“I wish you could all see their faces as they light up in my memory…”

Beyond the Orphanage

Written by:

Dr. Bobbie Legg

A psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker who works with children and adolescents living with early childhood trauma.

Dr. Bobbie Legg is a psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker with a career focus of working with children and adolescents who have lived through early childhood trauma. BTO funded Dr. Bobbie’s travel to Nepal earlier this year to deliver specialised trauma therapy in Nepal for the children of the BTO programs. Here, she recounts a few moments in time while at Star Children in Pokhara.

Many times in life the moments that challenge us the most are the ones we didn’t see coming. Joy and sadness can be best friends. During my last night in Birgunj, I was overwhelmed by the awareness of connection to kids, to staff. Not being able to step out of the gate, not matter how many good-byes had been said without Binu—and her tiny frame—nestling up to my side so we could do one more hand game with victorious hip bump punctuating my crossing to the other side of the gate, away from the kids, to take my final motorbike ride across town. That night I felt like a knife stabbed me through the chest. My heart couldn’t bear the joy of connection and the devastating feeling of loss that I knew would happen when I loaded my backpack and suitcase full of goods on the next web of transportation services that would lead me farther west in Nepal.

As I waited by a small, rural airstrip for my plane, I realized that my breathing got shorter and congested. Due to the heavy wood smoke, Nepal is one of the special places in the world where the mundane task of blowing my nose produces an outpouring of black soot. I assumed the congestion was my sadness. I arrived at Star Children the next morning with significantly less lung capacity, but convinced it was some allergy-asthma flair up specific to me. I spent the day connecting with new teens, listening to their stories, seeing their art work, hearing their lyrics, and sharing dance and laughter. My heart felt lighter. I made it through the transition—new beginnings are sometimes the best remedy for the pain of separation. Then in the morning, I got the news.

Jasmine, a young girl is in the hospital. “She was fine yesterday,” the staff member told me. I know—my internal thoughts screamed—we had danced, shared and laughed together. I froze in fear that I could have given her some sort of cold, flu or virus. My heart sank. As she lay in the hospital, I began a day of trauma work with all of her peers. We began narratives of their lives. Poignant drawings and stories of losing their biological parents to the AIDS epidemic. The pain of watching a sibling die, slowly, from the disease. Stories of young lives that know endless medical appointments and daily pills—all while living in absolute secrecy.

Of the tragedies these souls have faced in the young lives, is the knowledge that they are shamed. Shamed by society for being affected by a disease that compromises immune systems and forces them to live in the shadows. In their short years on this planet, they have witnessed that tragedy of being forced out of schooling, rejected by public services and, perhaps worst of all, rejected from human connection and decency. Shamed for those they have lost. In the BTO Kode house, they are free to live with their brothers and sisters. They can hug, love and play. They can live. But as they walk out of the front door—full facades must be in place. Maintaining the secrecy is a daily task to preserve their education, their freedom to walk in town, their freedom to have friends…their freedom to live.

At the end of the day, I went to the staff who had received a report from Jasmine’s hospital. “How is she?” The sad, downcast response was, “Not good.” This isn’t fair my internal mind screamed, my congestion was gone. My healthy immune system was in full force—I felt fine. The staff reported how this happens to her several times a year to her, they could only hope for the best. I curled in bed that night sobbing in the tragedy that the smallest cold, flu, infection can—and does go to her lungs—leaving her fighting for her life. The morning brought better news, Jasmine was later discharged from the hospital. At the house, she was bound to her bed, but asked if I could come in to be with her. She grabbed my hand and with profound strength that seemed unmatched by her thin frame. She was still too weak for words, she would try to speak and the pressured whistling sound from her impaired lungs was the only thing that emerged.

During the next days, she could slowly begin to sit and speak, softly and slowly. Her first sentence to me was “I want to be with you”, pointing up to the roof where she heard murmurs of our group therapy, emotional sharing, games, music and rambunctious play during the day. The next day, she was able to huddle with me and other girls briefly. She shared her dreams of cosmetology and desire for health and fullness in life. Her smile lit up the room as she created a small cosmetology workshop to have girls braid my hair and paint my nails in rainbow colors.

The next after, she had the strength to join our trauma recovery group. Although frail and limited in strength, she began her own book, noting her strengths, taking the pictures that I had printed of her connecting with friends and sitting in the sunshine. She couldn’t laugh or play—to merely speak led her lungs to gasp—but, in my twenty years working in this field, I don’t believe I’ve seen a teen more grateful to have the ability to sit in group therapy.

After group that day, and most days, the girls pulled me aside with questions that searched for hope. “Can love marriage be possible?” In a society where the technically abolished cast system still guides most marriages, to not have parents feels like death sentence. The girls verbalized profound feelings of being immobilized by their circumstances; being orphaned translated to permanent isolation from long-term companionship as an adult. Yet, day after day, they shared, they listened to each other and they found glimmers of hope and strength in their stories and in their future.

On my last day as I poured over details of how to have them embody their strength—they interrupted me. With swift lies, they snuck me into the house to throw me a surprise party of gratitude. They had candles, cards and gifts. As I bumbled in my words to describe my own gratitude, the words came at me from her young mouth, “I am strong, because you first showed me to be strong.” We sang songs of how the connection of human lives changes each other. It is in our own toughest times that the power of relationships transforms us to places of greater strength. Society attempts to force these youths out of relationship with all. Out of fear, many societies attempt to force kids living with HIV/AIDS into a life where they cannot have contact—physical or emotional—with others, but these amazing survivors show the amazing force of human connection and love. Against all odds, love within our sharing of this human experience rises above. I couldn’t be more grateful.

Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words. I wish every supporter of Beyond the Orphanage could know these children personally. I wish you could see their faces as they light up in my memory. But due to the huge risk each of them face if their identities are exposed, no pictures can be shown, and all names shared are pseudonyms. I only hope that by me sharing bits of my experience, you can have a mental picture of the transformative life-long support that BTO provides for these amazing young people.

To learn more about Star Children and Sano Paila, and the work BTO does there, click here.

If not you, who? If not now, when? You can make a big change to a young person’s life by donating. Thank you.

March 12, 2018

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