I’m glad I got to swing by Sri Lanka during my break in between jobs. On Wednesday (July 13), I visited the Salvation Army shelter. As soon as I’d arrived, I was greeted by a cluster of smiling faces, eager to meet a new visitor. (It was interesting to learn that in Sri Lanka, you hug someone twice—on the left side first and then again on the right.) Girls reached out their arms for hugs and excitedly asked me for my name while offering theirs. I was rather surprised at how friendly and open these girls were towards a complete stranger like me. I had been expecting scars from their traumatic pasts to somehow surface in the form of introversion or sullenness, of which I found no trace in their bright faces. Several of girls clung onto Bryanne—it was evident how much they loved her! An adorable baby girl with wide, doe-like eyes kept tugging at the bottom of my skirt, demanding my attention. I glanced down, and she extended her arms in a supplication for me to pick her up. I obliged and played with her for a long time, trying not to think about the fact that her mother herself was one of these children.
I got to meet the Sri Lankan team—Nirukshi, Charuni, Iroshini, Bryanne, and the incoming Country Director, Amanda. It was great to also meet a former participant who now serves as a Peer Educator in the program, helping to teach current participants. I am deeply impressed by the genuine passion our team has for Emerge’s mission. We’re very lucky to have a staff that not only excels at their jobs but also truly cares about the girls and our mission.
After lunch, the girls began the Beads-to-Business class. Basically, there’s a bank and a shop simulation. In order to get beads from the shop, the girls have to fill out a voucher that specifies how many of each type of beads they need for their necklace or bracelet. They take this voucher to the shop and receive the exact amount of beads they need for their jewelry.
After completing their jewelry, they take the finished product to Nirukshi, who checks the product for quality and issues and Emerge check, which the girls deposit into the Emerge bank account. They can then track the accumulation of their wealth by the amount of checks they save. The process is systematic and educational—it simulates obtaining resources to generate a product and receiving compensation for selling a product.
Some of the girls beaded jewelry while others filled out vouchers. As I wandered around the various tables, girls would eagerly make room for me to sit next to them in their excitement to have an observer. They strung together dazzling necklaces with visible interest, intense concentration, and remarkable skill. Once completed, they proudly showed off their finished products by making me wear them.
There was one girl who really clung onto me. She kept her arms wrapped around my waist and insisted on giving me a tour of the rest of the shelter. I roamed through the courtyard where they laid out their clothes to dry, their bedrooms with little bunk beds, the kitchen where they cooked their own food, and the room where they played. I saw a baby there as young as 15 weeks old! They went crazy when I pulled out my camera! Every girl wanted me to take a picture of her in various poses, with various people, and in various sceneries. I realized that most of them probably do not own a photo of themselves.
After Beads-to-Business, the girls rearranged themselves into two long rows in preparation for a farewell “ceremony” for Bryanne, the departing Country Director. My little tour guide led me to two empty seats and firmly indicated for me to sit next to her. One of the girls got up and gave a beautiful speech (which Charuni translated) about how much Bryanne has taught them, how much they loved her, and how sad they were to see her go. Then, Bryanne gave a speech in return. I surveyed the room. Several girls were crying effusively. My little companion had lost her energy and was staring listlessly at the ground, occasionally brushing off a tear. Bryanne had brought a cake and Toronto Maple Leafs temporary tattoos to represent her Canadian background. Each girl received a slice of cake and was given the option of getting a tattoo on her arm.
A girl sitting on my other side said to me, “I like you. Are you coming back next Thursday?” (Charuni was close by and conveniently served as translator.)
I replied, “Unfortunately, I’m leaving to go back to the States on Sunday.”
Then she asked me a very sad question, “Why does everyone keep leaving us?”
My heart broke. The reality is that there is very little permanence in these girls’ lives. At any moment, they may be transferred to a different shelter, they may be forced to give up their children, their family may not welcome them back, and the women they are closest to may leave.
What really struck me was that despite their situations, these girls still welcomed me into their homes with unreserved warmth and enthusiasm. There was no dearth of smiles, laughter, hugs, or a desperate need for attention and love. Despite the horrors they’ve endured, they remain children who still possess the child-like characteristics that come with innocence.
I truly hope that these girls will persevere through the unimaginable challenges in their lives and reach for a better future, and I know Emerge will do its best to help them along that path.