By: MaryBeth Apriceno Emerge intern
The most vivid memory I have of my first month in Sri Lanka comes from a day I spent at one of the shelters where Emerge works. When the girls saw our Emerge van pull into the shelter driveway, they rushed outside with wide smiles. They were so excited to see my Emerge colleagues and excited to get to bead. In fact, they were so enthusiastic they practically pulled their Emerge teacher out of the van and inside where the lessons of the day would begin!
And then they saw me, and their eyes grew wide. Small hands grazed my arms. Little fingers twirled my curly hair. Tiny lips let out whispers I could not understand. My colleagues explained that I was probably one of the first Westerners the girls had ever seen and that they were probably shocked to see such pale skin. During my day at the shelter, the girls continued to stare and point at me. When they saw me looking back, they would giggle and whisper.
For the most part, though, the girls kept their distance after our initial meeting; they were focused on their lesson and beading for the day. There was only one girl who ventured away from her bead kit to come stand by me at the front of the room. I had my back turned when she first came close. She took my right hand, held it in her own, and then rubbed each one of my fingernails with her index finger. When I looked down at her, she smiled from ear to ear.
For the rest of the day, she stuck by my side. When we went to lunch, she shared her apple with me. During Life Skills training, she enthusiastically patted the floor so I would sit beside her. She continuously traced my pointy jawline with her little thumb. It wasn’t until the Emerge team began packing up to leave that my new friend first spoke to me. She took my hand again and tugged hard to get my attention; this time, I found two piercing eyes staring up at me when I turned to her.
“Name,” she said, her voice soft like a small child’s.
“Mah-ree-bet-tah,” she paused and thought for a long minute, “Mah-ree bet-tah lassanai.”
On our way back to the office, I asked my colleagues what “lassanai” means in Sinhalese; they explained that it means “beautiful.” I blushed in response, and thought of how I wished I could have told the girl that I thought she was beautiful, too.
The girls Emerge works with are some of Sri Lanka’s strongest and most resilient. They stand up for themselves, fight to see their abusers held accountable, and in the process protect their children and little sisters from the same abuse they sustained. These girls are courageous. They are tenacious. They are role models of strength and determination. They are my heroes. Emerge girls have survived their abuse and are ready to claim their future. And that, I think, is the true meaning of “lassanai.”