Jan. 5: Reporting from Calcutta , where I am leading a 10 day volunteer trip at our partner shelters: Yesterday was a day of seemingly magical transformations. I spent the day at the Sanlaap shelter home – Sanlaap is one of India’s biggest and most respected anti-slavery agencies, serving hundreds of red light area kids as well as the 100 rescued survivors at the shelter home. Some of the survivors are very recently rescued and speak an obscure tribal language that no one else here speaks, so they havebeen mostly keeping to themselves.
We have partnered with Sanlaap for 3 years now on income generation programs and are lucky to count their management team as our friends. This year, we’ve been asked to paint and furnish a preschool for babies and small children of survivors. We are using this project to reach out to a group of very young girls recently rescued in a brothel raid. They speak an obscure tribal language, which no one here understands. The situation has been weighing heavily on my heart, and Becky’s so we are hoping to find a way to reach them this week.
The room we have been assigned is fairly large, and has been out of use for years, so we started with a major clean up effort, cleared out all the junk and tore down moldy plasterboard (really hoping it was not asbestos!) When we were ready to being painting, I ventured out onto the grounds to invite the girls to join us, bringing Smarita, the co-Director of our Destiny Center, and her cook Rangita, a sweet woman who actually speaks the tribal language.
Here is a moment I never want to forget: We approached a group of 10 or girls, who were sitting, as usual, in a tight circle, far from all the other survivors. They looked somber, quiet, and painfully young (9-14) to already be survivors of brothel slavery. When Rangita walked up, the girls recoiled ever so slightly, closing ranks, looking anxious. But when she opened her mouth and spoke to them in their own language, their faces broke into the most amazing smiles – a mixture of surprise, joy, and something like relief. I was momentarily overwhelmed with emotion. I wish you could have seen it, I wish I could describe it better – it was the most amazing and profound moment of human connection. It felt like home.
Rangita stayed with the girls for half and hour and then they began venturing, by twos and threes, up to our workspace. They were very reserved with us, their faces blank and unreadable, but some girls took the paintbrushes and set to work with determination.
Susan and Paul set up a craft area and 12 girls sat in a circle to watch us demonstrate how to make puppets out of paper bags, felt, pipe cleaners and glue. The next half hour was pretty tough going – no lie. We tried to engage the girls in the project but most held back, just looking down at the supplies in silence, not meeting our eyes, or using the materials at all. I wondered if paper bag puppets were too juvenile a project for this group of young teens who have already experienced so much adult suffering, forced to dress as adults and to be used by adults. In fact the issue turned out to be that some of the girls, who were trafficked from remote rural villages, did not know how to use glue or scissors.
Over the course of the next 3 hours, with 10 girls painting with ever-increasing speed and enthusiasm, and 12 delving further and further into the puppet project, their creativity flourishing with ever more elaborate designs, I was able to witness both a material and emotional transformation! The room went from a dark and dingy gray to a beautiful rich blue. It is already looking really nice. The girls emerged from their silence and sadness and began to talk and laugh, to us, to each other, to the other survivors. Even the most reserved and traumatized were ultimately able to participate in some way. As an extension to the ongoing counseling and care provided here at Sanlaap, this day became part of their healing process.
Rangita spent some time talking and walking with several girls, and they shared some stories and feelings with her. They told her they don’t know the exact name or location of their villages. They told her about how their parents were threatened prior to them being trafficked, how they used to have to run and hide. All of their families were distressed in some way – a dead or alcoholic parent, an aged father, illness, large numbers of children, failed crops and other hardships which rendered them especially vulnerable.
They also talked about their life in the brothels: “Sister, you cannot imagine how they tortured us,” said one child.
Thank God for Sanlaap and for the organization that rescued these girls. Today’s experience proved that despite the agony and abuse of the last few years, these girls are still capable of a joyful, productive and connected life. I hope TEN can play an ongoing role in their lives, and that we can watch them grow in to the strong, compassionate, and empowered women they are meant to be.