“Two Old Ladies with Nothing to do All Day”

MH AssochamOvalTwo Old Ladies with nothing to do all day.”  I didn’t know what he was saying at the time, but he was trying to push me away from an office entrance at the school.  He spoke in Bengali, still difficult for me. Sometimes it’s better not to know what people are saying especially when I am making a disturbance.

I’ll skip all the details because even as I wrote them I was bored.  I was at a parent’s meeting where our six year old attends.  I was meeting with the Coordinator when a big man came into the office and tried to have his meeting and I refused to let him take over.  But after the meeting another man tried to burst into the office as our neighbor was having her meeting. I was blocking the entrance.  He tried to push me away and I refused which led to the outburst.  I was with Seema Gupta our Vice President, and retired Joint Registrar of the Calcutta High Court.  She was horrified.  He probably said even worse.  She holds back on telling me the really bad stuff.  He was aggressively saying he had to to go office and we were two old ladies with nothing to do with ourselves except stand around talking.

But here is the kicker!  I called aside one of the women officials who had seemed sympathetic and said I was upset about the men just taking over.  She said, “Maam, this is India and you have to follow the culture,”  I told her I wouldn’t.

Back home at Shishur Sevay I was telling the teachers and one said, “Yes, and I have to go through this at my child’s school next week.”

Why do I make a scene?  I have nothing to lose.  The women around me have too much to lose.  They accept it because they have no choice.  I resist openly just so other women can hear that someone thinks this is not OK, that they should not have to live as they do.  Living in the West we don’t really get it, because it’s not about incidents, but about living as a lesser person.   And for women like me, transposed from a sense of freedom and empowerment, these insults hurt.  They make me want to go back and pull out my accomplishments, to say I’m not just an old lady with nothing to do.  But he would never understand, neither of those men would.  To them I really am just an old lady.

This is hardly the first time, and certainly not the last, and I tell myself to ignore it, but in truth, I feel bad.  I feel devalued, and that was exactly their intent.

 

 

The Wounded

Oases and Mirages1

Ten years of living with the wounded children; for now haiku becomes the best way I can explain.  There is no miracle to what Shishur Sevay does, except that we do it with the commitment we will not give up and when they urge us to give up on them, we still do not.  When on rare occasions they peek out from their cocoons, we are there smiling, encouraging, but never tugging.  It is not an easy process for them or for the people trying to help them and protect them, and none of it is personal.  I  love building oases.

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

 

 

 

 

 

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