A few years ago I founded Sisters for Peace, an organization that connects American women with women around the world, focusing especially on empowering women and girls living in impoverished conditions. Through Hands in Outreach, another Berkshire-based organization founded by local artist Ricky Bernstein, Sisters for Peace has the honor and privilege of sponsoring the education of three Nepalese girls in Kathmandu.
Last fall, my husband Walter and I went to Nepal with Hands in Outreach to meet our girls: Manisha, Nisha, and Nirmala. What follows is an account of our meeting with Nisha, the poorest of our sponsored girls in Nepal.
Nisha lives in a smelly cowshed, with trash and filth everywhere. As we walk towards the shed I’m thinking, she can’t live here… this is for animals. The stench surrounds me. As I look up towards the small door of the shed, Nisha steps out and sees me and she smiles so big, straight from her heart.
Our eyes lock and neither of us look away. In this moment I know that we are now sisters for life.
Her living conditions are unacceptable and unimaginable. She is wearing a dirty red plaid skirt that is much too big for her small 10-year-old body. Inside the shed it is bare, except for a cooking unit and two boards that serve as beds, furnished only with thin, dirty, worn sheets.
Nisha is home alone with her two younger brothers. She has just cooked them rice for dinner. Since they have just eaten, I think to myself, they must have enough to eat… though I see no food other than a small bag of rice. Nisha’s mother works long hours as a construction laborer, carrying bricks and cement in a basket strapped to her head. She is paid the equivalent of $2 to $3 a day.
The shed is very dark. One dull light bulb hangs from a thin wire in the center of the shed, and there is one window where the sun shines through. There is no running water and I’m not sure where the toilet is, but I think it is out in the street somewhere.
Through all of this darkness and despair, Nisha shines so brightly I can hardly believe it. She has a deep calmness, warmth and tenderness that touch my heart beyond words.
In a corner of the shed, I see a tattered blue backpack and I ask her to show me her school books. She proudly opens her bag and takes out a pile of notebooks, each one filled with her own writing. Her own words! Words that can never be taken away from her. We open one of the notebooks and I ask her to read to me. Softly but surely, she reads each word out loud.
In the midst of filth and despair, in the stench of the cowshed, I sit with a girl named Nisha who has books and pencils; who can read and write. The first girl to go to school in her family (her mother and grandmothers were never given that opportunity) she is courageous and strong and full of hope.
Back at our hotel that night, snuggled into my warm bed, all I can think about is Nisha.
The next day, we decide to buy thick warm blankets for both the beds. When we deliver the blankets to Nisha’s mom, it is the only time that she smiles during our visit. She took the large bag that held the blankets and would not let it go when Walter offered to carry it for her. I ask the interpreter to tell her that we want to make sure that she has what she needs.
“What do you need?” I ask. The interpreter translates and she listens intently, then moves her hand to her mouth softly and says, “Food.” Her eyes move from the interpreter to me, and the expression on her face is one that I cannot fully describe: humble, desperate, perhaps with a hint of shame. Our eyes lock in an understanding that will connect us for life.
When we take her grocery shopping, she chooses beans, lentils, rice, flour, eggs, cooking oil, soap, and much more. I ask her to pick something nice for herself, and she chooses shampoo. We spend $53 and she has enough food for her family for more than a month.
My husband Walter and the storeowner pile the supplies on a bicycle and push it back to the cowshed. Inside, as we unpack the groceries, we tell her that we want to help her move out of the cowshed and that we plan to support her while she trains for a better job and life. She is humble and kind and grateful. As we say our goodbyes, she holds her hands together in front of her heart, bows slightly and says “Namaste.” I can see pain and gratitude in her eyes as I return the gesture. As I walk away, my heart is full of gratitude to have been given this incredible opportunity to be part of the life of Nisha and her family.
Around the world this morning, hundreds of thousands of impoverished children, many of them girls, woke up and did not have the opportunity to go to school. Thanks to Hands in Outreach, Nisha is not among them. This morning she walked the dirt streets of Kathmandu carrying her tattered blue book bag to school. Her future is bright with opportunity.
Nisha’s story is a story of hope and overcoming, showing us that change is possible and that by coming together we can make a difference. We can shift things and make this world a better place.
Nisha’s story is also Tatianna’s story. Tatianna is our neighbor, a young mother in Pittsfield, Mass., here in the Berkshires, who is struggling financially and working extremely hard to finish her education and create a better life for herself and her young son. She dreams of working in the criminal justice field someday. Thanks to the support of the Helen Berube Teen Parent Program, Tatianna was able to finish high school and go on to Berkshire Community College, where she is now in her second semester and full of hope.
The lives of Nisha and Tatianna have been changed forever because a caring community came together to say: I see you; you matter; and we will support you in your efforts to improve your lives.
If you would like to join us in our projects this month, we are coming together to support Educating Girls in Nepal and Educating Young Mothers in the Berkshires. For more information, visit the Sisters for Peace website or contact Caroline at email@example.com.
Caroline Wheeler is a writer, activist and a humanitarian. She is the Founder and Director of Sisters for Peace, a grassroots, 501c3 giving community that has a mission to empower women and girls, especially those living in impoverished conditions. Sisters for Peace has rallied to do volunteer work and supports local and global organizations.
The weekly EDGEWISE column is curated by Jennifer Browdy, Ph.D., associate professor of comparative literature, gender studies and media studies at Bard College at Simon’s Rock and the Founding Director of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers. Women writers interested in publishing in EDGE WISE can find writers’ guidelines on the Festival website, or may submit queries or columns to Jennifer@berkshirewomenwriters.org.