About Me

I went on a journey throughout India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Cambodia and Thailand observing organizations that are working specifically with marginalized women and children who have been or are at-risk of being trafficked as sex workers or bonded laborers. While this blog is expository, its intent is to create awareness as well as provide real-life examples of solutions! Hence, the name of the blog. Beauty is lost in these dark places. Yet, there are people hard at work redeeming human lives. Many programs create vocational training to provide income-generation for the participants. These organizations are creating beautiful products that are emerging in the western marketplace. They are shop-worthy for their uniqueness, but also because they are creating second-chances for women who are lifting themselves out of poverty. We who "have" can make a big impact in the world simply by how we choose to spend our money. Also, we can donate to organizations that are on the field, down the alleys and in the trenches. This work is not easy but the pay-off is great. Lives are redeemed and beauty is found.


08.22.10 *LOST

Rough Edges.
I admit, it is I who am lost. The last three weeks have been a deep mire of emotional, physical, and spiritual intensity, and I'm trying to make sense of it. I'm tired which makes me feel wimpy and grouchy. My stomach has alas revolted against well, everything. Thanks be to God for creating Kerala "God's Own Country" where I am in the midst of "mending" on the backwaters. Very far south I am amidst rice boats that lap lazily across the glassy water, there are slow rickshaws that take you to antique "curio" shops and extravagant spice markets. The seafood is fresh and the tea is pristine. And soooo quiet! Thank you, thank you, thank you!
Simply stated, I have overwhelmed every part of my being. Thankfully, traveling with Sarah Symons who started Made By Survivors (hero!)— I was affirmed that what I am feeling is normal. Me and India are at odds when it comes to proximity and cleanliness and I find that my efficient, hygienic American self is quite frankly, fed up! Nothing goes as planned, "clean" smells like moth balls, everything, including my food has some sort of foreign object in it. Yes is no. No is yes. India is one giant bobbling maybe. The monsoon is an endless grey swamp that falls out of the sky only to leave a haze of heaviness that makes you feel even sweatier, if that's possible. Garbage is thrown on the street regardless of the sleeping mother and child who make the street their bed, their kitchen and their toilet, people snort and spit with excessive force, the traffic is deafening, the mono-mustached men stare and follow, "Mam. Mam. Mam." endlessly eager to rip off the foreign woman in their midst. Even in the "wealthy" areas, beggars and street children build their lean-to communities right alongside a slick new technology center. How can poverty be so normalized? It's all a part of the texture of Indian life. And that's just on the surface.
But this is the real India and I'm here as an observer. Crying and laughing are permitted, because it's the only way I'm coping. And thank God for the women and the children which are a triumph in a land that is frequently against them. When I spend time with the children and young women who are in shelter homes and vocational centers, removed from brothels or working the streets, all the frustration is forgotten because we become friends, artist— shoulder-to-shoulder. They teach me how to file the rough edges off the copper jewelry. I have a lot of rough edges.  When I sit cross-legged in a village circle across from women deemed "untouchable" by their society, drenched in our own sweat, they look at us and say, "We know you understand, because you are women too." Do we understand? I can't say for one second I understand. But I will take her story to the world and say, these are the hardest working women on the planet. They work the fields they will never own, they raise the children, cook the meals, tend to their mother-in-laws, and if they went outside their village they would be met with scorn. Untouchable. These are the women who look at adversity and say, "Without challenge, what is life?" 
This reminder is a good thing to ponder in my "lostness". 

08.21.10 *FOUND

They tend fields, they raise children, they shepherd flocks -- they make beads! Two of the villages outside of Varanasi have already implemented IGPs (Income Generation Programs) with the help of Made By Survivors. The women make tiny, brightly-colored glass beads. They have their "studio" set up in a dark, hot (!) room and they are serious! They know their skill and are proud of the beauty they produce. It's actually astounding. In these little villages built by mud and straw these sari-clad heros turn out tea-tin after tea-tin of bright, shiny candy-like beads. We cleaned them out, bought them all. How happy were we? I couldn't have been happier if I was buying a diamond ring. Now it's time to come up with some interesting designs for those beads. 

Most of these villages have never seen white people. And yes some of the children did cry. Actually, I think we all cried. Many had never been touched by anyone outside their village, at least with respect. What must that feel like? I was honored to hold any hand who would take mine. Hands that know how to love, to give, to provide, to create.

08.20.10 *FOUND

Part of what Made By Survivors does is fund IGPs. Income Generation Programs. And it does what it says -- it generates income for villages, programs, people! IGPs are a success story because if done well, they are self-sustaining meaning they pay for themselves. They create revenue for those participating and revenue gets you things like wells, land and in this case schools. Because the Dalit people are the lowest on the supposedly extinct caste system (all of India admits this falsity), they are considered "untouchable". They tend land they will never own, they sell cow dung in the markets, they sell sex ("untouchable"?), they collect and sell garbage, they burn the dead. They do the dirty work. Most of this is a result of ancient ideologies, lack of education, abuse of power and simply this: they know not their rights. If they cannot read or write, how can they know? People are easier to abuse if you keep them in the dark. 

Made by Survivors is partnering with indigenous organizations to fund the building and staffing of make-shift schools in these rural Dalit villages. Governments do not build schools in these remote areas because there is no representation, therefore, no pressure. However, with NGOs coming in to let them know of their rights as specified by law, these villages are becoming aware that education is in fact their right, and the right of their children. While the government drags their heels in funding and building government sanctioned schools, NGOs are building makeshift classrooms with clay and bamboo and hiring teachers and social workers to organize the whole feat. And inside these walls are the world's most earnest students. The structures are simple, the students sit on the ground, there is usually a chalk-board and the teacher's colorful attempt at making the space feel bright and hopeful. What I found is that the students are what make it bright and hopeful. 

08.15.10 *FOUND

I have always been a sucker for block-printing. India is full of these blocks. They look ancient and some of them are. You can buy them for a few rupees on the street or in antique curio shops. They are large ornate stamps carved out of wood. A skilled block-printer meticulously creates a seamless "repeat", the pattern emerges perfectly one after the other. It is an art. You will see many Indian women wrapped in block-printed saris.

Nijaloy, another mighty rescue home has set up it's own block-printing shop. While the artisans are still fine-tuning their craft, they are whole-heartedly committed to practicing, practicing, practicing this art. They showed us piles and piles of samples -- the volunteers kicked up swift business that day purchasing saris, bed-coverings, table cloths and scarves. While they are not quite ready for the marketplace, the possibilities are drool-worthy. 

08.13.10 *FOUND

One of the highlights of this trip thus far has been the week spent alongside a group of talented young women who are part of Made By Survivor's new silversmithing program. All of these women have stories that movies could be made of, all of which will rip your heart out.

There's C* -- she grew up in a prison cell. Her father shot her mother and she had no other family to raise her, so she went to jail with her father until she was rescued by The Women's Interlink Foundation. The atrocities she witnessed remain unspeakable.  She doesn't talk much about her past. Many survivors don't. They look to the future. She is one of the most skilled jewelers in the program. And there's M*, she has partial hearing loss and therefore speaks with an impediment. We don't know what caused this. We don't see her in the light of pity, instead, she shines as one of the brightest—she draws, she paints, she dances and now, she makes jewelry. Her eyes are haunting, her smile is hopeful and she will undoubtedly excel and lead many other women in the art of silversmithing. It's remarkable. They have found this program to be extremely healing and productive as it requires a high degree of commitment.

The women in the program are learning on copper and brass, next step: silver! Stay tuned for finished products debuting later this year on www.madebysurvivors.com. They also already have their first commission. The mighty organization Amnesty International (www.amnesty.org) is celebrating their 50th year of advocating for human rights worldwide and has commissioned this team to design several pendants representing freedom. Perfect!

*Names changed for privacy and protection.


08.08.10 *FOUND

A bumpy ride in a bright yellow taxi and we tumbled out in front of a non-descript two-story building. Down an alley way and up two flights of stairs is Destiny Productions. Bright white smiles welcomed us with a bubbly Anglo-Indian “Hello!” followed by shy giggles and broken English/Bengali as the women of Destiny ushered us in to an air-conditioned (!!!) room complete with tea and biscuits. God bless India for this ritual.

Destiny Productions has several vocational centers, but this one is comprised of ten women who create primarily textile-based items and some jewelry pieces. They do not live here, this is their work place. Some of them live in shelter homes in various locations around Kolkata, some are now married, and some live in their own apartments. All of them have come out of trafficking or at-risk situations. They are now “professional seamstresses” and they are very serious about the pieces they create. Their products are sold to visitors and volunteers, through organizations such as Made By Survivors, and through licensed partnerships with other businesses.

In India and Bangladesh, a “Kantha” or quilt is made out of discarded saris. They are made of layers of old saris stitched together with a thick embroidered stitched running the length of the quilt. I love the duality of “survivors” sewing kanthas. They are creating something beautiful out of throw-away material and legend has it that these blankets will keep the those wrapped in it safe. These quilts are often a group effort, which is another beautiful metaphor.
There are several organizations which work with women to make these blankets. Two young women named Sarah Aulie and Stephanie Ball started Hand & Cloth here in Kolkata, these beautiful quilts are for sale at www.handandcloth.org. Sari Bari, also in Kolkata makes very intricate versions which sell out quickly. See www.saribari.com.

Our visit at Destiny was a rich time of conversation about what it means to grow up as women in West Bengal as well as to hear what Indians in general are saying on the issue of human trafficking (some, but not enough!). Two very smart women with very different backgrounds who work with Destiny Productions were very forthright with the difficulties of living in a society which subjugates women. While the culture is slowly changing and recognizing the worth of its women, the shift is slow and at times painfully stuck in old traditions. It was incredibly encouraging to not only to meet these future leaders of India, but also to see them working alongside the seamstresses. Mighty all around.

08.08.10 *LOST

India is called the “Land of Paradoxes” for all of the obvious reasons. State-of-the-art scientific centers attract millions from a global economy, yet 25% of its population goes to bed hungry every night. There are millions of taxis, rickshaws, bicycles, goats, etc. which clog the byways of the major cities yet there are still thousands of villages not accessible by a drivable road and existing almost as they did 2,000 years ago. While some women have worked themselves in to top professional positions, women at large still struggle with basic human rights and are treated frequently as second rate. Ask any Indian woman and she will say, “Oh yes, men have all of the jobs, but women do all of the work.” India’s economy grows at a massive 6% annually yet still has the world’s largest concentration of poor. According to the United Nations’ Human Development Index, India ranks low at 127th out of 177 for quality of life. As Anita Pranap states in her article in Outlook Magazine, “Nearly 300 million people live without the basic necessities of life: water, food, roads, education, medical care, and jobs. These are Indians living on the outer edges of the nation’s consciousness, …in tribal areas, barren wastelands, and dirty slums, totally outside the market economy. Their tragedy is is that they lack the basic skills needed to gain entry into the market place. And no one is even trying to equip them.”

It is these poor that are driven to acts of desperation. Flooding the big cities seeking work, particularly women and children become innocent prey for human traffickers who snatch them in to the deep mafia-driven ring of bonded labor and all too often forced prostitution. Whether kidnapped, tricked or sold, the crimes committed against these innocents are perverse and horrifying, even if they escape or are rescued out, the process of rebuilding is massive. The emotional and physical trauma is nearly impossible to heal from.
Last week was my first week immersed in Kolkata, a city which mirrors exactly that which is described above. The scenes are daily life are surreal. And while I have seen them before, I am never, ever prepared for them. There is a woman that I’ve seen several times around the streets near our guest house. She squats down to bathe in the muddy, monsoon puddles and then cups her hands to drink the very water she has just bathed in. Mind you, the sewers are less of a system and more of an open dumping ground and public toilet. Therefore, this woman has most likely just ingested human waste. This is a common scene.

Naked, dirty children frequently pull at your pant legs seeking food, money, anything really. Most likely, even these children are “employed” by a parent or a “John” to immediately return their earnings — food or money. It is imperative to not give them money or food as they are most likely being watched and what you have given this child will most likely be taken or sold. This goes against every human instinct. When a child who is hungry and disheveled tugs at your arm, the normal response is to help. It is an aggravating heartbreak. And this too is a common scene.
Sinewy, old men still pull rickshaws. Dark alleys lead to darker alleys. Trash litters everything, in fact where isn’t there trash? The smells here are ripe and rotten under the oppressive, monsoon humidity. There are more people here than I’ve ever seen in my life. More vehicles attempt to fit in to too small spaces with too many passengers. It’s been said, but I’ll say it again, India accosts the senses.

Of course Kolkata has a crumbling, by-gone charm to it. There have been many funny moments where you just have to shake your head and laugh and say, “Ohh India!”  But in general, this place is shocking and the pervasive hopelessness shoves up against me with a heaviness that at times makes me want to pack up my fancy backpack and filtered water bottle and head for home. Truth be told.
In 1950, Mother Teresa started rescuing abandoned babies and dying individuals from Sutter Road, one of Calcutta’s roughest stretches. She worked tirelessly until her death. I was able to visit her home and her orphanage for handicapped children this weekend. It was a deeply humbling and moving experience primarily because the tangibility of love within those walls is in such massive contrast to what lies outside the walls. A simple black and white xerox was tacked up to the wall near her tomb. It reminded me that even in the midst of all the suffering, she still saw beauty on every face, every life. “Now let us do something beautiful for God.”

“People sharing their stories
            is part of the healing.” 
                                           - Jacqueline Novogratz


Two rounds of security and alas, all that’s left is a 17 hour flight to New Delhi, then on to Kolkata. 

The last few weeks have carried me through mile long to-do lists of moving 8 years of Boston back to a barn in Maine, connecting with family and friends, making my life somewhat accessible across the many miles, etc. Essentially, preparing as much as one can prepare for a journey such as this. And for as much joy and fear as I carry, I must say, I just want to get there!

While much of the next four months will unfold along the way, my hope is this: to find hope in hidden places, to find beauty where it shouldn’t be, ultimately, this is a journey about redemption.

The word “redemption” scares a lot of people because it sounds religious, but if you think about it, it’s what a lot of us really are living for. We want to know that there is meaning in the suffering. That somehow, “it”, whatever “it” might be, has happened for a reason. Silver Lining. Beauty for Ashes. Lost and Found.

And so, spending time with survivors of the sex-trade can only be a mission of discovering beauty for ashes. Meeting second-chance lives that were told that their lives were worth nothing. Nothing. They have camped out at the gates of hell.

And by hell I mean being sold by your father at the age of 12 because you were a financial burden to the family and certainly not as valuable as your brother. Or, being tricked with promises of a “good job in the city”, only to be thrown in to a brothel with 20 other women in the same situation. Or, being born in to an generation of prostitutes: grandmother wants you to start “working” so that she can retire. Forced prostitution wears many hopeless faces.
But, redemption. It is there, in these dark places. It can be found. There are mighty things happening in the form of innovative, empathetic organizations who are intervening and slowly pushing back against the pandemic of human trafficking. There are organizations such as Made By Survivors (www.madebysurvivors.com) who develop vocational training centers where women are learning artistic skills such as silver-smithing, sewing and block-printing that set them up with the skills to potentially start their own businesses. There are organizations like The International Princess Project (www.intlprincess.org) which trains rescued women living in after-care homes to make beautiful “Punjammies™”, which are then sold in the US through various retail environments and awareness events. There are many organizations such as these, which are making an impact by applying innovative solutions, many in the creative arts.

And that’s what this journey is about. Finding beauty in unlikely places. Down dark alleys, sequestered in the slums. There are heroes in these places, and survivors who are more than surviving—they are healing, creating and living!

I will be posting discoveries along the way of inspiring lives and organizations, impactful projects, curious objects. Beauty* lost and found.

Next stop, Kolkata.