Less than three months from the day I was informed that I was a recipient of the Christianson Grant, I felt my imaginary world belly flop. Despite months planning and preparing, the culturally appropriate clothing snugly packed in my suitcase, and a slew of local phrases stocked in my short-term memory, I was nervous about leaving behind my everyday life in exchange for the utter unknown. One foot in front of the other, I walked down the jetway on a mission to study women’s empowerment in Southeast Asia. Whatever you do, don’t look back – I thought to myself.
"The combination of experiences... has illustrated the resiliency of the human spirit."
Arriving in India everything was different. It was sweltering in March, cows shared street lanes with taxis and changed lanes at blind will, my left hand was suddenly rendered useless in public and my shoes had to wait for me at the doorway. Despite the initial dizzying differences, within a few weeks I found my bearings. I worked with a nonprofit organization, Experiential Learning International, in Chennai offering numerous services throughout the region for the past 40 years. HIV/AIDS, human trafficking, women’s empowerment, transgender issues, family counseling, and rag-pickers are the main areas of expertise.
During the course of eight weeks, I was able to see and do things I never imagined possible. I visited a tsunami-ravaged village five years after the wave to understand the effects of aid relief after natural disasters, acted as a wedding photographer at an arranged Hindu marriage ceremony, compiled and co-wrote a grant for the HIV/AIDS department, assisted the street theater company with outreach in an outdoor fruit market, wandered the garbage dumps searching for rag-pickers, promoted savings cooperatives within slums and listened to the powerful stories of the abused women living in the short-stay home. I was even photographed in eight major newspapers during a World Health Day rally where I spoke publicly atop a bull cart in the community!
My time in India granted me the unique opportunity to observe the complex set of social issues plaguing Southern India, participate in grassroots outreach, and witness firsthand how the effects of empowerment ripple through a community. Though I have worked in social welfare previously, the opportunity to do so internationally and without comfort zones made me vulnerable to an array of feelings, from injustice to admiration, despair to compassion, fostering a deep respect for people from all nations. No matter the language, religion or background, we all seek safety, happiness, health and love within the borders of our lives.
Armed with four new international friendships and a basic understanding of Southern Indian mores, I ventured to the land of the mighty Himalayas: Nepal. Over the next four months, I built upon my knowledge base from India to aid in my understanding of community development in Nepal. I worked with a local-run Nepalese organization specializing in women’s and children’s rights. My interaction with local communities continued, with emphasis on casework versus outreach, affording consistent interaction with a core group of individuals. Visit after visit, I came to know their faces, their names, their children, their families, and eventually their stories.
My four months in Nepal brimmed with opportunity everywhere I looked. I was able to co-write grants with top Nepalese human rights organizations, observe the disconcerting effects of a fractious government developing a fledgling constitution, provide in-depth development assistance to a local women’s weaving cooperative, design and build a website, visit a rural village to celebrate the birth of new baby buffaloes, merchandize a gift shop, film and create two short documentaries, and study the effects of social media outlets to increase awareness.
Of all my endeavors, perhaps the most memorable is founding a project called Playground Now! Nepal. In collaboration with a local Nepalese organization, Playground Now! Nepal is building two playgrounds for 160 shelter children and orphans of war in Kathmandu, Nepal. Every child deserves the right to play and this project will benefit children by providing the ability to heal through play. Their innocent eyes have witnessed violence, abuse, and sometimes the murder of their mother and father in the aftermath of civil war. Though they will always remember their past, what is important is their future, a future filled with promise and the opportunity to experience some piece of childhood before it passes them by.
The combination of experiences, coupled with the special connections forged with the people of India and Nepal, has solidified the fact that our similarities far outweigh our differences. It has heightened my awareness of injustice and the profound depth of poverty experienced among humankind. It has illustrated the resiliency of the human spirit and the endurance hope offers in the dimmest of hours. It taught me to find joy within personal relationships and to value the art of conversation. It impressed upon me the fact that everyone has a story to tell, if we only have enough compassion to listen to those around us. It has illustrated that there is as much malice as beauty in our shared space and the genuine need for action over apathy. As a global citizen in a world with diminishing boundaries, there is a definitive need to generate an active interest in the well-being of our neighbors – both next door and on the other side of the world.
From the moment I accepted the Christianson Grant from the InterExchange Foundation I knew my life would change, but I could never have predicted the magnitude. I can’t imagine myself not seizing this opportunity from the generosity of the InterExchange Foundation, without which this experience would have proven entirely impossible. Words seem a feeble attempt for the profound impact this journey has irreversibly imprinted upon my life. Though I can never express appreciation to suffice all I have been granted, I can do my part promoting international understanding and to proliferate the ethos of global citizenship within my life, across borders and along new paths that lie ahead. Above all, I have learned being a global citizen is a conscious decision. It is a decision between making these two words verbs or nouns: It is the concerted choice between action and inaction.