By Ciara Post, Emerge Intern
Today was my second day visiting a shelter. This shelter had an outdoor courtyard, clean rooms, and seemingly comfortable sleeping areas (from what I could glimpse as I walked past doors that had been left open). We walked into one of the rooms, empty besides a few chairs and two tables. There were about seven girls already sitting on the ground, workbooks in their laps. The rest of the girls quickly funneled in (about 50 in total). Iroshini (Emerge’s life skills teacher) introduced the co-founder (Ellen) and myself, translating from English to Sinhala. The girls pointed at us and looked at each other and giggled. Everywhere I looked, I made eye-contact with a girl who was staring at me. They kept murmuring something. “They’re saying you’re beautiful,” Nirukshi said. I smiled. “Thank you.”
Class started and the girls were hungry to learn. Today’s topic: STD’s. They played games, made posters, and presented to each other, learning about something so crucial to their past and future health. I observed and listened; sometimes Nirukshi would translate for Ellen and I, but mostly I watched how the girls reacted to the information, interacted with Iro, and communicated with each other.
Close to three hours later, class came to an end. Nirukshi asked me to say something to the girls before we left. “I feel so lucky to have been here,” I said. After each sentence, Nirukshi translated. “Thank you for having me. I loved seeing you all learn and I loved seeing your smiling and giggling.” I don’t remember the rest…but I remember not feeling like I had the words to say what I wanted to.
Girls began coming up to me: they asked me to sign my name in their notebooks. Then they wanted me to draw them pictures (I drew birds, bunnies, cats, fish, houses, hearts, stars). The girls who could speak English wanted me to write them notes. A few wanted my name on Facebook, my Skype, and/or email (even though they had no access to these modes of communication themselves). I found myself enclosed in a circle of about twenty girls. All I could see were notebooks, pens, arms, hands, and bright-eyed faces looking at me expectantly. Soon they were picking up pieces of my hair and playing with it. Some pet my head. I found out later that a few had smelled it. “You’re so beautiful,” they said. In several notebooks, I wrote, “You’re more beautiful.” One girl told me she was eighteen too. The attention died down slightly when all 50 notebooks had been signed/written in/drawn in. Next, the girls asked Ellen and I to sing. We were both reluctant. I for one am completely tone-deaf and the idea of singing in front of over fifty people makes me want to curl up in a ball and hide.
Without any prompting, all fifty girls gathered in a crescent around the program staff, Ellen, and I and began to sing themselves. One girl used a bead box as a drum. All fifty of their voices came together, ringing out across the room, up into the arched ceiling, reverberating in the air and in my chest. Rays of sunlight arced between the bars on the windows and onto their faces. Every time I caught a girl’s eye, she grinned at me between words. My chest tightened. They seemed to be expressing their shared experience with their voices.
One of the program staff came up to me just as it ended. “Do you know what the song was about?” “No, I don’t…” “It was about how much they appreciate us coming here and how lucky they feel to have us.” I didn’t have any words. I just touched my hand to my heart and looked at her and smiled, my eyes glassy. She nodded.
One of the girls with especially good English, probably fifteen or sixteen, with curly black hair pulled back, came up to me. “I feel so lucky that you have come here. Thank you so much.” “No, thank you for having me. I am so happy to come.” I still didn’t have the words.
I looked to my right: a girl who had been so talkative and playful, one of the first to talk to me, was leaning against the wall, head in her hands, crying. I took a few steps until I was in front of her. I touched her arm and she looked up at me, tears in her eyes. I put my arms out and that’s when I lost it. She and I stood there, hugging, both crying, not in need of words.
A few moments later, she pulled away, stepped back, and bent down. She kissed the air above my feet. “No, no, no” I said. I fought back more tears. Three more girls did this exact thing. “No, no, no” I said. They just looked up at me and said thank you. Nirukshi came over: “We are almost all they have. When we leave, it’s hard for them.”
The girl who had just expressed her gratitude to me asked if I was okay. “I’m fine,” I said. I couldn’t believe I was still crying. As we reached goodbyes, she turned to me and said, “Will you remember me?” “Yes. I will.” “Will you help me? Please come back. I need you to remember me, I need you to help me.” “I’m coming back,” I said, “I’m going to help you.”