Living with Laurie and survivor girl ukulele band
When I first met Laurie, she kind of reminded me of a female Albus Dumbledore. Twinkling blue eyes and a slightly eccentric personality. And she teaches children magic. A different kind of magic though – this is ukulele magic. And Laurie’s not living it up in Hogwarts castle, she’s living in a small apartment in the middle of Kolkata, spending her days at a shelter for girls who have been victims of sex trafficking, or other vulnerable situations.
When Laurie and I met I was volunteering at an eco-resort, Saraya, in Goa, and Laurie had traveled down there for a ukulele festival. We got chatting and I was quite compelled by Laurie’s story – and upon realising that I was interested in making short documentaries, and she was interested in raising awareness for her project, we realised that we could team up to create something.
Two weeks later and I was farewelling Goa, the beautiful beaches with pigs, cows and Russian hippies frolicking on them – and saying hello to Kolkata, the blasting horns and dirty streets that some would say make up ‘real India’.
It took me a bit of time to adjust to the level of noise in this place. Indians seem to have a habit of speaking really loudly to each other, so much so that when I was sitting in a local café ‘Travelistan’ (would highly recommend) – the couple sitting next to me seemed to think it would be a good idea to speak to each other as if they were yelling at each other from across the room: ‘HE IS FROM A GOOD FAMILY!’
Amidst all the hubbub, it would seem that teaching a group of girls an instrument that has the peaceful, soothing noise of the ukulele is a brilliant idea.
Laurie came to India firstly as a traveler. It was then that she met a lady working for Unicef and learnt about the horror of the sex trafficking industry prevalent in the country. Laurie was shocked, but wasn’t sure about how to plug into the issue. She never forgot about it though – and ten years later, wound up back in India, bringing out stacks of ukuleles with her, to teach girls who had been victims of these crimes music… and form 'survivor girl ukulele band: bringing restoration and hope to survivors of human trafficking through the healing power of music and love.'
When Laurie says her catch phrase, she says it like a jingle. When I was interviewing Laurie for the documentary I asked her: okay Laurie, can you tell me about your project ? And she’d recite this jingle, like, radio ready. “Noo, say it to me as if there’s no camera in the room, it’s just you and me here!’ She just looked at me straight in the eyes: “But this is how I say it!”
As you might have guessed Laurie is a character. So what is it like living with her for three weeks? What exactly does she do at the shelter? What are the girls like here?
The girls are beautiful of course, inside and out. They range in age and all have different stories. They welcomed me so readily into their lives for the brief 3 weeks that I was there, calling me ‘Becky auntie’ and asking me 'kamon acho?' (how are you?) or 'tumi keicho?' (have you eaten?) and hugging me when I saw them. (This is like saying, how are you?) You don’t ever say, no I haven’t eaten – it just doesn’t make sense.
Laurie and the girls share a special bond and this was beautiful to witness. For them I think Laurie is like a cool auntie, the kind that buys you weird presents and tells you crazy stories that makes you excited about the world. Most importantly though - she really cares, and is always there to listen.. and she really motivates the girls to work hard at the ukulele, with the encouraging promise of chocolate to the ‘chocolate champion’ that will reign every Friday evening. It’s hard being in the shelter for these girls, away from their homes, their families, for sometimes years. They’re kept inside a facility that is surrounded by high walls, with barbed wire at the top. They can’t pop out for a walk, a catch up with anyone on the outside until they’re released. It’s like a prison, essentially, and it’s ridiculous because these girls aren’t perpetrators of crimes – they’re victims. So being a chocolate champion is a big deal, and the love they receive from Laurie is important.
The girls can participate in various activities throughout the day such as Zumba class, karate, cross stitching, and there are some foundation classes taught where the girls learn skills like time management . Most of the girls cannot go to school as they are border cases or were smuggled at an age that would make going back to school extremely difficult to catch up. The shelter is certainly not an easy place to be and it was hard saying goodbye to these girls. Many are bright, talented and loving souls who are supportive of each other and grateful for little.
Laurie used to live in the shelter with the girls, but now she lives in a flat not too far off, which you can get to by by catching an auto rickshaw and then a bicycle rickshaw. Laurie lives right in the thick of it, there aren’t any other foreigners around so she can speak Bengali pretty well. The locals all seem to know her here, she isn’t hard to miss. Laurie works very hard on her project. I was impressed by her dedication to say the least.
Laurie teaches morning and evening classes and with the student led practice sessions there’s more than 20 hours of ukulele per week at the shelter home. When she's not teaching ukulele or volunteering in the kitchen, she's making thank you cards, songs or videos in her room, or visiting girls who used to be at the shelter, or going to far away markets to work on some other project. She really lives ‘Indian style’ with bucket showers, no hot water, no proper bed, or microwave. Laurie makes a killer dahl. And she loves goognie moorie (a combination of cheakpeas and crisped rice) – she even has a special song that she sings when she eats them - with her hand. Laurie oozes joy and says ‘yes!’ to everything.
Laurie has a big heart and it was a pleasure to stay with her. Her attitude towards life and serving others is admirable. I will confess I did find staying in Kolkata challenging at times but realise that what I could have felt in this small time was nothing in comparison to what the girls and Laurie go through. All of them away from home fighting the big issue of sex trafficking. I also realised that the things that I found challenging could be easily resolved (too much noise = get over it/go to a the nearby quiet café travelisitan, language barriers = communicate through dance/music or learn some phrases, lots of pollution = just focus on the beautiful smells of the delicious street food).
I do hope that something comes out of these short films that we are putting together. At the end of the day we want more people to know about this issue, what Laurie is doing and what these girls are going through. Laurie’s project does need more funding – and a CD and a friendship bracelet is a pretty good investment if you ask me. I have both!
If you would like to find out more and support these girls and Laurie’s project, please check out sgub.org.