The girls stand clustered together, all different heights, in matching, red-checkered dresses, their hands clutched behind their backs. Their eyes shift back and forth to one another as they giggle. It’s a true fairytale for them– the opening ceremony of a girls home in Galle, Southern Sri Lanka. A woman from my office leans over to explain to me that the pot a short man is placing over an indoor fire contains milk. When the milk boils over, the home will be blessed and opened. The girls fan the fire, whispering to one another and glancing around at all the spectators. The home is truly spectacular, the best one I have ever seen as a children’s home. Suddenly, a pair of eyes stands out at me. A girl is watching me with a look of distant déjà vu. Her round face opens into a large smile. Harsha! I feel warmth filling up my stomach, bubbling up into my throat. I am so excited. She comes over and grabs my hand. “Alia, miss.” I pinch her cheeks and we exchange a hug. She tells me proudly that she is now in grade 11. Then, she has to return to her group. (Afterall, the ceremony is not yet over and she must do her part in the fanning!) I walk back to Medani, a woman from my office. “Harsha?” I say as I point in Harsha’s direction. I ask Medani what she is doing here. She replies quietly, “shhh… It’s a secret. She is back at school.” I understood at once.
Harsha was one of my girls from Ma-Sevana who participated in my beading workshops in my last two trips. She and several other girls left Ma-Sevana in the last year. I had no idea where Harsha had gone. But, there she was in front of me, standing clustered with a group of girls age 5 to 18 at the opening of a new, spectacularly beautiful home. I had found Harsha. I could not tell if I was overjoyed for her opportunity or deeply saddened. Perhaps it was some combination of both. Her baby was gone. She was starting over. No one here knew her story–not even the matrons. I knew something that I could not acknowledge publicly. So, I did my best to push aside my emotions to try to protect her and her new identity.
But, as I tried to maintain a straight face, my mind raced back and forth. What kind of identity are these girls forced to pursue? They catapult through different lives during their teenage years- a school girl at home, then a mother at ma-sevana, and later an orphan with no past. How can one girl be so brave and so strong? I am so impressed, so happy for her, and yet cannot imagine what she has gone through. I watched Harsha during the whole ceremony. And, she watch me. There were so many magical glances today, so many wonderful smiles. At the end she comes over and grabs my hand again. “Don’t forget,” and she points to herself. Everything about her life has been about trying to forget and yet here is a memory she wants desperately to hold on to. I bend over and look her in the eyes. Tears start trickling down her face and I can feel my eyes start to water up as the camera man comes over for what he sees as a Kodak moment during the ceremony. I brush her jaw bone gently, and then wipe the tears from her cheeks, “No… never…ever… forget.” We both begin to cry and she buries her head into my shirt, embarrassed to let the other girls see. Soon Harsha has to go. But I find myself holding on to her hand without any words to say. Somehow, they have all slipped my mind and I try to justify my inability to speak with the fact that she wouldn’t understand. Oh, but she would. She really would. Before she goes I find myself enough to say three things: “you are strong,” and I demonstrate strength by flexing my arms and she laughs, “you are smart” and I point to my head, and “you are beautiful,” and I circle my face with my hand… “Lassanai” (“beautiful” in Sinhala). She smiles and the tears flow in streams now. She turns and runs through the door, the sun shining behind her in such a way that prevents me from seeing her face. All I can see is that she glances over her shoulder once before she disappears around the corner. That is probably the last time I will see Harsha. Oh my dear girl, I will miss you. But don’t worry, I will never lose you again. You will always be right here, in my heart.