Zeenat, the Ruhamah workshop manager in Kolkata, leads me down a narrow sidewalk wedged between a half-wall and the building that is our workshop in Kolkata. She opens an old, creaky door and I see more than a dozen shoes lined up on the floor. And then I hear and see the chaos of 8 beautiful young ladies, all of whom have come to the workshop unusually early for work today because they knew a visitor would be coming today. They all greet me with warm smiles and are talking to each other excitedly. I, of course, don’t know what they are saying, but it is fun to hear the chattering. They scramble to put their backpacks in the office and get the workshop ready for a day of work.
Tiya* says something to Zeenat and then runs into the other room and runs back up to me with a beautiful friendship bracelet she made just for me. I love it and thank her sincerely. Quite suddenly, the girls are all sitting in a line in the office (sharing chairs, some sitting on the laps of other girls) with 1 empty chair for me. Zeenat tells me to sit and the girls just stare at me with curiosity and warmth in their eyes.
I ask them to tell me their names and inform them I may need them to speak slowly and tell me their names a few times before I remember them all. We finish introductions and I ask a few basic questions. How long have they worked here? Who is the newest? Where do they live? And then I get to tell them how beautiful their creations are! I tell them about our booth at the Global Leadership Summit in the Chicago area every year and how our booth is always the busiest. Women from all over America swarm our booth because they are drawn by the beauty of the jewelry these young women have created.
I compliment their pieces in very specific ways hoping that they can fully grasp the quality of their work and how proud they should feel! They smile and their eyes are beaming. I think they are getting it. Before we disperse so they can get to work, they ask me if I can remember all of their names. I go down the row and get every one right on my first try! The girls erupt in applause for me and seem genuinely impressed. And I silently pray, “God, please let me be a light to them. Please let them know they aren’t nameless to you and I. Please let each one feel SEEN and CARED FOR when I leave today”.
This workshop specializes in aari work which is basically very delicate and intricate embroidery work. The girls are working on stud earrings and headbands today. They sit on the floor and work with only their right hands on this very detailed and tricky work. It is obvious they are well trained and becoming experts at what they do. Reha is the newest to this workshop, but she needs no instruction as she cuts a large piece of cloth off its frame because the stud earrings on this particular piece are complete and ready to be attached to buttons and have the backings attached. I never would have guessed that this was how they created these earrings that fly off my tables at events!
I watch them work and take plenty of photos and videos so I can show our supporters back in the U.S. After a while it is lunch time and I am sad that I will have to leave soon to catch my next flight. Zeenat and I walk to a local restaurant to get lunch for the two of us and Rinku, the Kolkata social worker. As we’re walking in the hot sun, a bus comes barreling down the road behind us and lets me know I’m too far into the road by lightly clipping my arm as it races past me. The bus driver yells at me as he drives by and Zeenat looks over at me with big eyes and says, “That was close!” I just laugh and am surprised at how much I’m enjoying this adventure even after 7 days and 6 different beds! I mention to her that I’ve travelled many different ways, but have not been able to try a bike rickshaw yet. So, even though it is easily within walking distance, she insists on us taking a bike rickshaw back to the workshop with our lunch so I can have the experience! I love that I tried it, but didn’t enjoy the ride. Quite uncomfortable!
The rest of the afternoon with the girls at the workshop is wonderful! We sit on the hard floor in the back room eating our lunches. The girls all have some sort of rice they brought from home and no silverware. They are being rather quiet (Zeenat informed me that was because I was there and this wasn’t normal). But then Zeenat started to tease some of the girls and the mood changed. I don’t know what is being said, but it is obvious from the body language and tone that she would tease them and they would give her a hard time right back. I listen to them laugh and see smiles on every single one of their faces and am in awe of it all. These young women have been through more than I can possibly imagine in their lives and yet they sit here with hope and purpose and laughter radiating off of them. I realize this may not be what it is like here every day. I know there are hard days and conflict and heartbreak for our staff as they watch girls make bad decisions, but today is not like that. Today is fun and happy and hopeful. As a treat, I had purchased a chocolate brownie for each of the girls to enjoy after lunch. It isn’t much, but I hope they see the gift for what it is – a token of my gratitude for allowing me to intrude and get a peek into their lives here with Freedom Firm.
I have to go soon, but not before Tiya creates a beautiful henna design on my arm! Then I insist on a photo shoot before I left. Each girl has her picture taken individually with me. Some have to be coaxed and are shy in front of the camera. Others are ecstatic to be able to pose for a picture with me! I am astounded to see that although I am only 5’3” (short here in the U.S.), I tower over these girls as they stand next to me! This is the only time in my life I’ve felt TALL! A few more group photos and then it is time for me to say goodbye. As I get into the taxi to go to the airport, I am filled with joy and appreciation. Joy at the hope I saw today. Joy at the smiling faces and the friendship bracelet I proudly wear around my right wrist. And deep appreciation for Zeenat and Rinku. It is obvious that these 2 women have built true relationships with these girls and earned their trust. I will never be able to fully express my admiration for these women and so many other staff members I met along the way on this amazing trip.
Now I am tasked with bringing my experiences home with me. How do I accurately express what God is doing through Freedom Firm in India? Pictures are helpful. And I can tell our supporters the facts. But I sense God is asking me to do more than that. He wants me to carry these experiences in my heart and tell my stories. Share my experiences. And He wants me to come back changed. Permanently.
*Name changed to protect identity
--Becky Morris, FFUSA Staff