I recently returned from a three week trip to Sri Lanka where Ellen, April, Nirukshi and I worked days and nights to plow through all types of Emerge-related work: curriculum development, feedback sessions with the girls, collaboration agreements, legal meetings to start a local non-profit “Emerge Sri Lanka”… the list goes on. Life followed the typical sinusoidal pattern that always comes with living in Sri Lanka and working with the persevering girls that we do. But, while I’m exploding with organizational updates to give you all, I want to share a moment that stands out to me when I reflect back on my trip:
I sat on the beach in Unawatuna, my bare legs covered in sand and the bottom of my dress dripping with salt water. I stared up into the night sky, picking out constellations while remembering the enchanting Greek myths that my kindergarten teacher used to tell us and their connections to the stars. As tears trickled down my cheeks, I wished in that moment I had the powers of a goddess from one of those stories. Maybe then I could find the girl who had run away, maybe I could see her, just for a moment, long enough to give her a hug and deliver the necklace I brought her from the States- a red heart for Valentine’s Day, the day that we became family, two years ago.
This girl is a warrior. She is stubborn and strong. She is shy but carries a deep emotional intelligence; behind the wall of fear that she puts up to protect herself, I always see a vast pool rich with experiences that somehow make her older, wiser… different. She began her time at Ma-Sevana so broken that she could not speak. But with time, she became strong leader in our program. For those of you who know me, you probably know who I am talking about. I often talk about her. I can’t go a day without looking at her picture, her cards, or her jewelry. When I feel like I will break, she keeps me strong. She is my motivation, my inspiration, my strength. And yet, she’s just a girl, like me — one human being. That’s all it takes to form a connection. Another human being.
At 18, without family or formal education, she and other girls often have no place to go. This past May, unable to stay in the shelter in which we work, a prison vehicle came to collect her. She was separated from her child and taken to a home run by the Probation Department. I went crazy. She had no choice, no knowledge of where she was going. She was then pushed through home after home, factory after factory, under the supervision of the Probation Department. Despite being an adult, she was not autonomous. We couldn’t physically be there to help her but we stayed connected as best we could. I made a promise to myself to not let more girls slip through the cracks. We must, we must, develop a way to support girls in their transition into the world.
On my recent trip to Sri Lanka, I had hoped to see this girl. Ellen and I planned a one-day road trip – 14 hours there and back – so we could see her, hug her, remind her that she is part of the Emerge family. I had been counting down the days… and then I received the call. She was gone. She ran away from the factory on Valentine’s Day, exactly two years after I had promised that we would always stay family.
So there I was, sitting on the beach, silent. My toes dug into the sand. More than being sad about not seeing her, I was worried – worried about her safety when she hadn’t lived independently in years and also scared of the possibility of her being found by the police. What would they do to her? She had been under the Probation Department’s supervision. No doubt if she was found, her escape would be a reason to keep her locked away even longer. In her quest for freedom – freedom of thought, freedom to control her body, freedom to follow her inspirations – she had run away. Yet, this very action may end up causing her even more limitations, even more pain. There didn’t seem to be a positive outcome either way.
I felt overwhelmed by all I wanted to do, all the people I wanted to support. Ellen sat next to me. We both stared out in silence, a mutual understanding that we were there for each other amidst the emotional roller coaster that is our every day with Emerge Global.
My mind meandered over the ups and downs of the previous week. One girl gave birth to her child. Another grinned through the chain link fence, announcing that it was a boy. On another day, a girl climbed onto Ma-Sevana’s roof and sat there for so long that the police had to come and take her down. The outcome? She was deemed a negligent mother and would be sent away. What prompted her to go up on the roof to begin with? No one had asked. It didn’t matter. Negligence wasn’t the term I would have used to describe her interaction with her twins. At 13 years old, she was doing her best to not only care for herself but to also care for two other human beings. At 22, there is no way I am ready to care for a child, let alone two. I struck the word “negligent” from my mind and replaced it with “phenomenal.” That seemed a bit more fitting.My eyes glanced back to the ocean. The waves rocked up and down. To me, they were like life with the girls of Emerge: up and down, up and down, yet also graceful and strong. So strong. After a few hours of quiet reflection, Ellen and I turned to one another, got up, and slowly walked home. It was time to start another day. And, with a silent nod of understanding, we were ready.