The House of Hope

Basha is one of my favorite places in the world! In short, Basha is a house of Hope, a place where both trafficked women and women at risk can come to find safety, dignity and a place to start over. You can read a more in depth post about Basha here.

Walking in, we are greeted by room after room full of happy, strong, brave and transformed women. Their joy is contagious, their smiles radiate from their hearts and the peace is palpable. We sit with them, watching swift hands quilt vibrant vintage saris into Kantha quilts. We stare, in awe, at deft fingers hammering and shaping copper, brass and silver into beautiful jewelry. Their children play happily in a nearby room while their moms stitch and hammer new chapters of their lives into being.

Face after face reveal to me the truth that healing is possible, even after the deepest tragedy. Life can be chosen after death. Pain does not have the last word. Sitting in that community of women makes me realize that anything is possible. Even my deepest pain and heartache can be walked through because there is more on the other side. Women together, building hope, are an unstoppable force.

Photos courtesy of Adrienne Gerber Photography.

 

 

Glimpses of Truth

I had one of those eye-opening moments on the way to work this morning. An African American woman was approaching cars in front of me as I waited at a red light. I immediately assumed she was asking for money and was weighing what my response would be if she made it to my car before the light changed. As I continued to observe, I realized she was most likely asking for directions instead. My initial assumption was unkind and untrue and I recognized, in that moment, my own implicit bias guiding my actions.

The next thing I observed shook me deeply. As she approached each vehicle, she held her hands in the air to display that she was not a threat. Who asks for help with their hands in the air? What kind of nation are we if people seeking assistance feel the need to put their hands up to display that they are not a threat? It would be very difficult for me to be convinced that racism doesn’t exist here, or that hatred and bigotry are a thing of the past! Try putting both hands in the air the next time you need someone to help you. No one chooses to do this because it is fun; they do it for their own safety.

I saw inequality and injustice played out in front of my eyes, right here in my city today. To the brave woman at the intersection today, I’m sorry I made assumptions about you. You must have been terrified, and I’m sorry for being a part of the system that has given you reason to fear. You are braver than I. Thank you for unknowingly helping me to unpack just a little bit more of my own bias.

Photo courtesy of Adrienne Gerber Photography.

Arrived

It was on the third and final leg of our flight to Dhaka that reality sunk in – we were almost there! Only a few white faces dotted the landscape of the large aircraft that carried hundreds of us to our final destination. Exhausted, I could barely keep my eyes open until, near the end of the flight, the din of excited passengers rose and the aisles began to fill with travelers calling out to each other, though I doubt many of them knew each other before the flight. My friends were all awake by now and kept looking around in bewildered astonishment at this happy party bus that was hurtling us through the air. The entire row in front of me was filled with women wrapped in colorful hijabs, passing their passports and landing card to the man across the aisle from us, so he could fill it out for them. The realization that these women were illiterate struck me deep and hard. When they figured out that I could speak Bangla, the woman in front of me struck up a conversation, and showed me snapshots on her phone. What I learned astounded me. She and her friends were returning to Bangladesh from Jordan, where they had spent that last three years working in a garment factory. She had a seven year old son, left behind in her home village of Bangladesh that she had not seen in three years.

Three years! I cannot imagine leaving my baby for three years, to go work in a foreign country. Three years of living among strangers and working long, hard days, stitching disposable clothing for the rich of the West, just so I could send enough money home to support my parents and child. I wanted to curl up in a ball on the floor of the plane, to pound my fist and weep, to bring a little bit of justice to this very unjust reality that this woman, and no doubt the friends accompanying her, were experiencing.

We soon touched down in Dhaka and a few passengers began to stand up before we reached the gate much to the chagrin of the flight attendant who tried, in vain, to get them reseated. As her calls went unheeded, I thought to myself, “Good luck!” These people are among the strongest and most determined people on the planet! And they are coming home. They may have endured hell out there, but they found their way home. Their excitement oozed into me and I felt like I, too, had come home.

To read more about garment factories in Jordan, check out this article and this one too.

When Labels Slip Away

My body feels as if it has been dropped into an alternate reality. The haze I feel goes beyond being hurled through eleven time zones, and dropped back into a land of ice and snow. I shiver, yet my body bears proof of time spent in a place of warmth as my forehead peels and my feet boast scabs from wearing sandals for two weeks. But the shiver is not just physical for the very depth of my being is in shock, though I have gone and returned many times before. You would think I would be used to this by now, or maybe I am just more aware this time of my own prejudice and Western expectations and the labels I am so quick to apply. Each day I was gone, those things were ruptured with a shocking but beautiful reality. My brain struggles to turn these experiences into words that you would understand. I will try, because the brave and beautiful people I met deserve to have their stories told and because we in the West have so much to learn from those unlike ourselves who we label as “other”.

Forgive me if I can’t lay it all out just yet. There is something sacred about being welcomed as a stranger into the story of another, for even a brief moment, of observing utter pain and despair being transformed into the very deepest joy. It’s as if a lifetime of joy and pain have been squeezed into two weeks and there is no language to translate it into.

So I’m holding these stories in my heart, yet they leak from my eyes and I am more than undone. For among the poorest of the poor, I have met the bravest, kindest and strongest souls you could imagine. I saw glimpses of the Creator in their faces, heard whispers of the Divine in their stories. I sat myself down and I listened. Labels slipped away and love was all that was left.

100 Women!

I am not gonna lie. I woke up Wednesday morning feeling a little deflated and angry that the divide in our country is still so great. I fear for how families I care deeply about will be affected in the coming months and years. I grieve for good people, who worked so hard, had much to offer, yet lost the election. Yet one common thread of hope keeps popping up in my news feed; 100 women elected to the House! Native American Women. Muslim Women. Queer Women. Democrat Women, Republican Women, Women of all ages and backgrounds. Women!

I think that across the aisle, the commonality we find is that we all want change. The beauty of this movement, of these 100 women, is that women innately know in the marrow of our bones that, while change can be sparked in a second, delivery of that change first requires a long time in a safe womb. This understanding is in our DNA and it gives us the strength to persist, to endure, to carry,  to bring forth and to nurture. These women give me hope because I know that they have it within them to birth change, to be forces that are life-giving in a life-threatening world.

I think back to those precious moments right before the birth of my sons. The moments I hurt so badly that I wanted to die were also the moments I was the strongest. As women, we are the strongest when we are in the most pain, because we choose to push through that pain until a new reality is born. That is who we are and that is what gives our country hope.

 

Reasons to Vote

Weary, so weary. Stories of injustice clog my ears. My tears turn to lead as I hang my head and wonder how we got here, to a place where beautiful souls are gunned down in a place of worship, where cries of greatness have turned into building walls and ripping children from parents. A place where protecting the life of the unborn is more important than caring for those who already breathe in the air we share, where we incarcerate African Americans at a much higher rate than “white” Americans for the same offense. Where thousands in my city are not registered to vote, convinced that their voice would not make a difference. Where women are squashed like unwanted bugs and choose to stay silent because they are not believed, where abusers are protected and victims are shamed.

So I am not going to vote in hopes that some greatness will find us. The greatness is already here; we have just shut it down and hidden it in a box or a cage or a cell. The greatness we seek is best seen in the least of these. So I am going to vote for the sake of these –

  • For the woman on the other side of the wall who ran to keep her children safe from gang-lords. For the boy who works the night shift then goes to school all day to care for his family because of what ICE has done in my city. For the families in hiding, though for years have been trying to be legal like me, whose hard working tax dollars benefit everyone but themselves and now they wonder where their next meal will come from.
  • For the families in my district who cannot own homes or borrow a dime to improve their spaces. This ensures that property values and taxes stay low, so low that not enough goes to fund the schools and their children are fought instead of taught by teachers who exhausted and under-equipped.
  • For the African Americans unjustly incarcerated who line the cells of private prisons while the owners line their pockets with billions. For the black bodies laying on the ground through no fault of their own, silently screaming for us to take note. For the daughters of the woman who remembers her uncle being tarred and feathered and hung from a tree for just being who he was. For the same woman whose last words to her daughters were, “Don’t ever stop.”

I will not stop. I will remember these and I will vote for their sake.

 

Prickly Privilege

Two handmade crochet fairy dolls, one black and one white.

If the word Privilege causes you to prickle, especially when combined with the word “white” here are a few things you may want to think about.

This year all three of our boys had spring break during a different week. I only took off work for one of them. I drove 425 miles with my son to see his new baby cousin and to hang out with the bigger cousins.

He had hours of alone time with mom, which he rarely gets.

…several fast food meals, which he rarely gets.

…a trip to the aquarium.

…countless basketball games with his cousin.

…late night TV with his uncle to watch his favorite team play.

His brothers had to fend for themselves over their spring breaks. No special treatment for them.

He realized it was a special.

He was grateful for it.

He did nothing more than his brothers to deserve this trip.

He didn’t rub it in their faces.

This is privilege. If his brothers would have pointed out to him that he had a week of privileges, he probably would have simply agreed with them. He wouldn’t have felt that they were insulting him or that something was wrong with him. He would have owned it.

Here are some ways I see I am privileged:

  • I can set my cruise to 9 miles over the speed limit and not worry too much about being pulled over.
  • I can take my nieces and nephew into a museum on my sister-in-law’s pass and not be asked for id or bag check.
  • I can trace my ancestry back to the shores of other countries.
  • I can walk into the movies or any store with a very large purse and not once am asked to open it for inspection, not once am I followed around.
  • I own 51% of a small business in a country where white women still make less than white men and women of color make even less. See more here.
  • I had an educational opportunity to complete high school in 3 years.
  • I have incredible credit rates and was able to take out a mortgage during a time we had virtually no income.

These are just a few examples of ways I have come to realize I am privileged. I didn’t earn them. I’m not a bad person for having them. I see, though, that the playing ground is not level and many others do not have these same privileges.

Michael Harriot breaks it down as not being an insult nor an accusation but rather a measurable gap. You can read his article here.

I own my privileges. I am very grateful for them. And where possible, I will use my privileges to work towards leveling the playing ground for all.

Press for Progress

This is Chonda. The real deal. Not an actor paid to play the part. She is the heart and soul of a change that is gaining momentum in Bangladesh. Her face will tell you a story, if you take the time to let it capture you.

Nestled across the river from the Sundarbans, the world’s largest coastal mangrove forest and home to the Bengal Tiger, is the small village where Chonda and her husband Rabindranath have made their home. For years, Rabindranath caught larvae from the river and sold it in the market to support his family. If he caught enough, the family ate well. If not, they were hungry. When the Bangladesh Forest Department banned the taking of natural resources from the Sundarban as part of a conservation program, Rabindranath had no choice but to become a day laborer. Now, instead of being at the mercy of nature, he is at the mercy of local employers who may or may not need temporary help.

Chonda longed to do something to help. As a woman in a conservative Hindu village, she was not allowed to become a day laborer and no local shops would hire women either. She dreamed of starting a small business in her home but lacked the capital to do so. Then one day she heard about Hathay Bunano, which means handmade in Bangla. Hathay Bunano had started a work center near her, where other women gathered daily to knit and crochet  soft and colorful Pebble toys. Robindranath agreed that Chonda could take the training. During her training, she not only learned how to knit and crochet, she also learned the values of Fair Trade, as well as her value as a woman deserving of equal opportunity. For three years now, she has been working as an equal to her husband in providing for the family. They no longer worry about whether they will have enough to eat. They are able to send their daughter to school, which is significant in a country where schooling is not free and education is not mandatory. Chonda has opened a bank account and has been saving money, instead of living hand to mouth, dependent upon her husband’s earnings. She and her husband are now talking about starting their own business together someday. Chonda has become a powerful voice in her community, challenging other women to realize their value and equality, pressing them towards progress and being a living example of hope and change.

 

Basha: The House of Hope

Imagine living in a place wrapped in green all year, where warmth and color are alive, swirling from the rice paddies to the rickshaws to the ever growing stream of people. Imagine waking up to the smell of curry and the sound of the call to prayer. Imagine falling asleep to the rustle of palm branches and the banter of neighbors. Imagine a place where shopkeepers call out greetings as you walk by and no one is a stranger. Imagine that tea is a language of its own, poured out fluently on every corner, pausing time so friends can catch up and deals are sealed. Imagine a place where everyone is family and no one cares about your given name because you are sister, brother, uncle, auntie, grandmother, grandfather, someone who belongs.

Imagine being born daughter in this place where your physical beauty, the shade of your skin and the status of your family determine the course of your life for you. Where education comes at a cost your family most likely cannot afford. Imagine if your father, your uncles, your brothers decide who and when you will marry and how much they can pay to make that happen. While in many families, daughters are welcomed and protected, there are many more where the desperation of poverty and centuries of male dominance have led to these daughters growing up voiceless and vulnerable.

Imagine being daughter in a family that has lost its income and protection because it lost its father. When *Shanti’s father died, her mother had no choice but to take her out of school and send her to work as a maid in the home of a wealthier family. There Shanti was raped repeatedly until she became pregnant, and was thrown out onto the streets.

Imagine being forced into a marriage that you found repulsive, like *Rani, who protested against the arrangement and was beaten by her brother for objecting. Or *Jasmine, whose worst fears were realized when her new husband abused her and then abandoned her and her unborn child. Or *Lucky whose husband pimped her out to support his drug  habit.

For women like these, there is little hope. Their families rarely take them back and, more likely than not, they are blamed for their situation. In a land where employment for women is harder to find than cold water in the desert, and with their protector gone, women like these often turn to prostitution as the only way to survive. Filled with shame, their only bit of dignity left is their voice which they use to demand payment for what would otherwise be taken from them anyway.

Imagine all this. The beauty and warmth of this land of belonging and then the loss of that place of belonging. Where once you were celebrated, now you are treated like the mud that clings to the bottom of sandals in the monsoon. Where once you saw friends, now the women hate you and the men use you.

There’s little hope for prostituted women in Bangladesh. While it is quite rare for a Muslim country to legalize prostitution, most of the estimated 100,000 women carrying out the trade have not chosen it. Most of them would choose anything but prostitution, if only there was an “anything but”.

When Robin Seyfert moved to Bangladesh in 2006, she fell in love with the beauty and hospitality of the place. As she got to know some of these women and saw that there were so many who wanted an alternative, she knew she had found her new place of belonging by creating safe spaces of belonging and opportunity for these women. She says that:

“starting and running Basha, a social enterprise, was completely unexpected and has been the biggest challenge, terror and joy of my life”.

Basha, named after the Bengali word for hope, Asha, and the Bengali word for house, Basha, is a house of hope. It has grown from thirteen women in one small Dhaka apartment to more than 100 full-time production workers in five production centres throughout Bangladesh.

As you can imagine, the needs of exploited women go far beyond their need of a new source of income. Women coming to Basha begin with a training program that gives them time and space to heal. This six-month training provides basic literacy, basic English, life skills, values, conflict resolution, health and hygiene, and they are taught how to make the beautiful, one of a kind Basha products. The monthly allowance they receive allows them to completely cut ties with abusers and focus on their healing and discovering their true worth. As dignity is daily mirrored to them, their shame begins to fade and hope is born.

Not only is Basha a strong agent of change for so many women, it also works hard to give the children of these women a different life than their mothers had. It provides a daycare program which educates, tutors and and feeds the children. Basha has also opened up a hostel for young girls who used to fend for themselves on the streets. You can read some of their stories here.

I’ve gotten to rub shoulders with a few of these women and sit in hallowed spaces with them, where time stops as stories poured out mark the journey from shame to dignity. My eyes and heart overflow because I cannot hold it in, the sacred beauty of shame turned dignity. Isn’t that what we all want, our shame to be reshaped into dignity? Isn’t that what makes us brave and causes us to give ourselves away again and again, to also help the shame of others be turned into dignity?

This is where you and I can help; the building of Basha is far from over. You can read more about Basha in their journal and here are tangible ways for you to give and be involved in creating dignity for the women of Bangladesh. There are monthly and one time gift options, made easy by credit/debit card, as well as bank transfer. You can choose what you would like to support: the hostel, the training program, the nutritional program, daycare, or support for the foreign workers, like Robin, who are committed to being agents of change in Bangladesh. You can also purchase beautiful hand-crafted works of art made by Basha Boutique. Here is the list of stockists around the world who sell Basha products.

Imagine with me: Suffocating shame being transformed into breathtaking dignity.

Become a part of the Basha story.

 

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the women.

 

 

Pro Life?

Standing among friends and strangers at a rally in the town of my birth, I wore my heart on my sign. I thought long and hard about what I wanted to say. How do you fit a journey of the heart into a tiny sign? After a night of little sleep and unsettling dreams, this is what came to me.

Pro Life? Then stand with those who fear for theirs.

Something fundamental is lost when a pro life stance is only pro birth. If I only care about preserving the life of a wee babe until it is pushed out from the safety and comfort of the womb, then I care nothing about that wee babe, only about making sure that someone else is keeping the letter of the law.

There is a pretty big difference between being anti-abortion and being pro-life. Anti-abortion will do anything to make abortion illegal. It is a political stance that hopes to influence policies, without personally needing to put in any of the work needed to serve those wee babes or their mothers.

I carried this sign because I wanted people to reflect on the idea that being pro-life should change the way you do life. Living eight years in a country where abortion was illegal showed me that laws do very little to change things. Abortions happened frequently there and they were only more dangerous to the mother because of the ways in which they were done. It got me thinking a lot.

Can we say we are pro-life if we marginalize and demonize the woman who has had an abortion instead of seeking to restore her to community? Can we say we are pro-life if, when that babe is hungry and her mom can’t make it on minimum wages and applies for food stamps, we judge her and call her lazy or entitled?  What about when the babe grows up and can’t get health care because of a preexisting condition and he dies? Are we pro-life when another babe grows up and spends days running through the jungle from a genocide in her country and we close our borders because she might be a terrorist? When the babe of one skin tone grows up and ends up having his blood splattered on the sidewalk though he was unarmed and was not threatening anyone but the one who took his life walks away scot-free, whose life are we really for? What about the babe who grows up and embraces his culture and decides to kneel during the national anthem as a way to signal to the rest of us that there is a group of people who fear for their lives because of events that keep happening throughout our country?

Pro-life is for life on either side of the womb. It gets to know the moms contemplating abortion and does life with them helping to carry their load. It shares food with the hungry. It works tirelessly to ensure that lives of all races are treated with dignity and it speaks out against injustice. Pro-life does not discriminate. It listens to people of other races, socioeconomic levels, religions and beliefs. It loves. It serves. It is never only pro (rich white American) life. It is for all life.

I also wanted to signal to those who are living in fear for their lives that they are not alone. Their voices are heard. Their pain matters.  Their life has value. I’m adding my voice to the cry, putting my body on the sidewalk with them and for them.

Pro life. It’s not a political or religious stance.  It’s a way of living.