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.







She Wasn’t an Orphan

I faced a hard decision.  The child we brought home from CWC on 24 September is not an orphan.  She has a mother, sisters, aunts, uncles,  and cousins.  As I had guessed, she was part of a community of beggars, thieves, and goondas.  The woman who brought her in was some sort of boss.  All of this has unfolded over the last several weeks.  The woman who had brought her to CWC called us almost daily, showed up unannounced, and the child mostly did not want to see her.  Over the next few weeks we learned that the child’s mother lived right next door to that woman, with her younger sister, and that “L”, our girl would take care of her mother in the day (maybe).  The mother was said to be mad, but L told us this was just so people would give her money.  L missed all of them, and missed the freedom of her life.  At the same time she also loved being here, enjoyed the other girls, and started to learn the alphabet.

So, what’s the problem?  First of all, I’ve been at this work for 12 years and I have a good idea of who I can help and who I cannot help.  I cannot help this child.   I can feed her, but I cannot change the direction of her life.  Ultimately she would not stay and ultimately the family/community would not leave her here.  As long as she wants to go home, she will not tolerate any of the discipline, self discipline, and work of being part of our life, family, home.  She will always be different.  I’ve seen it too often.  She has a place to go, not a great place, but she has family, people of her life, who she wants to be with.  She will never feel, “Amar barrie Shishur Sevay.” or “My home is Shishur Sevay.”

Second, I left the US, sold my home and took my savings to come here and do this work.  I want to care for orphans, the one’s who do not have what this child has.  The girls at Shishur Sevay are without choice.  The one girl who has a family still wants to join them.  She probably will when she is 18 in seven months.  India has a horrible problem of beggar children.  There even are laws against it, but they are ignored.  It’s a problem I cannot begin to address because it’s fueled by organized crime, police, politicians, the people who get paid off to do nothing.  It’s simply not what I sold my house for.

Third, my commitment to the girls here is really lifetime.  That’s what my money is for.  I stay here, miss my family in the US, including my grandchild, because I care for children who would not be OK without me.   I’m not willing to make that sacrifice for a child with alternatives.   My daughter and son-in-law in the US feel a commitment to our girls, but this one is not an orphan and does not belong here.

Fourth, it is not OK to have a home of orphans, children who unfortunately carry the “shame” of  that label, to have a child who is automatically “above” that label.  Whatever WE may think of L’s community, she is accepted there.  Our Shishur Sevay girls have NO PLACE they are accepted.  Our girl who will return to her family when she is 18 wants to be where she IS ACCEPTED.    Before taking L back, the girls and I talked, because for them also it was hard to have her leave.  But our girl who is almost 18 was clearest, ‘Mummy, she will be like me.  She will want to stay with her family.”

So we went, Gibi, Purba, Maggie, “L”, and me.  I had prepared a letter for CWC stating much of what I’ve written above.  I also had the original CWC Order giving her to us, which described her as an orphan.   I brought the government form for signing a child out of care.  We arrived to be met by an angry group of her relatives, fighting with each other and accusing us of keeping her in a bad place.  Gibi threatened to call the police for fraud.  I missed a lot of it as I took the child inside and Purba made sure we got ourselves on the appointment list.  Among the group were the woman who signed her in, the woman who said she was the child’s mother, the younger sister, a woman who said she was the community representative of some sort, and a couple of others.  They were there to reclaim their child.  They were angry with the woman who had “relinquished” her, and now said she was actually the grandmother and the woman said to be mad was her daughter.

I had prepared myself for this CWC meeting differently.  Bringing this child back was difficult.  I had to do this for the security of Shishur Sevay, and the protection of the other girls.  I took out my business card, kept it in front of me as a reminder, and tried to stay in the mode of being the lawyer for Shishur Sevay.  Shishur Sevay became my client.   The CWC woman whom I’ve known now for years, was very astute with these people and ended up saying she had no idea who was telling the truth, but since no one could prove they were even a relative, she couldn’t return the child to them.  She turned to me and said I’d have to keep her for now.  I said very calmly, “No, I don’t have to keep her.  This “Order” you wrote says she is an orphan and she is not.  This is your failure to find out.”  She agreed I was right.  Sitting at the long table was also someone from  CINI (Children In Need Institute), which is the largest organization working with these children.  The official said that CINI would take her.  This is actually very good because they will investigate and they will keep her in a shelter if they decide not to return her to those people.  They have staff, social workers, project and program directors, informants, investigators, and connections to high places.   A social worker came into the CWC meeting room and took “L”  back to the waiting area where she joined about 20 other children sitting on mats, also waiting to go to CINI.  “L” was tearful and another girl moved closer to comfort her.

Hundreds, thousands of children pass through this way.   That’s really where the label “SHAME” belongs.

Today I did what I had to for, Shishur Sevay.

Ganga has PTSD


I am asleep.  Ganga is asleep beside me, as usual.  My back hurts and I roll to my other side, leaving six inches between us.  Suddenly she begins to scream, and scream, and thrash.  I jump up to hold her and she is stiff, screaming.  I try to sing to her, to soothe her and she screams and now also sobs.  Others wake.  The light goes on.  Ganga screams in terror, looks to the corner as if something is coming from there.  She doesn’t seem to know who I am or where she is.  She pauses for a moment, looks at me, and screams more.  I pass her to one of the girls.  She still screams.  This goes on and on.  She thrusts out her tongue as she does when she is thirsty.  We talk to her.  She takes a sip of water.  She looks at me, terrified.  I feel helpless and frightened.  It has never been this bad before.  One of the girls takes her and walks around with her.  Ganga calms down.  She wants to come back to me.  I hold her.  We fall asleep.  It is 3 am.  This night is not over.  Twenty minutes later she is screaming again.  The look of terror on her face is so awful, painful, and yes, frightening to me.  Now I think of this as seizure of some sort.  I give her some Dilantin, Rani’s seizure medicine.  I don’t know if it really helps, but eventually we are asleep again.  In the morning she is smiling.  She goes off to school, as though nothing has happened.  I don’t know what she remembers.  She cannot speak.

I leave to have breakfast with a visitor and then take him to the airport.  On the way, talking about what happened in the night, it clicks.  This is flashback.  The picture comes together…. pieces always there, but not as PTSD.  Ganga wears a special locket given to her by the Imam at the Mazra where we took her once.  There an Imam does healing.  She loved going there, always arching her body towards the entrance as we approached.  He gave her special water, and the locket, and he blew softly on her face.  She is a wise child.  She understood.  But it hadn’t been so bad then, and for a while, a long time, she was fine.

PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, most well known in relation to soldiers in war, soldiers who return from war but have flashbacks in which they believe or experience being back in the battlefield, in it again, terrified, trapped, and unable to re-join the present.  It happens in the day and in the night.  The episodes result from triggers, internal and external that evoke the fears, the memories, the terror, and the terror takes over.  They cannot escape.

Ganga does not take her eyes off me.  She used to cry if I got up in the night to go to the bathroom.  Once I even tried holding her at the same time.  Then I started waking her lightly to tell her I was going.  That worked well.  But that was just crying, and she was immediately soothed if a massi came to her, or when I came back.

The first time I went away, for three days, she ran a high fever.  Then she got used to it.  But always I told her.  One time she became very fussy, more clinging, and I couldn’t figure out why.  I was going to Bangladesh just for a day and coming back the same day.  But she had heard staff talking about my going.  Once I explained I was going and coming back, she calmed, stopped being clingy.  But always she is concerned about where I am.  She is hypervigilant.   When I went to the US for two weeks, I prepared her.  I practiced talking with her on the phone.  I would go in the other room and call on another phone and go G A N G A, GANGA!  She can’t speak, so I can only look for the ways she understands.  She did well.  I called every day.  She kept her eye on the phone and understood when I wasn’t on the phone.

Ganga’s attachment to me was always treated as a “trait” and people took delight in teasing her that I was going away.  It makes me furious, but I could not stop it.  It was done when I wasn’t looking.  On that trip when she ran a fever I left hearing her screaming because someone told her I wasn’t coming back.  I’ve never understood why people enjoy teasing in that way.  Here it was also a way of getting at me, of hurting where I was vulnerable, hurting the child who lived in terror of my disappearing.

It has been three years, four months, and one day since she came.  Normal “separation anxiety” should have gone away a long time ago.  But nothing for her is normal. 

Ganga’s History.  We don’t really know her history.  She is about 7-8 years old, by her teeth.  She has severe Cerebral Palsy.  When she came, at about four years, she was 8kg, and could not use any of her limbs, or lift her head. GANGA-Sukanya-1520CRW She was totally limp.  I remember asking the physiotherapist if he thought she “knew” she had hands.  She had no reflexes, no grip.  But her eyes spoke and spoke.  She loved a Bengali movie about a father who wanted to give an elephant to his daughter.  She loved Charlie Chaplin.  She wanted to be in the classroom with the big girls.  When they went upstairs she cried, and when I picked her up to follow her eyes, she took me up to the classroom.  There she was happy.

Shishur Sevay is Ganga’s fourth home, that we know.  She has pierced ears, tiny holes that have since closed.  But that means she had a family.  She had a home where initially she was accepted, and her ears were pierced.  At some point she was moved to a hospital, but we don’t know when.  About six months before she came to us she was moved to Sukanya Home, the government institution for orphans, abandoned children.  And then she came here.  There could have been more homes in between. Ganga is an abandoned child, an aware one, a thinking one… and aside from abandonment, we don’t know what other traumas she had, and now experiences as flashbacks. Sometimes when I hold her she looks at me and just gets sad and begins to cry softly.  I think she is remembering.  I ask her and she seems to tell me yes.  My question soothes her.

I don’t remember how or when Ganga claimed me as hers.  In the beginning I slept with all four little ones nearby.  The others gradually started to sleep with the big girls.  Ganga stayed.  Often she would not fall asleep until I turned out my office light and came.  She would just lay in the dark waiting.  I told a friend about her once, about her hanging on to me, staking her claim on me, and my friend said, “Smart kid.”  But here it was also seen as a vulnerability.

Why Now?  Why was it so bad this time.  What were the triggers?  Looking back there were several.  There had been some teasing… that Mummy would punish her for something…  She’d had “accidents” which is extremely rare for her.  Regression, yet another symptiom of PTSD. And then there was the visitor coming and Ganga misinterpreted my telling her we were going to the airport.  When I have to leave, she comes to the airport to see me off, with the other kids and Gibi, and then comes to pick me up.  But this time we were going to pick up a visitor.  So when I told her the night before, she couldn’t get to sleep.  I wondered why.  Now I realize she thought I was leaving.  I took three big girls and Ganga and Bornali to pick up Ferdinand Rodricks, ( was coming from Mumbai to design a way for Ganga (and eventually the others) to dance with the big girls.  When we started to go towards the gate to meet him she thrust herself towards me — and I held her.  She clung, and I suddenly realized she thought I was leaving.  I held her; I reassured her;  when later we got back in the car she was smiling and smiling; when we got home she was smiling even more.  Ganga was safe, until the night when the triggers and the fears came back and she was lost to the past, gripped by the demons of her history, cut off from the abundance of love that surrounds her at Shishur Sevay.

Maybe the visit itself was difficult because of all the attention to her, though she clearly loves attention.  Ganga loves to be with the girls when they are dancing.  She adores the dance teacher and lights up when he comes and takes her upstairs to class.  She studies the dance, concentrates, and when I ask if she wants to dance she says she does.  I have a vision of the four little ones dancing with my eight big ones, dancing with partial weight bearing support from above, twirling, twelve girls in groups of three.  So Ferdinand Rodricks came to help us.  He designs devices out of passion to help those with disabilities share experiences they usually miss.  His biggest area is in adapting all kinds of cars so those with disabilities can drive — any kind of cars.  Now he was here to share this vision of dance.  How was that for Ganga?  What did she feel, think?  We don’t know.

NAMING is a game changer.  I came home from seeing Ferdi off and hit the internet for PTSD and flashbacks.  There I found her “symptoms” of flashbacks, sleep disturbances, separation anxiety, startle.  STARTLE is interesting because I knew how easily she was startled and had adapted my behavior over the years so as not to startle her.  I never moved quickly around her.  I adapted without really naming it.  If I sat next to her I would get up slowly… no sudden motion or noise.  But of course everyone was aware that Ganga startled easily.  It just wasn’t named. Rage — a couple of times, after I got back from the US, she had been naughty and I scolded her.  She had started bubbling water out of her mouth.  It was class time.  I scolded her.  She went into terror/rage and stayed that way for hours, checking me.  I think that because of the CP, it is hard for her to modulate, or maybe because of the PTSD.  But for months after she continued to “test” the situation.  She would fixate on my face and start to bubble, and then actually react with the fear, waiting to see what happened.  Since admittedly she has control over me I would say, “Ganga I promised I would not scold you again for that.”  Scolding makes her feel like her world is coming to an end.  That doesn’t mean she can do what she wants.  I tell her and teachers tell her what she can or cannot do, but “scolding” has a different meaning, and tone.  I don’t do that.  Maybe one day i will be able to, or she will be able to tolerate it.  That can be a goal.

I had a long talk with Ganga after I put all this together, and told her what she has.  I named the PTSD.  I also told her I would not leave without telling her.  And then because she must also deal with reality, I told her that if anything happened to me, she would still be OK because of all the people who love her, and I named them each.  She was very serious.  I think she understood.

From the beginning I have wanted Ganga to be able to tell us what she is thinking.  I want to know.  I want her to know we know.  It’s been my frustration with much of the teaching in “special education” because that seems to be about what WE TELL the children, and not about listening to what they are trying to tell us.  When Rani went to school they would hold her hand and tap it on a drum.  At home, I discovered I could imitate what she tapped and she would suddenly look at me, with amazement, and tap back.  We connected.  I was listening and she knew she was being heard.  A key to her internal imprisonment had been unlocked, just a bit.  Rani has a lot to say.  So does Ganga…  And I want to know what they want to tell us.

I have been on the path of assistive technologies and augmentative communication.  There is a vast array of products and devices.  I have chosen already the symbol system I will use, Widgit, formerly Rebus.  I like it.  I can understand it.  The software just arrived from the UK.  I want the little ones taught in English because one day I hope to have teachers, volunteers from US or UK, people to take us further.  As for the devices, I think I will wait until August when I have to be in the US, and can look at different ones at the same time…. It’s hard to make these decisions online.

But back to Ganga and PTSD.  What is the therapy?  There really is no medicine and the flashbacks happen only once in a while.  Talking is the best therapy for this, awareness of triggers, prevention, and finding ways to desensitize.  I have to talk to her about startle, about her fear when I move quickly.  I really want to use the new system of communication, Widgit to write stories about loss, about trauma, about healing, and start to read them to her, and talk to her.  Then I want to find a way for her to make the stories, to point to what SHE wants to happen next, and how SHE feels reading the story.  The system has symbols and words so I hope to teach it to the big girls too, so they can read stories to and with the little ones.  My plate is full.  My cup runneth over.


I’ve been writing this over the course of the day.  I want to add pictures.  I also want to write of how the naming changes what we do.  I was standing next to her, and joked about “tiptoeing around the Princess” an acknowledgement of her startle reflex…The girls all needed shoes and I only wanted to take two at a time.  I took Rani and Sonali and told Ganga I would take her and Bornali another day.   It’s not about avoiding separation, but of building her capacity to manage separation.  The difference here is subtle but no one is making fun of her… rather just reassuring her.  Ganga’s terror has a name and so it is not funny anymore.  The NAME makes it “real” to people, though it was just as real before the name.  That is part of our culture though.  Naming defines what is real and what is “imaginary” or made up, or looking for attention, or any of the ways we tend to dismiss inconvenient feelings and vulnerability.

Ganga is serious about learning.GangaComp_5186

Ganga is a joyous child.


Until her demons of the night, or day, rob us from her and send her screaming into her past.

February 2023
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