By: Tierney Ducharme
When I close my eyes I still see the four young women seated before me in white plastic chairs. I see lots of color—each one is wearing her own unique palette. Bright blue and yellow-gold. Red and black and white. Mint green and embroidered violet. Crimson and forest green.
I hear the laughter that follows a joke I missed—it was in Hindi, a beautiful language I do not speak. I turn to Sheela, an IJM Mumbai social worker, and patiently await her translation. I love glancing over at Sheela. The joy and compassion in her expression is constant, and it needs no translation. As our colleague Shalini put it, “There will be a palace for Sheela in heaven.”
These four young women were rescued from a brothel less than two months ago. They were trafficked and have suffered unspeakable violence. With the patient and skilled help of my colleagues in Mumbai, they are learning to reclaim freedom and redefine who they are.
At one point in our conversation, we ask each young woman what her name means. I think this will be an icebreaker question. I remember when I lived in India, for a year as an IJM Communications intern; I was constantly asked what my name means. I was named for my Irish grandmother, but I hadn’t known the meaning: nobility.
I’m surprised when only one girl’s name is known—it means hope. Some in our group speak many languages and know about Sanskrit origins of names, and of course we have Google. The other young women smile as they learn what their names mean—lovely, wise, like gold.
Our conversation continues, and I find myself dwelling on these meanings as I await translated answers to new questions.
- The woman whose name means hope is the quietest. She was also the one who gently took my hand soon after we met and walked silently beside me up the stairs. Although she spoke the fewest words during our short interview, later, on the walk back to the car she again took my hand and started singing. Her voice was sweet but so faint; I could hardly tell if there were words. I hummed along and sensed a deep hope emerging.
- The woman whose name means lovely is, objectively, lovely. I won’t describe her face to protect her desire for anonymity, but I cannot forget her bright eyes and regal features. It was during our conversation about names that she revealed she hasn’t been going by her real name—rather, the name that she had been given at the brothel. In this conversation about beauty and dreams for the future, she reclaimed her true name, and I hope, a little more of her true and lovely self.
- The woman whose name means wise mirrors the virtue. Within a few minutes, I found myself thinking how she seemed like the mother hen of this small group; when one of the girls struggled to answer, she jumped in to re-ask the question or help bridge a language gap. Though she has been free less than two months, she is already thinking practically about next steps for her future. She is taking sewing lessons to open her own shop and learning English, she says, so she can help others in her village access people and services they need.
- The woman whose name means gold-like is energetic, boisterous, spirited. She stands out in a crowd. She spoke with her hands when answering a question, played with her scarf when sitting, and she often interjected with a joke or an unprompted comment. When we started making pictures, she was eager to pose with everyone, and she jumped at the chance to be the one behind the camera making others shine.
When our short time together ends, I’m filled with so much gratitude I feel heavy. I am honored to share bits of their story, even as it continues to unfold. I am eager for reports in the coming months from my colleagues Sheela and Shalini, as they will keep counseling and celebrating these survivors in their long journey of freedom.
And I am thankful that I can pray for these women by name—moreover, that I can pray for them with the fullness of their name’s meaning.