- October 25, 2014
- Posted by: John Berrens
- Category: Uncategorized
American or Indian, 71 or 17 only God knows. But like a bull in a china shop Dr. Michelle Harrison is building an amazing oasis of learning and light for girl orphans with cerebral palsy in India, in Calcutta.
I was 17 when I wrote in a school essay titled – The Nature of Life – When you know what you want and you know what is right, you will have the self confidence to clear the hurdles in your way. Now I am 71. And I still live this way. But it is not an easy path, especially for a woman.
IN THE SERVICE OF CHILDREN
WHAT I DO
Leaving my life behind in America I landed in Calcutta in 2005 to start Shishur Sevay meaning in the service of children – an inclusive non institutional model of care for girls suffering from cerebral palsy.
I feel more “myself” at Shishur Sevay than any place I’ve ever been. It’s not so surprising since I’ve built it with my own hands and of those who joined me. But it is a reflection of how I feel life should be – an oasis, a place of growth where good things happen.
In my previous life as a doctor, author and corporate executive at Johnson & Johnson and in all my past roles I’ve had to suppress parts of myself. I had beliefs of how I wanted to live and then I made sure over time I got the skills to make it happen one day.
But finally in 2005 I couldn’t have done it if I hadn’t sold my house in America. Everybody said no. But that started me off. And there was no looking back. It was difficult and amusing. I faced glares, extortion, death threats. Patronized, pitied and shamed. At one point the government even threatened to shut us down because I refused more children.
But you see I had this vision of what we had to be.
You cannot hurry.
It takes time to feed each one of my children during lunch hour. 30 minutes, 60 minutes. Multiply that by many. But it is just one lunch hour. And so you cannot hurry. If things have to be done right, they have to be done just right, whatever time that takes.
The hardest though was making difficult decisions about who could help us build. Wonderful people joined us, some stayed and some left. And what I have today is a band of believers really.
Seema, Purba, Sudip, Shantidevi, Gargi, Srirupa, Anindita, Bijoy, Chaitali, Ruma, Kaberi, Purnima, Monika, Sarifa, Chhaya, Tumpa, Maitrayee, Satyen, Dibyangshu, Debashish, Ajoy and Little John.
Phew! And that is just our team. And then there are the musketeers. Too many to list here. Too many to thank. Too many in our hearts.
From a foreign land?The “pains of people from a foreign land” is a meaningless phrase for me. It just doesn’t matter, doesn’t really register as an issue.
I’m a doctor. It’s about the work I do, the healing, the building, the protecting, even the battling.
It’s been difficult here, but I think it’s that way for all of us Indians who try to change things. But I still think it is easier for me because I’m not burdened by family judgement or family status in what I’m doing.
India is family to me.
In 1984 I adopted an infant from Kolkata and raised her in the US. We were always part of some Indian community as I wanted her to have that identification and comfort with Indians.
A part of my being here is an expression of gratitude, of giving back to the country that gave her to me. She lives in New York City now where she is a rock and roll drummer.
The children came to me as Hindus who love their Gods, so that is the life we live, as best we can. We just had a beautiful Lakshmi Puja where we got a small idol and the girls read from the prayer books.
And carrying the idol of the goddess from the market to our home is Ganga and now you must have guessed it, Little John.
ICHHE DANA – I CAN SOAR
Each year since I founded Shishur Sevay the goals have been a little different. This past year we launched our inclusive school, Ichche Dana Learning Center – solidifying our staff, learning methodology & curriculum and concentrating on infrastructure development and documentation.
We need to develop our long range financial stability for Shishur Sevay for how it will grow. We started Shishur Sevay on my personal savings and pension and I had sold my home in the US. I still contribute a large part of our budget, but my funds will eventually run out, and we need a broad base of support.
My dream is that people will see what we are doing and want to be part of it. My other dream is for Shishur Sevay to become funded entirely on Indian funds. The money is here. It can be done.
Shishur Sevay is a very Indian home, a very Bengali Indian home. The girls love their Bengali heritage probably more than other children, because they were outsiders to society, and now they have a sense of belonging. I want India to embrace my children as they embrace their country.
I’m a HUMAN who is often irreverent in my thinking, but not in my actions. I question everything, including beliefs, hierarchies, always looking at what is behind, in back of what I am seeing or being told.
But I am human, and I say that because when you dream high and reach your dreams, people tend to think you are somehow different, or superhuman. My human traits include love and compassion, and a vulnerability I work hard to hide.
I can at times be stubborn and relentless. These are traits that are admired in men, but demeaned in women. I have been knocked down and gotten up more than once, and tried to communicate in my writing and living how we humans manage through the tough times.
An unsupervised childhoodI certainly was not an orphan, but I had a difficult childhood in many ways. I think I’ve created the home as I also would have wanted to have. My parents were political dissidents in the US and we lived under threats. School saved me, the stability, teachers, and I cried at the end of each school year. I had an “unsupervised” childhood so I understand street culture. I was raped as a teenager. I’m well trained for what I do. My spirit? I spent a lot of time trying to figure out whether God exists. I wrote poetry and stories. I spent a lot of time on my own in the library.
I love horses, i am totally MAD in regard to horses. I was often in trouble for reading in class instead of listening. I hung out with the tough kids in school. We were poor for much of my childhood. That’s part of my strength.
A story worth sharing is about when I was Worldwide Director of Medical Affairs at Johnson & Johnson. They hired me to fix a mess, and I was hired because I had a reputation of being tough.
But one day, after about six months, my boss cautioned me that I didn’t want to be seen as a bull in a China shop. So I asked him why was J&J a China shop 🙂
I said that steel was stronger, and I wanted a department of steel that could withstand a thousand bulls.
Whatever you do, do it well.
The most important thing is to really keep learning, keep growing, and question everything, including yourself. It takes skills and discipline to make things happen. It takes making mistakes, lots of them, to grow. If you hold on to your sense of truth and integrity, NO ONE can ever take it away.
ANGEL OF ELLIS ISLAND
CHANGING THE WORLD
We are here in these bodies on Earth for only a certain time, and I’m not sure what I believe after that, but I know that I must at least answer to myself how I spent this time. I want to be remembered for my work, for my persistence, for my pushing boundaries, for my vision.
With my grandmotherIn Kolkata I actually feel very close to my grandmother, who passed away many years ago. She’d take me to the ocean in New York and say, “Don’t forget the starving children across the sea.”
Today I would tell her that now more than any other time in my life I feel I am living most what she taught me, and I am finding others who also take this path, and they all remind me of her. She was called “The Angel of Ellis Island”.
She had come as a lone teenage immigrant from Russia. In her job at Ellis Island she personally protected the young Jewish women who came through Ellis Island, by making sure they would not end up with traffickers.
I want to be remembered as a strong and gentle woman with a big heart, who loved to care for children and who found a way to do this, in spite of many obstacles. I want to be remembered as a woman who every year since childhood made her birthday wish for world peace and who refuses to believe it is not possible.