Traveling from Ooty to Pune is anything but quick or efficient. Evan Henck, the director of our western region for Freedom Firm, has graciously offered to have me travel back to Pune with him, his wife, and 2 young daughters. It takes us 2 days of travel that includes: 3.5 hours in a taxi, a 2 hour train ride, another taxi ride, an overnight stay in Bangalore, 2 more taxi rides and one flight. It’s an exhausting trip that includes a few surprises or glitches along the way, but we make it to their home in Pune safely.
My day in Pune starts out in a terrifying way. Evan is going to drive me to the Pune office on his scooter. I’ve never been on a scooter before. Never, ever. So I climb onto the back of the scooter (scared out of my mind) and all I want to do is grab him in a death-grip bear hug and pray I don’t die! But, I don’t know him very well and that seems inappropriate. So, I grab the bar behind me, hold on for dear life, and then pray I don’t die. It is a short ride but feels longer when you are convinced you will fall off every time he turns a corner or switches lanes. I have no idea what the city of Pune looks like. My brain can’t balance on the back of this death machine and sight-see at the same time. We arrive at the office and I’ve never been so happy to arrive somewhere in my whole life!
Evan sits and talks about a possible upcoming raid in the Red Light District with the staff as I listen in. After a little bit, I find out that I will be spending the day with Shital (a case worker) and Natasha (director of Aftercare) visiting a government aftercare home, the Ruhamah workshop, and the Red Light District. I’m excited for today. I know a lot about these places. Surely I’m prepared for this day. Right?
We arrive at the government aftercare home and go up the stairs of a building that looks like a prison. As we enter the upstairs, I can’t help but think I’ve misunderstood something. This place can’t be an aftercare home. Turns out there has been a misunderstanding. I’ve envisioned this home through American eyes the past 4 years and never would have imagined what I see in front of me now. A long narrow hallway with doors to large bedrooms lining the left side and prison-like windows (open-air, no glass in them) with bars lining the right side. And that’s it. Nothing else. No activity rooms. No classrooms. They sleep 15 to a room I’m told. “What do they do all day?” I ask. Shital looks at me and says “Eat and sleep.” But can’t they go outside? How do they get exercise? Don’t they have planned activities? No. They eat and sleep. And have conflicts with each other. My heart can’t bear to take in all that my eyes are seeing. How can they live like this?
The girls have started to gather. The sight of Natasha and Shital makes them wonder if there is progress with their case and maybe they will be getting out of here soon. Plus, they are very curious about this foreigner with them and want to know where I’m from. I meet several young women who have been here for 2 months, another just got here last week. The most petite of the girls has a bold and feisty personality and tells me she has been here 11 long months. Something is holding up her case. Eleven months? I don’t know if I’d be strong enough to last 11 days here.
One young woman captures my attention. She is wearing a top that isn’t exactly leopard print but has those same colors and reminds me of it. Her hair is pulled back into a beautiful and very long pony tail. But it is her eyes that I can’t look away from. Her big brown eyes are sparkling and she smiles at me every time I glance in her direction. No matter where I go, she is close by, never taking her eyes off of me. She seems very curious! Would my eyes have that sparkle in them if I had been through all she has faced in her short life? Would I still have a healthy curiosity about me? Would my smile pierce someone’s heart they way hers has mine? I don’t know, but I greatly admire the spirit I see in this young woman whose name I never learn.
After spending some time talking with the girls and looking around, we head back over to the office building to say goodbye to the Parole Officer. I turn back to see the girls all lined up along the windows with their arms stretching out through the bars waving at us. Sad to see us go because we brought something new and interesting to their day. I turn back around and wipe tears away, determined not to cry here. The Parole Officer wants to know what I thought of the home. What do I say? Do I tell her I feel like sitting on the floor, hugging my knees, and crying for the girls in her care? “The girls were wonderful to meet. I really enjoyed my time with them.”
We catch a rickshaw to take us to lunch and I pepper Shital and Natasha with questions. Why is the home like that? What more can we do? I learn about the reality of the situation from them. Is it sad? Yes. Would it be great if the girls could go outside and run and play? Yes, but they would run away. And then they could be much worse off, most likely even trafficked to the Red Light District again. Can’t they have classes or activities? The home doesn’t do that, but Freedom Firm has come in and offered some hobby classes and literacy classes for the girls. We are doing what we can. Why don’t local churches get involved and do the same for these girls? People in the churches work during the week and the home is closed to visitors on the weekend. What can we do to get them released quicker? “We’re doing it”, they say. We have to work within the legal system and we don’t want them released hastily because that will lead to danger. There are no simple answers here. None.
Over a traditional Indian meal at a local restaurant just a few blocks from the Freedom Firm office, I ask Shital and Natasha about their jobs. They share with me how difficult it can be to do this work. The heartbreak I experienced today at the aftercare home is something they encounter on a regular basis. So, I swallow hard and ask them the question I most want to have answered. “Do you like your job?” They both answer yes. “What is the best part of your job?” They look across the table at each other and make eye contact. They look at me and both say “What I do matters. I get to see lives changed.”
There are no simple answers in any of this. But the work our staff do…….it matters.
--Becky Morris, FFUSA Staff