted barbed wire, and was gone.  By midnight Seema Gupta and I were trudging through 2 ft. of water to get to the road, and then to the local police station. We had pulled together her files, written a formal letter for the police, and printed out recent pictures of her.  By 2 am we were back home.  The other girls were devastated and frightened for her.  We didn’t know why she had gone.  We worried especially because she is particularly vulnerable.  We each scanned the day for a hint, for what we might have said that set her off…. I think we each took her leaving personally.

The Officer came to Shishur Sevay at 9 am to search the premises and see how she got out.  He told us we need more cameras outside and a higher boundary wall.  He was worried about someone coming in as much as one of the girls leaving.  He interviewed us all. And he took it all seriously.  Being in our home, he was even more puzzled that she had left.  Few people really understand the children who wait forever.  Ten minutes after he left we got a call from another police station about a girl they had picked up in the night, asking whether she was ours.  She was.  She was safe.  She had given a false name.  She was now housed at the government home, and would be produced the following day at the Child Welfare Committee and we were to appear with all her papers and a copy of the police filing.  Dispositions would be made.  I wasn’t even sure what I wanted.

We all met in the Committee room.  She stood stoically near me and then began to silently cry.  I  asked her why she had run.  She said, “My mother,” and I understood.  For ten years she has drawn the same family picture, and told the same story about being left…. She doesn’t want to leave Shishur Sevay.  She just wants to see her mother, see if she is OK, tell her she is OK.  The children whose mothers have died are freer to move on, and they are not haunted by abandonment, or, “why was I left?”.  Today in the CWC room we also saw an adorable three or four year old who had been found sitting in the train station.  She was waiting.  Her mother told her to wait there and left with a man.  Her mother didn’t come back.  If a woman remarries the new husband usually does not want her children.  It is an ugly custom, and ugly how it happens because the children never stop looking.

A couple of years ago we talked with all the girls about searching, and put bindis on railway stops they remembered. But then they became unsure of what they wanted. They were also afraid of not having the security they have here.  So we put the map away and tomorrow I will take it out again.

Today we went back to the local police station to give them the reports, to withdraw the request, and for them to meet our girl.  She was frightened, but was so warmly received she relaxed.  And then the same Officer got on the phone and made calls to people in the town she remembers.  He will also help us with other searches.   She was also clear with CWC, and today, “My mother is Dr. Michelle Harrison, but I have another mother and I want to find her.  I just want to see her.”

We will try.  Maybe we will find a familiar place.  Maybe starting at the bus station she will recognize a road…. we will walk around.  The police will help us.  We have the support of the CWC now.  I used to tell the girls that one day we will hire a big bus and travel to all the places they remember.

What are my hopes?

  1. To find a place and people who are familiar or known to them or related to them, a place they can find again.
  2.  To know they have our full support in helping them connect with their past.
  3.  To help them sort out what they want and to see it as a long term process in which they may have differing feelings at different times.
  4.  To help them move back and forth in these worlds and to honour their decisions but provide safety and protection at the same time.
  5.  To help them find some peace of mind in weaving together past and present so they can move into the future.

This is the little girl I saw waiting on a corner in 2001.  I’ve never stopped wondering.  I hope she stopped looking.  She is a part of the history of Shishur Sevay.

lost girl 2001

 

I’m Torn Up

I’m torn up. What happens to girls here tears me up and I can’t put it away. I founded this home because I know what it is like, but sometimes it hits me in the face and I’m just torn up.  Over the years we have had two girls who re-connected with their families.  In each case the family found a way to basically sell the girls.  In one case the girl had been sold as a child already.  Getting her back meant they could sell her again.

Yesterday we had a visit from another of the girls who had pushed every possible limit and who we finally simply could not safely manage.  That was four years ago.  For privacy I won’t say much but she is trapped now.  The concept of the “arranged marriage” often involves an unwritten contract between the families, and usually money is part of the arrangement.  Usually it is dowry and the girl’s family pays.  In this case the family could make a case for an educated girl who speaks English and the groom’s family had to pay.  The life she has now is everything she was running away from…. It’s complicated, so complicated.  She hugged us and cried and told her sisters here never to make the same mistake she did.  When she left today I tucked my business card in her blouse, as I have done each time she left as we tried to find solutions for her behavior.

The promise I made to the girls when they came is that they would forever be a part of this family, even if I could not manage them here.  Shishur Sevay is the “mother house,” the place you return to when things are bad.  She came home to her mother house.  She knows she can stay but she had to leave.  The biggest part of the battle is within her.  None of this is about danger.  It’s about who she wants to be, what she wants for her future, and whether she has the strength and courage to wage what would be a family and social upheaval.  Or does she say, “This is my lot,” and give up on her dreams.  That’s the norm……

There really isn’t an in-between.

When we first started Shishur Sevay, and for a long time afterwards, there was huge local resistance to our home.  Many in the community believed I’d come here to make money, that I was raising and educating these girls to be sold for a high price abroad. But now I understand better why they might think that.

Written well past midnight, I’m torn up.

mh

 

 

 

 

 

The Sign: LOST AND UNCLAIMED BAGGAGE

I stepped out of the old Kolkata airport into the strong musty smell that told me I was home.  Walking to the carpark, I noticed a low bluish building with a huge sign: LOST AND UNCLAIMED BAGGAGE.  I tried to imagine the goods there, luggage forgotten, tags lost; clothes and cheap jewellery left on the plane; contraband goods being smuggled but suddenly not worth being caught — the lost and unclaimed — inventory on the shelves of the blue building across the parking lot at Kolkata’s airport.  What they all had in common was the absence of traceable tags… identification — no origins, no destinations.

There is a taller building about half way between the airport and the city — a government institution that houses children, orphan children.  Many lack tags or identification.  They arrive — some via police, via Childline, via kind people who realized they were lost.  In Kolkata it is the lucky ones who end up in this building because sometimes children are “found” and then sold.

The children of Shishur Sevay came from this government building. Their lack of any known connections resulted in their being excluded from most “orphanages” since there would be no family or community to take them when they reached 18.  Additionally they had each been reviewed and rejected for adoption.  How had they gotten there?  Each had her story.  One had been found lying sick under a train seat.  She was hospitalised with pneumonia, sepsis, meningitis, and suffered a stroke.  Others have stories of being left at a train station or on a corner, but no one ever coming back for them.  They have stories of violence and escapes.

This morning I happened to be looking at an organization which is a federation of groups of parents of children/family members with disabilities.  It’s a national advocacy group. But who are the advocates for the orphans no one will take, especially if they have disabilities?   Early in the history of Shishur Sevay we had a terrible battle with the government. They had made a decision, without notifying us, that they would send five girls who were not orphans.  A major donor had just pulled out of an NGO run home, and one unit had to be closed.  A woman showed up at our gate, unannounced, and said she was here to put her child at Shishur Sevay.  I told her there was a mistake and I went to meet with the government officials.  There I found yet another mother who had been told to bring her daughter to us, and I refused.  The government official asked me what was the difference between our girls and this woman’s daughter.  I turned to the mother and said, “You may not know it but your daughter has a wonderful mother who will fight for her.”   The same government official who four months before had sat at Shishur Sevay rocking one of my brown dolls, and telling me we would get the children, now threatened to bring charges against me for discrimination against children with mothers.  She threatened to close Shishur Sevay and take the children.  I stayed polite and composed and told them they would have to kill me first. It was about a year of tension until we were able to get a renewal and I lived in terror that they would actually try to close us.

Why did I refuse?  Our motherless girls would have immediately become second class citizens to these educated girls with mothers who would advocate for them.  In India, to be an orphan is to carry shame.  “So your family threw you out?”  Orphans come with more shame, histories of unimaginable abuse, and a profound sense of grief and loss. Some live with suicidal fantasies seemingly their only relief from the pain of loss.  They lack trust.  After all if you can’t trust your own family to keep you, why should you ever trust anyone else?

Most orphans are not able to be effective advocates for orphan children.  Few are really educated so their stories are not articulated in ways that are heard.  And they live in shame.  Yes, I have a hope that our girls, if they choose, will be able to speak about the care that is needed.  They are being educated to have the skills to be effective on behalf of themselves and others.  But they are also free to walk away if they choose.  It cannot be another burden for them to bear.

One of a Hundred Stories

Dr. Harrison in 2006

Dr. Harrison in 2006

I have a hundred stories for a hundred lives lived just within this lifetime.  In this story I am the Founder of Childlife Preserve Shishur Sevay, a model of inclusive non-institutional care for orphan girls previously housed in a government institution, having already been rejected for adoption.  Some have severe disabilities.  All carried wounds, some visible, some buried deep within their memories.

This story began when I was 17 years old. I’d written an essay for school about “The Meaning of Life” in which I saw myself acquiring the education and skills to one day care for orphans in need.  I had just seen some pictures of Korean orphans when a friend returned from the war.  Something clicked; something that has lasted a lifetime.

I adopted my Indian daughter from Kolkata in 1984 and raised her in the US. That is my connection to Kolkata, a very personal one.  Kolkata is family. I also have an older daughter to whom I gave birth.  I raised both them as a single parent.  All my stories have twists and turns to them, all 100 of them.

In 2000 I decided we should visit Kolkata.  I had just been through breast cancer and didn’t know how long I would live.  I had also wondered what happens to the children not adopted.  I knew India needed to provide for its orphan children and not just ship them abroad.  When we visited, and in subsequent visits I made, it was clear that mostly these children languished.  I also realized that there was little hope or expectation that anything really could be done for them.  The phrase I kept hearing was, ‘Nothing Can Be Done.”

I sold my house in 2006.  My younger daughter graduated from Barnard College and the older one from New York Law School and I left for India to start Childlife Preserve Shishur Sevay.  The Society received its registration in June 2006.  We received our License in January 2007 and 12 girls were sent to us by Order of the WB Child Welfare Committee for care rehabilitation, four of them with profound disabilities.  I realized quickly that what the children needed most was a “mother” at home checking their homework at night.  I also learned how much they needed each other.  Bonds of genuine love grew between the abled and the children with severe disabilities.  I am mother to them but their strength and security is also in their connections to each other.

Shishur Sevay is not well-known.  I used to refer to us as a stealth orphanage.  Some of that was because I couldn’t stretch myself or our resources any farther, and also because it was hard for me to keep hearing people say it couldn’t be done.  In my relationship with the government I was simply a nice lady from America who liked children.  I shed the titles, roles, privileges of my earlier life.  I also endured death threats and all the other obstacles to creating something good in the face of a culture of mistrust and cynicism.  I needed time to learn about these children.  I understand why people felt nothing could be done, because some of these children are the first to tell you not to bother, that nothing can be done for them. I needed time, time to think, to learn, to try approaches that worked or sometimes didn’t work.  The children needed time, a lot of time, a lot of safety and protection, and a lot of support as they began to risk “trying.”

Ten years later Shishur Sevay is a shining example of what CAN be done.  The girls are thriving.  Two are studying for Class X Boards.  Shishur Sevay is a leader in inclusive living and inclusive education.  We have caught the attention of researchers at Vanderbilt University and have been studied as a unique case of inclusion of abled and differently abled.  We created our own school Ichche Dana Inclusive School, as after six years we gave up on outside schooling for our children.

We are leaders in advanced communication technology.  We were among the first in India to use the Tobii Eye Tracker for our girls with severe cerebral palsy.  They are able now to communicate with us using their eyes to control the computer.   For them and for us this is a profound life changing experience. Our girls are showing what can be done.  We are doing it IN India so that the girls have opportunity without the loss of their homeland, language, culture, heritage and religion.  In the first week I showed them the map of India and began to teach them that they are Indian, that this is their country, and that they belong.  Although I am American and a catalyst, we are strong because of our Indian staff of teachers, caretakers, accountants, administrators, and Board.  Each year we have passed our inspections and the government has thanked us for our efforts.  India gave me the gift of my daughter, who lives happily in the US.  But I am like so many fortunate Indians who want to give back for the gift I have received.

Our infrastructure is strong.  We have received the GuideStar Gold Seal 2017 for transparency of our records, a goal from the beginning.  Our records and processes are open.  We want people to understand what we do and how we do it.

What must be the next part of this story?

  1. Establish lifetime care, inclusive and inter-generational for those who cannot live independently
  2. Establish Shishur Sevay as a model of inclusive care in the spectrum of alternatives to institutionalisation
  3. Conduct training in inclusive living and education in the community and within the professional community
  4. Assist in the creation of other homes based on the model of Shishur Sevay but adapted to the character and needs of the community
  5. Inspire hope and dreams by evoking positive inclusive experiences with the differently abled
  6. Contribute to the building of an Inclusive India

For this, we are no longer stealth, and I am no longer quiet. I am here to tell you what I have learned in raising these abandoned and rejected children.  I will share what they have taught me, what I have learned.  And I will share my adventure of constant growth and emergence.  I’m back.

We are here. We are building an inclusive India

2017: We Are Here. We Are Building An Inclusive India

 

 

 

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