In Nepali, ‘Chahari’ means protection. More specifically, it’s a place to find refuge, peace, and care.
Last December, after a breakup that left my heart scarred and my mind scattered, I made the arduous journey to Nepal, a remote country to the north of India. I was determined to find myself. I knew that somehow, letting myself give to others would help me learn to thrive again.
I was with the nonprofit Namaste Nepal, and our goal was to provide Chahari to girls; girls as young as eight who had been rescued from sex trafficking or were at risk of being sold. Though I had long been an advocate against sex trafficking, this would be the first time that I would meet survivors — children — in person.
The first time that we walked into Maiti Nepal’s arched gates, I felt overwhelmed by a feeling of calm. The grounds were grassy, and the quiet of the courtyard was a far cry from the frantic bustle of Kathmandu. We were there to meet with CNN Hero Anuradha Koirala and learn about Maiti Nepal’s mission and history.
Tulika and Anuradha
As Namaste Nepal, we had committed to providing Chahari in the form of educational scholarships, in a special classroom for Maiti Nepal that rehabilitated girls of all ages — by helping them learn again, together, under the protection of each other’s love. We called it the Chahari Classroom.
We walked up to a door with Chahari etched in marble. The classroom itself had elegant wood panels, and was decorated with a myriad of drawings. About twenty young girls sat attentively behind worn wooden desks. I noted their matching braids and yellow ribbons, black sweaters and tan skirts.
When we entered, their eyes followed us steadily, but the girls didn’t move. One girl in particular caught my eye. I didn’t know her story, but I knew that like the others, she had been rescued. Unlike the other girls, her hair wasn’t primly braided in two. She was rocking a beanie — and as her curious eyes took in my outfit and my camera, I recognized that familiar hunger of wanting to know. Wanting to understand. She and I got each other.
I walked over to her with my phone and her eyes widened. I found myself wondering about her story. Could it be true that this curious girl, this girl in front of me who couldn’t be more than 12, had been through torture, rape, electroshock?
I gave her my iPhone, and her eyes lit up when she found the feature that let her see herself. I couldn’t believe it. How could she survive? How did she have the will?
How was she so… strong?
I walked towards the front of the room. We were here, after all, to surprise the girls with gifts. As soon as we dispensed the backpacks that we had brought for the girls, the room erupted in a flurry of commotion. There was no stoicism in their faces, just the thrill of young girls lost in the excitement of stickers and new school supplies. I saw the girl in the beanie, her eyes lit up, grinning from ear to ear.
I never went back to this classroom. I sat in our bus when our team of therapists went back through the arched gates and down the courtyard path, on the way to collect interviews for research on the effectiveness of our program.
We were studying resilience.
When our staff returned, they looked hardened. In their hands was a large, plastic bag. When one of our team members opened it, her face erupted into a smile. “Look what they did,” she said. The therapists had brought the girls packs of cheap, plastic beads to play with. The girls had instead created art; necklaces with color combinations so vibrant, hued and complex that all of us took a collective gasp. They had taken what life had given them, and they had made it beautiful. They were creators.
I learned the truth that day. The truth was that these girls had not resigned themselves to being victims and they were definitely not powerless. I learned instead that their strength and fortitude held an infinite amount of power, power so great that their desire to live had given them the will to overcome the unimaginable. They were survivors. And now, their destiny was in their own hands — and beauty was for them to create.
The girls continue to make necklaces in partnership with Aura Freedom International and Maiti Nepal to help victims of sex trafficking. You can get get involved by checking out the freedom shop by Aura Freedom International.
For more articles by guest contributor Tulika Bose, click HERE.
Photo Credit: Ben Renschen
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