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What a Gift to Be Seen: Visiting SALAA* from Our First Batch at Emerge

“Good morning” – a whatsapp sticker with hearts appears across my phone.

“Good morning, nangi!” I reply.


A year and a half ago, SALAA* and I reconnected through a video call. We had met during my first Emerge workshop in 2005.

Now, she and her pre-teen daughter send me daily love notes in the form of stickers and “good morning” messages on Whatsapp. I never thought a digital teacup sticker reading “good morning” could fill my heart but it’s a beautiful reminder of our long-term connection — one that has transcended both time and language.


So, on a sunny Tuesday, my teammate Ranmalie and I went to visit SALAA* and her new baby. Seeing her on that mountain path a few hours outside of Colombo was surreal. We embraced. How long had it been since I had seen her in person? 15 years? How could so much time go by with someone who is so important to me? And now her daughter is 12 (almost the same age as when I met SALAA*!) and SALAA* has a newborn son. I could not wait to meet them both. S* wanted to introduce us to her family, show us her home, and feed us lunch. The climb to her home was not easy. Each time I thought we were arriving, we had another incline to go. We ended up halfway up a mountain in the humidity and heat. “How did she do this while pregnant!?!” I asked myself. Surrounded by lush forest with fruits of every variety and a small plot with tea, SALAA* and her family live off the land. Life, while not easy, is full of natural abundance.


Her daughter had stayed home from school, eagerly awaiting to meet us. While sitting in her new crisp dress, swinging her legs, she told us how much she loved math and showed us her schoolwork. She also revealed that at least half the sticker messages I receive daily actually come from her. So, as it turns out, I’m becoming an expert in sticker banter with a 12-year-old.


SALAA* lifted her sleeping one-month-old son from his bassinette and brought him to me to hold. He was perfection itself. Tiny fingers and toes. Soft skin. Sleeping so softly. Emotion swelled within me. He is loved and safe. He will have stability she never did. Everything I could want.


Why do I feel so emotional when I hold babies? This is love.


SALAA*’s home was clean, and the smell of fresh curry permeated the air. She offered us tea and brought us her wedding album. We flipped through her wedding album, studying her bright smile across pages where the ink was fading and running from years of heat and humidity. I was sad I missed this big day but also grateful to see the pictures. And, after a moment, she asked her daughter to go get her blue book from her bedroom. I wondered what could possibly be in this blue book now that we had seen her wedding album. But, when her daughter returned with the tall book, I knew immediately. It was the portfolio we made together 17 years ago in 2007. I couldn’t believe she still has it.


17 years ago, in a dimly lit room where we laughed and got to know each other over glittering glass beads, we had made this book. When I was a Junior in college, I took a semester off and moved to Sri Lanka, where I worked with the girls daily and began to build Emerge’s infrastructure at night. It was during those precious months, that I began to realize this was not a career path but rather a calling. One of the things we did to celebrate the girls’ progress before I left was put together a portfolio of their favorite pieces of jewelry before they were sold. I wanted them to remember the beauty they had created and to have something of their own to hold on to. And there, 17 years later, pressed together between thin plastic sheets, were pictures of jewelry she had created, designs we had worked on, and certificates she had achieved. Somehow, all that work, love, devotion had stood the test of time. My teammate Ranmalie flipped through the pages in awe — seeing what Emerge meant to SALAA*. What it meant to have something of her own. To be seen and recognized for something she created, something that honored her sense of beauty. Something that recognized her strength and all that was possible. (I was also glad to see that, somehow, without knowing it, I had picked a photo printer where the ink on the photos wouldn’t bleed after 17 years. It was in perfect condition. Just like our connection… Still the same, 17 years later.) She then took us outside to visit the rock where they had built a shrine. Her husband harvested polos and pineapple for us to take back and share with the Emerge team. And we ate the best home-cooked Sri Lankan food I’ve had in a long time. She always did love cooking.

As we’re leaving, she picked up a pink anthurium flower for me to take home with me. It sits in my living room, a perfect symbol of her, her growth, and her beautiful children. How did I get this lucky?


It is a deeply beautiful gift to be back here in Sri Lanka – with our team, our community, and the wonderful young women who inspired it all. Emerge is about transformation, healing, and stepping into our power. It’s also about connection, love, and the beauty that comes with simply seeing one another. What an extraordinary gift – to truly see and to be seen.


I couldn’t ask for more. Thank you for being on this journey with us.


-Alia


*As usual, Emerge does not reveal the names of our participants or alumni to protect their

confidentiality - SALAA is a code name provided for the beautiful alumni in this impact story.

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