"S A F E"

The girls were taking turns reading a story about an ant who was in danger of drowning.  Then a bird dropped a leaf for the ant to float on.  The next sentence was about the ant being safe.  But that word evaded the girl reading, and the others.  She tried spelling and sounding out the letters to form a word, S A F E , but no word came.  I answered for her, "SAFE."  Yes, they recognized the word.  So I asked them what they thought it meant, because I use the word a lot.  This was a class with our LD expert, a gifted teacher who enjoys stretching their minds.  So she asked them in Bengali, and they said, "Free!"  No, they didn't understand the word and so they probably hadn't understood the times I'd used it.

"SAFE" is what Shishur Sevay is about for me, making a safe place for them.  So I reminded them of the times I'd talked to them about being safe here, about protecting them, about the difference between being on the street where they were not safe, and here where they are.  I reminded them of how much I worry when we go places, worry they will be lost, which is how some of them ended up in government care, worry that people will say bad things to them (that has happened), and just worry because I'm a worrying kind of mom.

One of the girls began to talk about her life, and that gave me a chance to talk about our having protected her from a man who tried to take her out from here — a man the government had warned me about when they sent her to us for protection.  Keeping her safe… explained over and over, as all of them listened intently.  Then I asked about a piece of paper she had brought and had among her things, a name, address, phone number and directions.  She said at the time a friend gave it to her in case she ever got out.

The teacher who was translating is one who lets the girls talk, and she seems to really tell me what they are saying and asking.  This is unusual, as often I can tell that my question has been expanded and the "appropriate" answer has been given to the girls.  In some cases the girls have then been afraid to tell me what is going on.  But this day I felt I had the right person, and indeed she was.  First I asked about the paper and was told this girl was a friend in the first institution, someone who came and went, and had wanted her to leave with her. 

BINGO!  I had heard that the traffickers plant girls in the institutions in order to lure the girls to the traffickers.  I explained it all to her.  I asked how a girl in and out of an orphanage would have a phone, address, and such good handwriting… that this had been a trap.  I have also heard that some well-known NGO's are helping traffickers.  This must all sound insane.  But it's what I hear "off the record."  So I explained that I had taken the paper because I didn't think it safe for her to keep it….  Shishur Sevay, a place to keep children safe.

I thought a lot about SAFE as a concept in my life.  I've written two children's stories (unpublished) — with about 30 years between them.  I have more in my head, which I'll write when life settles even more.  Both are about safety in a way.  The first, written while I lived on a boat in the Bahama Islands is about two girls who go for a walk to another town, bringing bread for the aunt of one of them.  NOTHING BAD happens.  It lacks any major suspense.  It's a safe story.  The second, more recent, is a story about a flying elephant.  A young princess listens to where her father, the King, and his hunters will be going the next day, and then she goes out into the meadow early in the morning and sings and dances with the animals and warns them where the hunters will be.  As the sun comes up, they scatter for the day, safe from the hunters.  The flying elephant comes later — more of the story — an adoption story.

Safety is a theme in my life.  One of my hats is that of psychiatrist — one who deals with internal and external threats and safety, struggles to fine safe places within and without.  Shishur Sevay is a safe place in terms of external dangers, or at least as safe as any place can be.  But I also try to help the girls feel safe, to find safe places within themselves, to find ways to both address and isolate the bad times and pain so they are not at the mercy of their internal struggles.  We call it "bababa" here, my word for the stuff that gets in the way when we try to relate, try to learn, try to  work, try to find comfortable places to be within ourselves, within our environment.  "Bababa" can get in the way of everything.

Something else is happening here in relation to safety and bababa though.  I am feeling safer.  This is the first Puja holiday we have not been in a major crisis that left me feeling alone and terrified.  Our legal position has become stronger, and I am relaxed, more like I was at the beginning before the long string of obstacles appeared.  As I am more relaxed, so are the children.  Their disruptive behavior and bad language has almost disappeared.  They are easier on the teachers; they are not hot fuses ready to blow at the first chance; they laugh with and at me more, and as I am more relaxed, they have more opportunities to laugh at me.  In those bad times I was vigilant with respect to "services and education" for them.  But it is really hard to be a good mother when under attack, when afraid of losing one's children, of being driven from them…..

I am feeling safer.  So are they.  It shows in all of us.  These are good times in our lives, and I will surely enjoy and appreciate these times for as long as they last.


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September 2009
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