2013, Uthhaan – Sanjog’s leadership workshop for survivors of trafficking who have made it back home to help survivors build resilience. A 17 year old Nilofer walked in. After being trafficked, rescued, and returned to her village, with nine months of her life “missing” from the tranquil flow it had been BEFORE, she had a lot to deal with. Quiet, unassuming, and a little faded into the background, she didn’t seem to participate much in the proceedings. She broke down many times during the workshop, but never seemed to see the need to explain herself or her reactions; never seemed to see a need to find excuses for her emotions
Uma, the facilitator loved this strength in her, although the social worker working with Nilofer seemed surprised and worried. “She’s such a brilliant girl!” he said, “She has so much potential! Why won’t she participate! Why won’t she put herself forward?” Uma thought that was Okay; that Nilofer seemed to get a lot out of the program without the “expected” reactions and forms of participation; and that she should be free to set her own pace in her journey.
When Nilofer returned to her village, she kept in touch with Sanjog, promising to let Uma know when she found her “answers” to what happiness was, what made her happy now, what she needed to do or get to feel happy. Uma had told the girls about Vincent Van Gogh, who associated the colour yellow with happiness. When he painted something he wanted to appear happy, he painted it in yellow. When he was depressed, he sometimes drank yellow paint in an attempt, he told people, to make his internal organs yellow – and therefore happy. So Nilofer left to look for her “yellow” things
In the meantime, the struggle to get her back into school continued back home. Not surprisingly, with community reactions to what had happened to her and what she had been through, the school was reluctant to let her come back, although the stated, official reason was the gap that she had had to take. They said she would not be able to make it up, so what was the point? Nilofer and her social worker refused to take no for an answer.
One of her “happy” things was to go back to school, to her class, to the teachers who had loved this bright student, so Nilofer struggled on. When she did manage to get back to school though, nothing was as she had thought it would be “ja bhebechhilam ta holona” (what I thought didn’t happen) she told Uma on the phone. Everything was the same, yet nothing was. The classroom was the same, but her friends had moved on to another class. The teachers were the same but the love they once had had been replaced by discomfort and disgust. The same girls were still her neighbours but they no longer wanted to be her friends. Where the friends were the same she could see their cringing, talking about her behind her back, out of her sight.
At the second workshop, Nilofer opened up a little more, spoke out more. “I have some of the answers” she would say, “but they are not what I expected”. Things she thought would make her happy seemed to have lost their magical power somewhere along the way, in her nightmare nine months. But she was a lot stronger in her approach now. Uma could joke and kid and argue with her without constantly walking on eggshells. She had gone from “someone who had to be taken care of” by Sanjog and social workers to someone who could interact as an equal, as someone taking back control of her life and her decisions.
Her father had always been a big strength for Nilofer. Despite the conservative religious and community background, he had always recognized her potential and stood firmly by her decision to study. He was her pillar. But now, the pillar had fallen. She could see the constant pain in his eyes, his discomfort at facing or talking about her recent past. That was a big blow. When the father who dreamt of big degrees and higher education for her started saying “why bother with this now? Why do you want to go back to school? What’s the use of studying anymore?” Nilofer broke a little inside.
School proved to be something it never had been before – it was hard. From an ace student who sailed through her exams easily, Nilofer found herself transformed into a struggler. The gap, and the mental emotional trauma, made it very difficult for her to catch up. It was obvious she needed help, a private tutor. Finding one who would be willing to tutor her, and the money to pay them, was another struggle in a life already rife with battles small and large. She knocked on door after door, went from institution to institution trying to find grant money, scholarships, a sewing machine to run at night so she could earn enough to pay for tuitions, all to no avail. Nilofer broke a little more.
Uma suggested she tutor others, to make enough to pay for her lessons. After all, Uma said, Nilofer was a brilliant student. Tutoring some school kids should be no trouble for her, and it would give her the money she needed to take her own education further. Nilofer put the word out, tried to find students. The community blocked her out and parents refused to send their kids to be tutored by her. Another crack appeared in the walls.
The tutor they found, at long last, helpfully suggested she find “other ways” to pay him. After all, why does a girl “like her” need money for such things? The walls crumbled a little more.
A few months later, Uma had to visit Nilofer at the hospital. She had tried to kill herself. Before Uma could ask anything, before anyone could think of anything to say, Nilofer’s pained, frustrated cry rang out “didi! I can’t find the yellow paint!”
Today is another day. Today Nilofer has passed her higher secondary exams and is looking forward to going to college. (“Can I didi? Do you think I can do this?) She has a job offer to teach in a small school recently started by her social worker (“Think didi! Me! A teacher!”). And she has dreams of finding time to study nursing (“Everyone tells me I am a caring girl; that I will make a good nurse”). She is wearing colours again. She spends time on her appearance. She dresses up. “Come visit didi,” she insists “but don’t come directly to my house like all these people. Come to the station and call me. I will come to get you, to take you to my home.” Maybe that is her way of showing that Sanjog is different to her than all the other presences in her life. That Uma means enough to be personally welcomed and escorted.
But, most importantly, she wants to return for her third session of Utthaan. Why? Is she still looking for that elusive yellow paint? Is she still chasing that chimera called happiness? “These three days are ENOUGH” she says. “ENOUGH to give me so much”. She has learned so much from it. She says she has learnt when to give up. When to say enough, and choose a different path. When to fight on. This time, Nilofer will return as a facilitator. This time Nilofer will give back to girls like her. This time Nilofer will be ENOUGH!
To know more about Sanjog India, and what it does to support girls like Nilofer, visit http://www.sanjogindia.org/