Fifteen of us sat in a circle on the cool marble floor, drawing birds and flowers. The girls ranged in age from a tiny seven-year-old named Jasminda with uncanny artistic abilities, to twenty-year old Rishi, who just started college and probably should have been studying, but she just couldn’t resist joining in the fun.
Leela stood alone in the corner, silently watching. She looked about 16. She wrapped her arms around her body, seeming cold despite the warm temperature. Her eyes were impossible to read. Angry, afraid, yearning to join the group, depressed or completely detached? I couldn’t tell. She is in a safe place now, at the shelter for trafficking survivors built by Her Future Coalition last year near Darjeeling, India. But until recently Leela was living a nightmare. Her existence is very hard to even imagine – used every night by 15-20 men on a filthy mattress without even a sheet. She was an outcast judged by passers-by on the street, betrayed by her family, controlled with physical violence, or worse, with shame. Shame is a tool her traffickers used with great skill, knowing it can be even more powerful than physical torture.
Leela had been rescued very recently. She still showed physical and emotional signs of trauma and was not going to trust easily again. The risk of hoping and being disappointed is too high. But we have been in this situation before, many times with wounded girls like Leela who seemed impossible to reach. At first, I despaired of them ever recovering. But they did. With love and time, their spirits came back into their bodies and they began building a new life.
I inched backwards until I was sitting near Leela’s feet. Not looking her directly in the eye (too threatening), I gave her a sideways glance, inviting her to sit and draw with me. She shook her head. A younger girl came over and we drew together for a few minutes. Eventually, Leela got tired of standing, or maybe it felt culturally inappropriate to remain looming over me, an adult. She sat beside me, still unsmiling and remote. We made the briefest eye contact. I pushed across a piece of paper, and then my pencil. I gently pointed to an image in a book that I wanted to copy for the mural we planned to paint on the shelter wall. She shook her head no. I shrugged, that’s okay, no pressure.
But a few minutes later, Leela bit her lips, pushed the hair out her eyes, and began to draw. She did so brilliantly – an exquisitely detailed peacock, a garden of flowers. The others were called for lunch and the project came to an end. Leela stayed on the floor, drawing for hours until we lost the light.
The next morning she was waiting at the shelter door when we arrived, eager to begin painting the mural. On our last day, she cried the hardest of anyone. But I know she will be okay. She is a survivor. She found the courage to come out of her isolation to sit on the floor with a stranger and draw a peacock. Next she will learn a trade. Perhaps she will choose to learn how to make jewelry and go through our two-year goldsmith training. She could join the jewelry team at our sister organization, Relevée, and earn a good salary as a professional jeweler and designer. For now, it is enough for her to begin believing that not everyone is out to hurt or use her, that life can be sweet again.
-Sarah Symons, Executive Director of Her Future Coalition and Co-Founder of Relevée