Friday, March 12, 2010

The Stairway

Time is passing far too quickly. Is it really March? This realization makes me shudder, as I compare it to how frustrated I get watching the upper echelon here allow everyday life to pass them by-not noticing the impoverished soul barely existing on their front stoop as they step over him, for example. As I am only here for a mere six months, I don’t have the “luxury” of just stepping over anything. How often do I ascend and descend the same set of stairs, or pass by the same lonely neighbor without really acknowledging the experience? Hence, the recent exercise described below…

This afternoon, I attempt to truly absorb my surroundings as I walk down the four flights of stairs leading from my apartment, willing my senses to fully engage. As expected, my sense of smell is the strongest. Within seconds of stepping out my front door, I am acutely aware of the smell of rotting trash (oh, South Asia).

Halfway down the first flight, I'm warmly met by the delicious smell of cooked fish (Mental note: invite myself over for dinner at that flat, pronto!) Around the corner, my deep inhale quickly turns into a gag-reflex as I am assaulted by the not-yet-cooked fish smell coming from another neighbor’s kitchen. Relief comes at ground level where the pungent fish smell is replaced with the intense
dust/smog/black air that I breathe in daily. That is the smell to which I am most accustomed. I don't even know how to describe it. It is just how we smell. Everyday. Even for weeks after returning to the States.

Coming home a few hours later, I make my way back to those stairs. This time, I choose to take in the sights and sounds, often just as varied as the smells. My neighbor, a kindly older gentleman, gives me his usual, heartfelt wave from his perch on a bench just inside our gate, where he sits conversing with a couple of aunties from our building (who wave, as well, though much less exuberantly).

A simple curtain blocks the entrance of the apartment at the base of the stairs. The room behind it is bustling with activity, as usual. Off to the right, I peek towards the door of the family with the yellow lab puppy, hoping to catch a glimpse of wiggly Bruno. No luck. Intent on trying to see my puppy friend, I almost miss the friendly wave of the sweet auntie, who watches the world from that curtained stoop. I hope she doesn't feel like an afterthought.

Back along the stairway, my ears meet with the clatter of dishes being washed as the sound bursts from several doorways. A range of musical genres, from South Asian women singing traditional, doleful melodies to the latest Western hip hop tune compete through other doors. Conversations in Hindi from a few different flats overlap, which makes me chuckle.

I unlock my door, still smiling – oh, so much character in this, my new home. I walk through the door and my smile drops, instantly. That smell of rotting trash I’d noticed earlier? Yeah…it’s my apartment. Whoops.

Friday, February 26, 2010

At "Home"

A group of donors recently came through the city, and spent a week serving the aftercare homes (rehabilitation homes) where most of our clients live. More on that later, but for now, I just wanted to share a few photos from this sweet (and unexpected, for me) time with the girls, who are all survivors of forced prostitution. The photo above was taken by one of them.

For one project, the girls were able to add their own touch to a mural the visitors had created in an effort to liven up the Home's surroundings. The girls' owned it!

If she wanted to, each of the girls was able to paint at least one flower, which ended up as diverse as the artists themselves.

Annnndddd I’m back! (The “short” version)

This past October, I was devastated to pack up my bags and say goodbye to my friends/coworkers in South Asia. Yes, living in a different culture, so far from my loved ones back home, was difficult. But the people I had come to know and love here, and the work we did together to see forced labor eradicated, were not easy to part from, either. Boarding my plane home, knowing there was an open invitation to stay, was painful.

They had asked me to stay on a number of times, and I had repeatedly said no, my mind full of excuses. Being away from family and friends (and Ben) is tough. Fundraising is tough. Incessant biting by mosquitoes is tough. But mostly, when I had originally decided to return home six months into my fellowship, I had been feeling as though my time in South Asia was coming to a close. I saw myself as having no “special talents” that the office would benefit from if I had extended my stay.

The longer I worked in that office, however, the more I was able to learn about the myriad needs of the population we were serving and the more I was able to see how I, no special talents and all, was being and COULD BE utilized in this effort. And as my cyber-silence this past Fall may have suggested (my sincere apologies), the needs and the necessary obligations in this cause only continue to increase.

Three days into my departure from South Asia, after a sleepless night, I shared my internal struggles with Ben. He had responded with words I had desperately needed to hear: “You’re not really done there, are you? You need to go back.” It wasn’t a question. It was support. My parents were equally accommodating, biting back their emotions to allow me to make an unbiased decision.

Despite my fears of fundraising again and my sadness over leaving everyone at home so soon after returning, I agreed to work for six more months in South Asia.

I had received a call from our sister office on the opposite side of the country just days before my feet were to leave South Asian soil. This office works towards the same mission of seeking justice for the oppressed through rescue and rehabilitation, as well as accountability for perpetrators; but instead of a focus on forced (manual) labor, the focus is on women and children forced into sexual servitude (read: forced prostitution). The Field Office Director and Director of Aftercare from this office were inviting me to oversee a specific project, as well as provide some staff training.

It is this invitation that I eventually accepted and have been fundraising to be a part of…Thanks to an outpouring of generosity from my dear friends and family (who must not ever want to read a letter from me again!), here I am!

Time is passing quickly here already. The city is new and different, but the transition has been smooth and the work is always interesting. My main task, in short, is research and evaluation. Research pertains to understanding the best practices in the psychosocial treatment for victims of sex trafficking. Evaluation pertains to auditing the state of our partner rehabilitation homes and documenting our findings, in the hopes of raising the standard of care in all of the local homes. Starting next week, I will be leading some staff trainings, as well.

Six months will fly by, and no, I do not know what’s next yet. But, hopefully I will have a chance to see all of the folks I missed during the holidays when I get back to the States late this summer.

[With some of my Aftercare ladies-love them-at the beach after a day of training last week].

[My supervisor showing no mercy in an impromptu be fair, he was the only one with shoes on!].

Friday, January 29, 2010

Where there is light...

As we entered the alley back in September (2009), we were met by a deafening noise. It was a holiday, and, as per usual on such occasions, music was blaring from unseen speakers. No longer able to communicate with my friend/guide, I became lost in thought. The street before us was typical of countless others we’d passed here in the red light district.

Trash had collected along the stonewalls of the buildings in these narrow lanes offering delightful fodder for the large number of goats, dogs, cats, and rats that called the district home. Their neighbors, countless men, women, and children, socialized with each other from unsteady cots placed parallel to each home’s curtain-on-a-rod/front door.

Unlike other areas of this massive city, no one would meet my gaze. In this dark place, it was as though the sun had set in my mind and twilight had taken over. I could not stop the next thought: the cries of a young girl being sexually assaulted in any of these brothels would go unheard. This supposed day of celebration has only increased the vulnerability of the country’s estimated 1.2 million minors held in sexual servitude.

We drank in the toxic atmosphere for less than ten minutes before walking freely away, to explore the rest of this city. If only everyone could be so lucky.

As I entered my newest office, * where I have joined the fight to combat this seemingly impenetrable world of commercial sexual exploitation (i.e. forced prostitution) on a daily basis, I finally glimpse the light in all this horror…in my compassionate and brilliant co-workers.

In their strength and determination, I see a day when little girls will no longer scream, unheard, under the weight of a stranger. It will be a glorious day.

*Look for further explanation on WHY I am back in South Asia (but different city) in the upcoming post “Annnnd….I’m back!”
["Red Light Street": photo above courtesy of the org]

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


A dear friend recently had an article published in The Atlantic regarding the recent disaster in Haiti, and those left vulnerable to being trafficked into the sex trade…please read on:

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Sri NO Ka (Part 2): My soapbox moment...

Sri Lanka has just recently reported an end to its 25-year civil war between the ethnic majority and minority groups in the North. While peace should be celebrated, it will be hard to maintain if the over 280,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) are left in their impoverished and unsettled state. According to our friends on the island, this population has had little support since the ceasefire in May.

What concerns me when the IDPs are not seen as a priority is that people will grow restless; and violence will come more easily to the neglected and frustrated...those in charge would be wise to refocus their energy on ensuring their citizens are cared for and reintegrated into more stable communities, if they truly want to bring peace to their nation.

Growing up in a community where violence was something we watched on T.V., it is impossible for me to imagine the struggles ahead for this tiny nation where generations have grown up knowing only ethnic violence. My thoughts and prayers remain with them (for more on the conflict and the plight of the IDPs, please check out the report at:$file/SriLanka_Overview_May09.pdf).

That being are more images from our visit...

Yes, sometimes it just smells worries, the nationals do this too, so no one would have been offended :)

These two photos were taken near a wat, or Buddhist temple. The "trek" up to this spot took us all of five minutes from our hotel. Ha!

The look J. captured on my face WAS staged, but pretty much sums up how we were all feeling on our adventure to "Jungle Island," which was neither very jungle-y nor an island (well, other than being a part of Sri Lanka). Our rickety little boat; non-regulation (and very broken) life-jackets (that we had to ask to wear); and non-English-speaking guides were not very reassuring as we braved the rough, open seas...we have photos of us kissing the ground once we made it safely to our destination. I'm thinking never again, unless there are waivers and radios on board...:)


(It's a long story...)

Sri Lanka was heavily impacted by the Tsunami back in Dec '04.

Is this auto-rickshaw turned ice cream truck NOT the cutest thing ever?

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A hard day's night...

Well, a funny story about my Sunday evening two weekends ago, at least...

Sunday was spent catching up a) on sleep, and b) on work. Yes, I was working. Preparing for our "Freedom Training" that was starting on Monday. We are constantly updating the curriculum (hopefully improving it) and I hadn't yet finished all the updates we'd planned. After working for awhile, I took a short break to attend house church (a small group of us meet for church at my friends' apt), which was actually a mini birthday party for a friend's daughter, Sneha. She turned 7 (but her size is more like that of a 5-year-old).

I walked in to her wearing the most elaborate princess gown full of golden roses and singing "happy birthday to ME" at the top of her lungs....she was the most strung-out-on- sugar child I have ever seen. And this was PRE-sugar. She's a hoot. Seriously. We had all brought her "princess" gifts, which she gushed appropriately over...until she opened her gift from our hosts: a birthday princess Barbie. Holy toledo! I thought for a second that she was literally bouncing off was a sight to behold. The dogs in MY neighborhood (five minutes walking distance away) were barking in response...okay, not really. We ate cake and then dug a wee bit into 1 Peter 2.

An hour later, it was back to the 1 AM, as I was pressing print on the first of several documents that I needed to print, the POWER went out in the entire building. Printing was out. Luckily, we have small back up batteries so I was at least able to keep working on the computer. But these batteries don't last forever, and as the back-up- generated lights began to flicker out, I decided I should save my work as is and shut down before I lose it all. It was now 2:30 am and I had to be back at the office no later than 7 am....with tons to do still, I figured I would simply go home, shower, get ready for the day and ride my bicycle straight back to the office to complete my work.

We usually have mandatory hour and a half power outages, but we hadn't had any for awhile now. For some reason, even though these things are totally unpredictable, I simply thought it would turn back on after a short while. So, I shut down, packed up, locked up our office (padlocks and all) and headed downstairs to retrieve my cycle...our building has a night watchman and a gate. I''ve worked late many nights and the gate is never locked...shut, but not locked. Tonight, however, it was. Padlocked. And our "guard" was sleeping soundly on the steps in front of our office building.

I felt guilty waking him up, but I tried to make the normal "okay, I'm getting ready to leave now" noises...nothing (apparently, my fears that the sad little bell on my bicycle is useless are true; I had better replace it soon before I get run over). Yes, my attempts were pathetic, but honestly, if the pulling-the-gate-down-over-the-office-door-and-padlocking-it racket didn't wake him, nothing would! That process sounds like the tin man pre-oiling tripping over himself in a greek amphitheater. It's just painful! Well, to me, at least. Doesn't seem to phase our guard one bit.

After some time, I gave up: if the dogs barking up a storm and the unregulated car horns (that can also be heard in Sri Lanka) weren't causing him to stir, I didn't stand a chance. Defeated, I headed back up into the office...I feel safe here in general, but I'm not stupid; and walking back at this hour to my house sans bike, while possible, is not a wise thing to do...I undid the fallen tinman, worked a bit longer, and then arranged three desk chairs as a makeshift bed (you all have been there, done that, right?) for a brief nap....

I woke up (with the help of my wonderful boyfriend and fellow co-worker's calls/texts) an hour and a half later to find the electricity still had not returned and I again attempted to leave the grounds. Luckily, this time was much more successful...I had just enough time to clean up and then ride back to the office with the hope of printing something before our car left at 7. The power, however, did not return until midday, apparently...sigh. Oh well. I tried. Oh, and I got home that day (Monday) from our day in the field by 9:30 pm....after a LONG, de-licing shower and a quick call from Ben, I was finally able to get some sleep in a bed.