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.

7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. joycegodwingrubbs2
    Apr 11, 2017 @ 22:39:48

    I have always said one cannot make a good decision unless they have all the facts. In the case of Shishur Sevay, this translates to the fact that one must understand the path it has taken. It is a journey that has been fraught with sacrifice, danger, fear and then overcome by courage, commitment and timeless belief in something greater than one’s self. Dr. Michelle Harrison has a lifelong record of serving others, and when she came to India she found her destiny. One can only marvel at all she has accomplished to establish the “home” for those girls, let alone our consideration of the fact she “took on the government” in India to make it happen. More than once this “fierce little American woman” has become a scrappy street warrior to defend the girls she rescues. I pray a book of her life will come to fruition and many will be inspired to serve because of her living example. I am proud to call her my friend, and led by circumstances to call her my Shero.

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  2. Dr. Michelle Harrison
    Apr 11, 2017 @ 23:44:06

    Joyce, you are such a dear friend and I appreciate your words. Yes, I can be a scrappy street worrier — a good one at that! I’ve started a book of stories, inspired by my writing the previous blog about One of One Hundred Stories and it will be a book of stories of my life because they all intertwine, past, present, parallel, all at once. Trying to put my life into an orderly progression would not do justice to the twists, turns, tears, and laughter. So, like you, I will tell the tales…. woven, connected, and sometimes disconnected because there is still more to come.
    Prayers for you health and your peace of mind.

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    • joycegodwingrubbs2
      Apr 11, 2017 @ 23:59:57

      Excited to hear more about the book; love the format you will use with stories that break up the tale and will stand out more and be taken to heart and passed on. Stay the course; your book is needed and will be not just a gift, but a powerful lesson on “how to commit and ‘stay the course’.”

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  3. David Alman
    Apr 13, 2017 @ 03:24:27

    As your father, I’m entitled to be in awe of you, but by now the awesome battles you wage against indifference, elitism, racism, chauvinism and ignorance require an upgrade to the meaning of awe. If there’s a God, I pray that she/he keeps a benevolent eye on you and all your many daughters.

    Dad

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  4. Dr. Michelle Harrison
    Apr 13, 2017 @ 22:23:25

    Thank you Dad, and thank you Joyce. I’m just being me, and it feels like a gift to be able to do all this. I feel truly blessed each night when I look at the room full of girls, and in the morning when I wake to their presence, and their smiles…

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  5. beavoicefororphans
    Jul 13, 2017 @ 07:56:44

    Way to be a voice for orphans and caring for their needs… And yes, there is a God who loves you Dr. Michelle, Joyce, and Mr. Alman for HE is a FATHER to the fatherless and encourages all of us to provide for orphans…
    https://beavoicefororphans.wordpress.com/author/beavoicefororphans/

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