It was not a normal day at work. I had stayed up late on the computer, and woke up at the last minute to Nirukshi calling to remind me to meet the rest of the Emerge team in Maharagama. I threw my papers into a torn laptop bag and ran out the door to catch a three-wheeler on the road. My phone continued to ring, as the Emerge team excitedly sent me reminders. We all wanted the day to be perfect as it was our first day bringing Emerge programs to the Ranmuthugala Certified School for Girls, the newest shelter in which we work.
Launching our programs at Ranmuthugula was intimidating, to say the least. It was the first expansion I had overseen and a home that had been the subject of a scandal just a few months before. According to the press, six girls escaped the shelter and reported to the police that they were forced to work, banned from attending classes, denied showers, and beaten. The Department of Probation and Childcare quickly stepped in to alleviate rising concerns, fired the accused administrative staff, and the Commissioner’s assistant took it upon herself to repair the damage. This was not the easiest place to start. But it was the one that needed us the most and, as such, the government was eager to have our involvement in supporting the young women who lived in this home. We had heard the stories, now it was time to face the girls behind the newspaper articles.
The Ranmuthugala Certified School for Girls is one of three home through which the Emerge participants rotate in the Western Province of Sri Lanka. The home is located about one and half hours outside of Colombo. We drove down winding roads, amidst green patty-fields filled with farmers and cows. I sat in the front seat, ruffling through papers, half-listening to the Emerge staff chatting behind me as my mind wandered. Months of preparation had led up to this day. My mind could not stop mulling over the day’s details…Did we forget something? Who talks first? How will the girls respond?…and over.
We arrived at the large grounds where the shelter sits, amongst multiple government-run buildings, lots of open space and palm trees. The gate slowly opened, the man on guard checked our drivers’ details. My eyes were drawn to the groups of girls awaiting us outside, scattered across the yard. One girl stood braiding another’s hair. Several groups of girls stood in circles, chatting with one another. Then, one girl in particular caught my eye- she was pacing in circles alone. As we drove in, she stopped pacing and ran up to us as we parked. As our team stepped out, she immediately grabbed Nirukshi by the hand and wouldn’t let her go. She was a former Emerge participant, one whom we had been unable to locate since she had been shifted out of a previous shelter which we work in. We were reconnected with her. Despite the uncertainty of how the day would unfold, I knew we were off to a gret start. The other girls stopped what they were doing to stare. I quickly realized that they were not used to being able to count on people, not used to having strong support systems. I hoped we would be able to build strong relationships with each of them, just as we had with the Emerge alumnae who greeted us.
I led the Emerge team towards the administrative building. My mind was still buzzing…Where do we sit? Will the principal be there? The Assistant Commissioner began by introducing us. Then it was my turn. I explained Emerge, why we were there, how our programs work and how they would benefit the girls, what we would need from the administration, how they could reach me and more. Details…details..details. We would be working with girls who were living in the home during court cases, girls who were unfortunately unable to attend school for their protection.
After our formal introductions, the head mistress led us to a building high up on a hill where we would be teaching. She called out the girls’ names, one by one. They filed into the building and began to argue over where they would sit. After a lot of noise and excitement, the group of girls began to settle. I stood up to introduce Emerge and found all eyes on me- the room went silent.
I felt a rush of emotion. The logistics had finally stopped. We were there, in the moment. It was the time we had been waiting for and I was welcoming a new group of girls to the Emerge family. These young women had been through horrific experiences. They had been denied normalcy, family, and a chance to get their education. But, as I stood there, I realized that it was a different day for them. Today, THEY had been chosen. We were going to invest in them, support them, believe in them. They were not denied an opportunity but rather welcomed with open arms. Emerge is about new beginnings. Despite all they had been denied, today, they were the special ones. I scanned their faces, realizing we were about to start a process of empowerment and healing. I didn’t know them. I didn’t know their stories. But I knew then that I work tirelessly to fight for them. Today, they not only became a part of Emerge, they became a part of me.