At 24, I was floundering. I hated my job in Atlanta, working in a cubicle. I wanted to travel. Do some good. When I was accepted into the volunteer program, I thought I got my chance.
I was assigned to Sri Lanka, where I met Sasha—a 12-year old with soft, wavy hair and a deep smile. She lived in the rural village of Buthpitiya, in the children’s home where I had found an apartment. When I arrived, her warm brown eyes greeted me.
“Welcome, Ms. Elana,” she said in her best English. While most of the kids just giggled, Sasha had a gentle confidence that appealed to me. She was one of the older girls assigned to help me navigate my way around the home. She’d accompany me to the boy’s section, where she taught me how to talk to the older, much stricter matron—always sneaking me a smile or a wink.
As a community developer, my main job was to maintain friendly ties with the villagers. I learned not to eat before my bike visits—because they would insist on feeding me with curries, tea and fresh pineapple served with salt—but on some nights I’d sit and chat with the older girls from the children’s home.
“Elana Aka, your family must miss you so much,” Sasha said to me one day. She clutched by hand and walked me down the dirt road, as if she was my protector.
“I think they’re happy I’m here helping so many special people.” I said, holding her hand tighter. “Just like you.” We clasped fingers and swung our hands back and forth like a pendulum.
Sasha was labeled an orphan of a lower caste—although she had one living parent, her father, who saw her occasionally. Once, before she left for a long weekend with him, she handed me a picture of herself. “You can take this to America,” she said, “you can show your family when you return in two years.”
That was the last time we spoke. Her father had noticed her beauty—but instead of taking care of her, he took advantage of her. Sasha became pregnant, and the owners of the children’s home refused to readmit her. They were afraid her image would tarnish or corrupt the other girls. I tried to bring Sasha back—but a few weeks later, when a wealthy benefactress of the home came to visit, she sharply told me that they had “no place for sluts” in the home.
I was stunned, standing there in my crooked, handmade flowered dress.“If she comes back,” the benefactress said, “it will start an epidemic.” She had the children pour water from a silver basin onto her feet, then bow to worship her. She was more powerful than I’d realized; I had been certain I could fix Sasha’s problem, but my hubris had only made things worse. The next day, I was forced out of the home.
With the help of some dedicated villagers, I quickly found a small house to rent. It had no plumbing, no running water and no kitchen—but it was mine. The villagers started arriving in droves at my new abode, armed with housewarming presents—yellow glasses for tea, fresh mangoes, homemade desserts. I straightened my back and began to place my new glasses on display in the cupboard. Then, while unpacking, I found Sasha’s photograph and placed it in a handmade box. I’d occasionally take it out and look at it throughout the remainder of my time in Sri Lanka, sometimes smiling and sometimes crying. A few years later, I also took that photo back to America as Sasha had requested.
I was grateful for the new start—but haunted by the fact that there was nothing I could do for Sasha now, nothing I could do for any of the orphans.
Today I once again work with children as an ESL teacher, and although most of my students are well-treated and from loving homes I feel compelled to speak up when I suspect otherwise. Especially if it is a little girl.