26th Birthday — South asian style

Birthdays are a big deal here. They’re always a bit awkward for me no matter where I am, but the office and my friends were sure to “Welcome me to India” just one more time with some traditional festivities. It’s a running joke between all of the interns and fellows to say “Welcome to India!” every time we experience something bizarre, inefficient, or corny – all characteristic of this place. 😉 Even the nationals say it. But my birthday was none of those. To begin, my sweet friend, and partner in crime in Aftercare, Alex, decorated my desk with styrofoam balls, a birthday hat, and streamers. Oh.. and a sweet note too.

At group devotion the entire office sings to you but it’s not the typical birthday song; there’s a twist to it. After the usual “happy birthday to you” is another verse: “We are glad God make you (all fingers pointing). We are glad God made you (all eyes on you again). We are sooooooo (dragged out until people run out of breath!) glad God made you. Happy birthday to you.”  I survived the queasy, but loving moment. After devotion some ladies came over and started pulling back my hair so they could tie garland (jasmine flowers) in my ponytail.

Anytime you have an achievement, celebration, or something of the like, you bring a treat for the entire office. So, to follow tradition I handed out biscuits (cookies) as my happy birthday treat and chatted with staff for a significant part of the morning. The acting office director and I share a birthday so we cut a cake in the afternoon in a wedding-like fashion—I made her put her hand on mine and then we fed each other, but I definitely smashed some cake on her face after my boss signaled to me from behind her.

That evening all of the interns went to Tuscana for dinner where I had pizza (ahh – how I miss italian and mediterranean food so badly!). I unashamedly ate half a pizza on my own, but it was a thin pizza, okay? Don’t judge me. 😉 It’s also Indian tradition to treat everyone on your birthday. Earlier in the day a legal fellow, Kyle,  said, “Hey Neesha, are you gonna treat all of us tonight? Eh?” To his disappointment I only treated my Indian friends and none of the expats. Haha! Only those who abide by the culture will be treated, my friend.

We went back to mine and Sharon’s place in Anna Nagar and had cake. Boy did we have cake. I was instructed to cut the cake and feed every person in the room by hand. And then they fed me. End of story. Use your imagination for the rest.

It was a special day. From the texts and phone calls I received right at midnight to the smashing of cake in my face that evening, I certainly felt loved and celebrated without missing home at all – thanks to all of those who made it so memorable. Maybe I’ll have another birthday in India one day.


Subject to Change

This will probably be the only time I talk about my role because it’s not near as fascinating as the clients’ stories. All of you know I just finished graduate school where I studied community counseling, a program that’s mainly focused on learning how to do therapy. And to my surprise my first opportunity out of grad school is in program development and statistics as a social worker. Haha! They’re using a outcome measure for the first time (for all 2009 labourers) and it’s my responsibility to enter all the data, analyze it, and provide a report for the purpose of program development. Instead of creating a project based off what I THINK the department needs I want to wait for the results of these outcome measures and take a outcome-directed approach. For example, so far health/hygiene is the lowest scoring section for the labourers. If after entering all the data, health and hygiene comes out on top as a an area that is significantly lower than others, then as a department we should evaluate the content of our trainings and home visits pertaining to health/hygiene. Another part of my job is to compare assessments (i.e., pretest-posttest measure, strengths assessment, functional assessment, and successful outcome measure) for consistency in topic, scale, and objectivity. And I already told you that Alex and I assist the case managers with their caseload. This is my role for now, but I have to keep reminding myself of the fact that IJM is a developing NGO— and for that reason, we could be asked to do all sorts of different tasks in the weeks to come; my role is subject to change depending on the evolving needs of the department.

As fellows, we function mostly as consultants to International Justice Mission. It’s really a dream job in so many ways. Isn’t it irritating to see areas of needed improvement in your workplace and to feel as if you can’t say anything because it will offend someone or it won’t be welcomed? Wouldn’t you want to be in a job setting that allows you to present your ideas to people who aren’t so bogged down with following a monotonous routine because of funding or lack of flexibility? How often is that the case? Not very often from what I can tell. Most people have to wait and build relationships with staff before offering new ideas- without promise of if they’ll be taken into consideration (I accept this as the norm though and reasonably so). This is the sort of window of opportunity I have with IJM. They expect us to come in and take an innovative and creative stance as we think about how we want to contribute to their work. Without reservation they’re OPEN  to hearing me out and discussing my ideas. What a positive experience for a novice counselor!

The Office

In all its splendor I present to you, the Aftercare Department!

Front (L-R): Pranitha, Director; Helen, Anester / Back: Alex (Fellow), Abishek, Praisey, Karen (Former Fellow), John, Gladys, and Barnabas

The world is not worthy of these people! What a great team!

Barna, pretending to sleep.

They purchased the same kurta for the photo. Alex and I missed the memo!

Out of the 14 IJM field offices, this one is the largest with around 65 people located in the heart of the city. Some colleagues take up to four modes of transportation to get to work in the morning – that’s serious dedication! The aftercare department is somewhat sequestered in a corner from the rest of the two-floor office departments. In my department there are five case managers with MSW and a manager of government relations. On average they travel to the rural parts of south asia two days a week where they meet with clients for one of their six home visits over a two-year period. Part of my job is to assist case managers as they prepare for these visits and occasionally, go with them.

In July, I had the privilege of spending a day out of the office doing home visits. After a 2 hour drive we arrived to the first village where everyone curiously stared at us. As I walked down a dirt path I saw a man lying on the ground, lethargic and wilting away – later I found out he is blind and mentally retarded. To my right were the ashes and remains of a square-shaped foundation of what used to be a house. Straight ahead of me was an open field that the rainy season would have no mercy on. Everything in this open field would be destroyed in a matter of months, including this family’s current dwelling place.

At the end of the path the family greeted us; some happier than others to see us. We all sat down on the dirt and had our home visit. The purpose of the six home visits over a two-year period is to assist with the transition from bonded labor to community reintegration by focusing on:

  • Obtaining/building reliable housing (sturdy roof / flood-free area)
  • Gaining fair employment
  • Learning about health and hygiene
  • Understanding the importance of savings / begin saving money
  • Gaining confidence in their legal rights to protect them from the owner’s threats who enslaved them
  • Addressing addictions (mainly alcoholism)
  • Accessing government schemes (benefits) for housing and employment opportunities
  • Confronting destructive family relationships (at all levels)
  • Building a support system through their community

After being released from bonded labour, families are supported by IJM social workers in a structured program designed to help them thrive in freedom – with training on everything from opening a bank account to nutrition. However, in freedom, accepting any of this assistance is, of course, a choice – as I was reminded when I sat with the case manager, listening to Tamil and noticing the dynamics of the family. One man was totally disengaged, and non-participatory, looking on from behind. Their 3 year old was cooking rice over a fire while we met and another child would make occasional eye contact, but she was mostly withdrawn. Her eyes appeared to be dry and slightly off-centered; probably from a lack of proper nutrition. She doesn’t want to go to school  and she buried her head in her hands when we talked about it. Her parents have squandered their 19,000 rupees given to them from the government on alcohol and come to find out, the burnt foundation was their house. The disengaged father set it on fire in a rage one night. We’re already looking for a hostel for two of the children so they can attend school outside the village, and will continue to follow-up to ensure the youngest aren’t in an unsafe or abusive environment. We don’t, of course, have the legal right to take away people’s children, and I don’t want to create the impression that this is what we are doing. It’s disheartening because they had what they needed to start their lives over, but instead they’re enslaved to another master – alcohol.

The wisest of women builds her house,
   but folly with her own hands tears it down.    Proverbs 14:1

The next visit was awe-inspiring. A brother and sister, around 18-20 years old, kindly invited us into their home, around 15 square feet large, maybe a little smaller. They had electricity, water, a tv, and a dvd player! It was neat and organized too. We sat down with them and they were all smiles. Small children crawled all over them as Praisey assessed their functioning. Both of them have company jobs and appeared healthy (this is not a mental status exam, lol). The sister put all 19,000 rupees in the bank for savings and she and her brother are learning how to manage life again, and they’re doing great! We had some spare time at the end  so Praisey asked me if I wanted to ask them anything. In remembering the previous family I asked,  “What were the barriers you encountered in getting to this point and how did you get over them?”  The brother looked at me, still beaming with joy, and said, “After we were released from the owner my father died, and then my uncle died. And then my mother became very ill.” I caught a glimpse of a large 12 x 15 picture of his father behind him. “But someone in the community was there for me and my sister. We wouldn’t have made it without their help, especially when my mother was ill.” To think of how they got to this point–how they’ve made it financially and were able to push through the death of two family members and the near death of their mother—blows me away. They get the Most Resilient Award in my book! 😀 Seriously though, after meeting with them I was overwhelmed and awestruck, thinking about how so many people are afflicted with similar situations and can’t rise above it. What makes this brother and sister any different? Is it their courage? Was it the community support? This makes me want to look into internal and external factors relating to post-traumatic growth.Whatever the combination of factors, one thing is for sure: not all factors are from their efforts or strength. The Lord used IJM to rip them straight out of darkness, renewed their hope, and helped to instill worth in them.

Can you imagine being stuck in an job that you couldn’t get out of where you are physically and verbally abused, paid unfair wages, and nauseously accepting the fact that your little children will be the next employees? So many of them end up in bonded labor because they have migrated to escape the monsoon season so they accept an advance from a business owner to get on their feet again and begin the unending process of  “paying off the advance.” The owner abuses his power by paying them less than minimum wage, making it impossible for them to ever repay the initial advance; and consequently, they’re stuck. If they leave, they have no income and they put themselves and their children at risk for starvation or being beaten, even possibly killed by the owner if they were to get caught. It’s a lose-lose situation. For so many, this situation is normal (40 million are bonded slaves in south asia), and they unknowingly compromise their health, the future of their children, and their well-being for the meager income they receive — all for an ounce of hope to have a stable future. So, can you imagine how difficult it must be for them to take another risk to start over again?

The Lord has repaired the devastation of many generations through the presence of IJM and the willful hearts of this brother and sister. If they press on as they’re doing now, the generational cycle of bondage will be broken for their family. How incredible!

This song clearly explains how I feel after seeing their faces after knowing the risks and barriers they encountered to get where they are today. Aren’t the poor the richest among us? I Saw What I Saw by Sara Groves written after her visit to Rwanda.