A good fight

Yesterday I was crouched in front of 8 litres of piping hot dal, spooning it on to the plate of a child whom I didn't recognize but I feel like I should have known for years. It is easy to look down the tracks and think every house is the same, every section of the slum is just as hard off as the next, every family that fills it is the same. The children could be almost faceless, nameless, just another child wandering seemingly lost. I think, to some degree, it is a self protecting mechanism when you are face to face with a harsh reality. We glaze it over. We keep it on the surface so that we do not become weighed down with feeling helpless, guilty, angry. I looked at this child and asked him his name, asked him if he was hungry and if he wanted vegetables and an egg. He shyly answered, the faintest smile on his face. I told him he was a good boy and to go and eat his food... off he went and I don't know if ever we will meet again. I looked at him walk away and I ached to know him. To make his face familiar to us. I refuse to let him be nameless. 

As this was happening two little hands covered my eyes from behind and I heard a familiar giggle. "Who is it?" I asked. No response, just a giggle and those two little hands pressing tightly, covering my eyes. I turned around and found Khusitan smiling brightly cuddling herself into my back. I immediately welled over with tears, she has been gone for weeks. She missed the start of school after the August break and the other girls just weren't as interested in going without her. I hugged her close, breathed in deep the familiar smell of the oil she puts in her hair and thanked God for her return. Almost every morning, I have been going to her home looking for her only to find no one home. Every day I grew more and more unsure that she would ever come back. Yet here she was, standing next to me again. A young girl I never thought I would know so well, I never thought I would worry about, be proud of, or see grow. She once was once nameless to me, once faceless, but now she fills my dreams. It is amazing, the relationships that we can grow on such seemingly unstable foundations. Every day I try to remember to be thankful for the small things I know about each of these children. Their giggles, pieces of their personalities, their hugs, their names, who they are friends with. Their struggles, their weakness and vulnerabilities. I am thankful to know which area of the slum they live in and what that means. I am thankful to know them and for them to know us.

I still recognize that even I glaze parts of life here over, I still try to protect myself. I don't want to do that anymore, I want to keep opening myself up in whatever quiet ways I can to serve these children more. Every now and again, I see a child struggling so hard with addiction, or disease or extreme poverty and I succumb to feeling helpless.  I want to keep opening myself more, especially on the hard days when I wonder how we will make a long-lasting effect. Even more so on the days when it is difficult to serve food through the chaos, making it hard to show our love. But mostly, I want to open myself the most when faced with a child who we will have to fight hard to know because they need the fight the most. 

These two steal my heart every single week


Peace in the Path

Two mornings ago I was driving in the crazy traffic to the slum to get the girls for school and to meet one of the mothers for a doctors appointment. Horns were blaring, busses were cutting me off, goats were standing obstinately in the road and the guy on the motorcycle next to me was trying to talk to me about my tattoos as we were driving. I have to admit, I have found myself asking for peace within myself a lot lately. Sometimes, like two mornings ago, I wonder how I thought I would ever find peace amongst the chaos. But two mornings ago was different. I was running over the miles long list of things that needed to be done for Pratyasha Foundation and Operation Smile. I was trying to ignore the hives that were overwhelming my body. Oh and, yes, I was dealing with the aforementioned driving obstacles when out of nowhere I was hit with a complete sense of peace. I don't actually think I have ever felt so calm and so assured that everything is going to be okay. I needed that feeling, I needed that re-charging of my self-confidence. All of a sudden that list of things to do, to think about, no longer seemed like it was miles long and required a marathon type endurance to complete. All of a sudden, it felt like walking along the bank of the river at sunset. A peace along the path, a sure and steady pace.

Photos by Richard Ek


The Long Way to School

The Long Way To School from Creative Media Production on Vimeo.

It is incredible how sometimes people just come into your life at the right times. Lately it seems that over here in Guwahati I've been meeting a lot of really amazing people. They all offer knowledge, support and talents in one way or another. April and May were especially filled with people like this. One of them is a man named Michel from who came to visit the center with Operation Smile Sweden. He is a videographer and while he was here doing a video for Operation Smile, he offered to make a video for us as well. In the video you see Olivia, a young woman from Sweden who lived here from September up until lasa few weeks ago. She describes taking Kasitan to school, and how hard it was in the start. As you know by now, what started with Kasitan is growing! She goes to day school and afternoon school (featured in the video) and four other kids go with her!  I hope you all enjoy it... it makes me cry of course hearing Kasitan talk abut her dreams   


Where your seeds may fall

Ever since I can remember, I have had vivid recurring dreams. The kind that you wake up from and for a few minutes you're not sure if what you dreamt was real. I will have the same few for years and slowly they seem to fall out of rotation and are replaced with others. The most recent one I just can't seem to shake.

In the dream I am at work in Guwahati when some sort of huge disaster happens. The building is shaking and crumbling around me and my co-workers. As I run out of the hospital, I reach the main gates to find every child from Lakhtokia standing there perfectly calm and serene. I run to them, still terrified, and ask what they are doing there. One of the girls looks up at me and says "We're waiting for you to take us to school..." In the dream I turn around to my coworker and tell them an exact day that would be my last working at the surgical center and then I wake up... 

So thus comes the decision, the leap, the push, the revelation that I have some big choices to make. I know I am coming up on my last stretch working at the surgical center and full-time with Operation Smile because I know without a doubt that I need to be dedicating myself to growing Pratyasha. All of these vivd dreams, I believe there is a future in the positive aspects of them. It is so hard to come to a decision to say good bye to a huge facet of my life, the magnetic force that is the cleft center which brought me here. It is my full intention to continue to volunteer with them both in Guwahati/India and internationally as much as possible but it is time. I have been wrestling with the decision for months but finally I swallowed my fears and December 1st will be my last day at the surgical center. 

I get scared, giving up a job and choosing to possibly be without a real income for the foreseeable future. Yes I get scared until moments like this afternoon when I was picking up three of the girls from afternoon school. I stood there waiting for them to finish their school-provided dinner when one of the teachers came up to me. She looked at Kusitan and told me that Kusitan and Kumila had done an excellent job on their reciting today. She told me she couldn't believe how expressive they were and what talent they have. Kusitan was beaming, and I told her I was proud of her as tears welled up in my eyes. I can't be scared because I know what the futures of families in Lakhtokia face is scarier, I know that not developing a way to empower the other kids and their parents is scarier. Any problem I face deciding to do this full time is tiny in comparison and I know that somehow I will manage.

 The handful of girls that started going to afternoon school regularly have done so well that they are going to full time day school as well. They are the stand-outs, the exceptions, they are the dandelion seeds that we blew into the wind, not knowing where they would land. Now, they are turning around and planting seeds in the other kids around them, motivating them to try school. It is still hard and it is going to take a lot of time, power and patience to start growing those seeds. Whole communities are already changing, but we want that change to be permanent and so effective that one day I will actually walk through the slums and not be able to find one single child during the day. I want the children in my dreams to know that I do not want to just take them to school... I want to make them a school. I want to actually help them develop the potential in them in a way that is tailored to their unique needs. It is already happening with Kusitan and Kumila and Pinky and Heena and Hasina and Moromi. I know that more beautiful things will only grow from here.


Omit Has Dreams

The past few weeks Hannah has been holding interviews with some of the children and women in Lakhtokia. She is doing this to help us get to know them better so that we can identify their wants, needs and challenges. Hannah is a natural with everyone, I am not surprised that she easily got people to open up to her even through a translator. Her energy and compassion just shines; when she came back from a trip to the slums last Wednesday I could tell that some of the stories had really affected her. She said she had talked with one of our favorite children named Omit, a boy we all love to bits. One thing Hannah and I have noticed is the stark contrast in his personality when we see him on the street versus in the slum. We have both run into him a few times while he is out picking recyclables and he hangs his head, diverts his eyes from ours and seems full of shame. It breaks me. I have had this happen and then seen him in the slum literally five minutes later; he runs up and gives me the Omit smile and a huge hug. Like he is not the same boy, and I couldn't understand why this was. What Hannah learned made us both break down in tears as she recounted his thoughts:

"Omit has lived in the Lakhtokia slum his entire life. He is an 8 to 9-year-old boy (he does not know his exact age), he has an older brother, and his other two siblings have died of unknown causes. His dad was a victim of human trafficking one year ago. He has no idea where his dad is or what his dad is doing. He does know one thing: “I will never see my Dad again.”

Most of Omit’s time is spent picking up trash. The money he collects each day supports his older brother, his mom, and himself for the day. He said in an average day he can collect anywhere from 20 Rs (37 cents) to 100 Rs (2 dollars), and, “if I am lucky, 200 Rs (4 dollars).”

Unlike most boys, Omit does not sniff dendrites. He did not explain why but I assume it is because he spends most, if not all, of his day wandering around Guwahati with a massive bag on his back sifting through the dumpsters and does not have time to get high. Like most other people in the slum, Omit is very scared of the police. But he continues to work hard to support he and his family.

Every interview that I did, I asked people, “What is your biggest dream in life?” When Trideep (the translator) asked this question to Omit, he sort of sat there for a little while thinking. After ten seconds of what looked like intense thoughts running through his head, Omit said, “I want to be a good person. I want to be different from everybody else.” Trideep then asked him, “And how will you do that?” He sat there again, thinking very hard about how he was going to be different. “Hmm… hmm…” and then his Assamese poured out. Trideep turned to me and said, “Be prepared: He said, ‘I haven’t quite figured that part out yet.’”

And so it goes.

Pratyasha is here for this: to help those who are stuck in this cycle and cannot get out, to help Omit learn how he can become different from everybody else, to provide opportunities that can help kids accomplish their far fetched dreams. Now you understand why Omit is so shy and ashamed when we run into him on the streets as he throws cardboard into his trash bag. He wants to be different, he is not proud of where he comes from, or how much trash he collects during the day. Omit wants something totally outside of this. Instead of being graded on the quality and quantity of trash he collects, Omit wants to be graded on the knowledge that is inside his churning brain.

I collected a ton of stories. And after this day, I realized that every single person has an amazing story to tell in the Lakhtokia slum. Girl, boy, woman, man, young, old, jobless, student, shack owner, tea stall worker, and trash picker: they all have some sort of story. They all have something to relay. And they were all so happy to tell someone.

Just the fact that someone was interested in what they do on a day-to- day basis meant a lot. They do not care what I do with these stories. But they care that I want to know about their life, where every day is a constant battle.

Sending smiles from India,

Photo courtesy of Operation Smile- Peter Stuckings 


Operation Smile/Pratyasha Foundation

I have probably written this many times before but I consider myself extremely lucky to work for an organization that knows and supports the fact that in the free time I work with the children in Lakhtokia. Last year Operation Smile offered to send their photographer with us one Sunday to see what went into our weekly meals. I happened to be out of town that week but excitedly said yes to their offer. What Peter Stuckings was able to capture so perfectly told the story of what Sundays are like for us in Guwahati. 

 Every Sunday morning we prepare and cook 5.5kg (12lbs) of rice, 9 litres of dal, a load of in-season vegetables and 80 bananas. We cook in our kitchen (okay when I say 'our' I mean Rosie and Hannah's flat which I lived in as well up until recently) and it takes roughly two hours to prepare 80 meals. On average this costs 550-650 rupees or around 12-15 cents per child. 

After the food is finished cooking we load it up in a vehicle or auto-rickshaw. With us we bring re-usable thali plates, 100% biodegradable leaf plates, soap, clean water, and a little extra salt for taste! We arrive at this small Hindu temple which we are allowed to distribute food from. It is located in the railway slum of Lakhtokia, just on the edge of the tracks. 

 The kids love helping to distribute the food to one another. This is something we have never asked them to do, they just jump up and help. Every now and again with certain kids I can tell that they want help because they want some type of control (especially of the bananas) but mostly, they just give their time and manage to muster up as much patience as they can with the crowd. They have become some of our biggest advocates and help keep track of all the equipment. 

  Then it is picnic time! After hand washing, the kids get in line, as best as we can manage,  and then all sit down together to eat. Every single week I look out and see them sitting and crouching, chatting away, giggling and playing and get filled with so much happiness. They are typical kids, some don't want veggies, some want more salt, somes eyes are bigger than their stomachs, some have a huge apetite and EVERYONE loves their banana. 

 After the meal is over the kids are encouraged to wash their hands again. Many of them stay and play, talk with us, sing, practice a tiny bit of English and all around just have a good time.  

The weekly meals serve two purposes: 
To give a child a healthy warm meal
To create a strong relationship with them and their family (especially the mothers) based on love and consistency. This is key in getting them to participate in other programs and setting the path to help them break out of this level of poverty. 

Honestly, sometimes I am so scared that all of this will crumble beneath my feet. Every time I am around them though the only thing I see crumbling is the cycle that living in a slum creates. Thank you Peter Stuckings and Operation Smile for capturing this process, the very basis of our program on which so much is being built!

All photos in this entry are compliments of Operation Smile- Peter Stuckings, please do not use these pictures without permission. 


730 (Seven Hundred and Thirty) Days

Has it really been two years since I moved to India? It's interesting how sometimes you begin to measure time based on major life events as opposed to the calendar year, I wonder for how long I will reflect back on May 2nd as the day that everything changed.

My first three hundred and sixty five days were some of the most life altering I have ever experienced. They changed me so much that what was originally supposed to be a temporary six months here has clearly become so much more.

The very beginning of my second year here left me wordless as a group of pediatricians stood up and stepped into the slum for the first times in their life, giving free health check ups to all of our kids.

My emotional bond with the children in Lakhtokia grew and grew making me submit whole heartedly to the transformative love I was witnessing. 

I started spending more time getting to actually visit the inside of the homes of the ones I love. Each time we step into one of the homes I am humbled like never before.  

In June the amazing doctors at Wintrobe recognized and diagnosed one of the mothers with tuberculosis, despite that we found so much hope in that moment. She and I met each and every morning for medicine until she was declared free of tuberculosis. She will always remain one of my favorite women and her daughter steals every person's heart she comes across. 

The kids in the slum invited us to celebrate Eid with them in August, we felt welcomed and loved in a way we had not experienced before. 

In the fall I traveled to Silchar, India where Operation Smile created 99 new smiles, Mount Frere, South Africa for 34 new smiles and Cebu, Philippines for 180 smiles! What a busy season it was!

This year the government has razed the slum multiple times. I can't describe adequately how hard this is to see. It affects the children so much to have their tiny bit of stability literally knocked down in front of them. This action makes us stand by each other even closer and motivates us to help the kids and their families to find a way to break the cycle of poverty.

In late January I travelled with some of my coworkers to carry out a local mission at a tea estate hospital in Chabua, Assam, India and 73 new smiles later, it surprisingly ended up being my favorite mission I have been on (even though they are all incredible.)

In February Hannah started taking a handful of our girls to a local evening school. It has been a huge challenge and there is still so much to do in order to get them motivated to continue on and grow but it is the realization of so many dreams. One of our star girls, Khusitan, will actually be starting full time, regular school in the coming month!

My dad visited in March and we celebrated Holi together! Having him here to see and share everything was absolutely incredible. It passed by too quickly but I am so grateful for that time we had.

I most recently took a little vacation  to South Korea where I was able to step back and refresh my spirit. I spent a lot of time there finding peace, filling my belly and (temporarily) satisfying my never ending obsession with Asia. 

This past month Hannah, Rosie, Kelly and I have been working hard to incorporate Pratyasha Foundation and to apply for non-profit status! Of course, the work we actually do does not change at all but it means even more doors will be opening and that we can (and will) continue to grow. Getting to know the children we serve on a more personal level has been the biggest blessing of this year, motivating us all to give everything we have to continue to love on them. I anticipate a lot of very big and very positive changes in all of our lives. 

Over five thousand patients have received surgery in Guwahati at the surgical center since I moved here in May 2011. The total for Assam is nearing 9,000. We are so close to our goal of making Assam cleft free! The staff I work with has continued to grow professionally, becoming some of the most expert cleft care providers in the world and the patients... oh the patients! My heart explodes on a near daily basis thanks to these cuties! 

It has most certainly been quieter on this blog over the last 365 days. Not only have I been occupied with all of the above, but there have been a lot of challenges that I haven't shared on here. This year was extremely difficult emotionally and personally. I lost my grandmother, friends and the sense of family that I grew up knowing. When I visited home this past year things felt different, but that is life. It is fluid and ever changing; I think the last year was proof that life does not pause back home when I'm gone. No, things change, some for better some for worse. I guess that is where the shock comes in when you drop in and out of a place/sense of life you used to know so well. In North East India over the last 8 months, we have had major power supply problems, the internet availability and quality has also taken a dive. Skype doesn't work for me anymore but I have found other amazing applications like Viber that help keep me connected. (I highly recommend downloading Viber if you have family abroad.) It has been an emotional life saver over the past month. More times than ever I have found myself saying "India wins again!" But mostly, it has been quiet because there are just so many beautiful things happening here. Things that leave me too exhausted to type at the end of the day but beautiful things none the less. Here is to seven hundred and thirty days, and countless more to come. 


To Sweden, With Love

I would consider myself incredibly lucky to work for an organization that cares so much for the communities they reach out to. Operation Smile does not monetarily support Pratyasha Foundation but in their own way, they have made this all possible. If I wasn't here with them, none of this would have started. Even the founders of Operation Smile know about Pratyasha and love it. They love that a community as a whole is changing lives in many different ways. They recognize that the need here is vast. The constant flow of volunteers coming through our surgical center provides many helping hands. Yes, there are many people that come through and help but the volunteers that come from Operation Smile Sweden have a particular place in the hearts of us and of the kids in Lakhtokia.

It all started with Gunilla, a nurse anesthetist from Stockholm, who happens to be a volunteer and board member of Operation Smile Sweden. She has been to Guwahati several times and in January 2012 she came with me to the slum for the first time. Ever since then, every single volunteer from OpSmile Sweden that comes here to the center (and there are a lot) arrives already having heard about Pratyasha and they come ready to help. Sometimes they come with donations, I can not even imagine the over weight charges they incur, clothes, toothbrushes, toothpaste, socks, hats, shoes. They come to give their time all week at the center and then they desire to give even more, using their free time to help in the slum. Every. Single. Volunteer. They're not asked or expected to help with us too. They just desire to. They have somehow come to love these children before even meeting them and when they come back, they come even more emotionally invested in our kids. I have never met a person from Sweden who does not have a huge heart and who has not positively affected our project.

Gunilla, Louise, Lousie's whole family, Ulf, Andrea, Rikard, Michel, Olivia, Jorund, Liisi, Petra, Annki, Birgitta, Chris JJ, Peter, Chris C, Ellinor, Patrik, Ingrid... and so many more. You have each contributed in your way and give us the drive to always move forward. You fill us with motivation and you often leave me humbled by giving so much when you have so little time.

So I give a simple Thank You to anyone and everyone from Sweden and the surrounding area who have supported us because I simply do not have any other words... you leave me speechless.

"Undrar just vart livets räls tar oss båda...Tacksam för allt jag har.." 
 "I wonder where the rails will take both of us. Grateful for everything I have." 


A Week in Korea Part 2

I have become quite accustomed to traveling by myself over the last couple of years and really enjoy it. I like the ease of getting to do things on my time, see what I'd like to see and I like the added challenge that being by yourself creates. However, every now and again I am caught in a moment, an experience that is so incredible, and I just look around and wish I had someone I loved by my side. I could be swimming in the ocean off a remote island in the Philippines, standing at the top of a tower in Seoul, nearly dying on a hike in the jungle or giving a huge hug to my kids in Lakhtokia and sometimes I just feel like I want so badly to share those moments. None of this makes me any less grateful for every single experience I have had on this crazy journey, nor will it keep me from moving forward and exploring every corner of the earth I can reach. I just think that as I'm getting older I am realizing that life is really, really awesome (I already fully believed that) and that maybe getting to share that life with someone is getting back on my list of future dreams (the revelation). I guess my last few days in Korea when Bree was at work or when I travelled south by myself made me think about all of this again!

On Wednesday I took the train down to the southern city of Busan. It is the second largest city in South Korea but it feels worlds different compared to Seoul. I stayed in a hostel called HiKorea, and I highly recommend it! The staff was super friendly and because it is kind of off season, I had the whole room to myself! I went to Busan to see the beach and it was beautiful even if it was freezing cold. Busan is on the East China Sea and Japan is really really close. I had the urge to jump in and swim to Japan but obviously, that's just crazy! I ate sushi that night in the biggest mall in the world, I found the mall itself extremely overwhelming so I didn't walk around at all but boy did I enjoy that dinner.

The next morning I woke up and headed for a full day of temples. The first stop was Beomeosa, which is a city temple but nestled in the hills. I expected it to be really busy there but actually it was quiet, peaceful and relaxing. I wandered to each small prayer room, drank fresh mountain water and spent a long time walking around listening to prayers echoing into the forest. I had the free temple lunch which was basic and delicious before going to Haedong Yonggungsa which is on the ocean. All I can say is... I was filled with so much excitement when I turned the corner and saw the temple! It was unlike anything I have ever seen. I LOVE the ocean and/or any body of water so the combo of a temple and the ocean was almost more than I could handle! The downside was that as opposed to Beomeosa, Yonggungsa had huge tourist groups walking through it so it was actually a bit difficult to find peace there. There were a few quiet spots but mostly there were a lot of people, wandering around everywhere. I soaked up what I could and then it was time to part ways with Busan and head back to Seoul. 
 (In Korea, a left facing svastika is used to identify Buddhist temples and is thought of as the heart seal of Buddha. It is an auspicious symbol that is seen throughout Asia. In Hinduism it is usually right facing)

Fresh mountain water. Yes, I drank it! 

Baby Buddhas

Temple food!
Yonggungsa... breathtaking

Friday I found myself winding up all of the little tasks I had. I wanted to get people some souvenirs, go back to Jogyesa, and a few little cafes so it was filled with a lot of walking around Seoul! When the sun went down I took the metro and then a shuttle up to Namsan Tower, the highest point in Seoul which overlooks the whole city. The view up there was awesome but don't get tricked into buying an expensive ticket up to the observatory  There is a great observation deck that's free, it is also where people come with their loved ones to leave a lock with a message on it. I didn't leave one, but how fun would it be to do that and then come back again sometime in your life and find it? This was definitely a moment I wished I was there with a partner, I am not romantic usually but this was just so sweet! 

A second round at Snob Cafe in Hapjeong

Thousands of locks line the observatory deck

Namsan Tower

Saturday morning Bree and I woke up and headed to Cafe Street in Bundang! It involved transit through Gangnam (like the song hehe) and one of the fanciest subway tunnels I have ever been in! It was rainy that day and I had my luggage with me so we didn't get to spend as much time as we would have liked but we had an awesome breakfast of sweet potato and green tea lattes and Belgian waffles. Oh my, were they yummy! Then on the way to the airport we stopped and got some last macaroons from Laduree. Those babies lasted me the whole way back to India! 

Korea was amazing, I loved learning how to read it and I am continuing to study and learn how to speak it so I can go back someday! It was a great week and I am so grateful for amazing friends all over the world that let me crash their homes and explore their countries!!