by Theresa Zimmer
Imagine an eight year old girl. She is thin, with long dark hair, beautifully shy eyes and is barely as tall as my hips. When she looks at me it seems like she is asking for something without saying a word. Today I had the pleasure of meeting her. Her name is Sheyla. Normally she goes to school in San Juan de Miraflores, one of the many districts in the massive city of Lima, Peru. San Juan de Miraflores is an area where people live in small, simple, houses made of brick. Every house has a roof-deck, often with some laundry drying in the breeze among swirls of dust. Sometimes you will also find a street dog in front of the door. If you are lucky, the front of your house will be painted in bright colors. Blue, green, purple, yellow, pink. But the majority of the homes are brown, they all look similar and none of them seem to attract much attention. Even the colored ones are covered in dust as cars drive by, if you can even call that “driving” or a “car”. The traffic here is similar to a wild river that randomly floods the streets around the houses of brick and dust. Every morning Sheyla wakes up in one of these houses. Together with her older sister she takes the bus to school joining the wild traffic and the hustle and bustle of city life. After school, a few days a week, she helps her cousin who lives next to her. For Shayla, helping means, going to the market to buy fruits and vegetables or taking care of one of her baby cousins while the older ones cook. Sheyla is used to following the instructions of her family. She doesn’t have any idea of what it means to be responsible, but she is. She doesn’t think about the other things she could be doing, playing and living the life of a normal girl, she just does what is needed from her. Her shy, prying eyes seem to ask, “what do you want me to do? How should I behave?”.
The moment this girl first attracted my attention was at lunch one sunny afternoon. Every Sunday children come from the District of San Juan de Miraflores to enjoy a day of activities and fun in La Casa de Panchita. To go along with the activities, there are also daily programs where the girls learn about domestic work, talk about their rights, the dangers of their work, and useful behaviour in certain situations. There are also some theatrical plays in which they have the opportunity to talk about their experiences and share with each other. In the end there is always a creative activity like making crafts and advent calendars, coupling fun with important life skills and learning. Every Sunday at 1 pm there´s lunch for everyone. Sheyla was sitting in front of me at the other end of the table. We had pasta with tomato sauce. There was a huge amount of pasta on every plate. I was so full after eating it and I am more than twice their size! Everybody finished silently, besides Sheyla. She was watching her plate once again with asking eyes, “what do you want me to do with this?“ It was obvious that this was more than too much for her to finish herself, but she tried to continue eating. As she was the last one to finish, everybody was gazing at her, asking her, “Don’t you like it? Are you full? Or do you just need some time to finish?“ Suddenly there were tears in her eyes. So many questions about her simple interest in eating or not eating. She couldn’t answer. She never knew what she wanted to do. She only does what she has been told to be done. So she continued while more and more tears silently rolled over her cheeks. Finally someone removed her plate because it was time to go upstairs for our activity to do the handcraft advent calendar. Mute, still a bit scared and troubled she followed the group.
Upstairs at the table, I sat next to her. As she saw all the colored decorating material like the bright glitter and vibrant paint, her eyes widened. She found a small stencil of a butterfly and asked me if I would help her to paint it on her calendar. “Which color do you like?“, I asked. She raised her eyes and smiled, pink! I like pink!“ So together we decorated her calendar with a pink butterfly. This was the moment when her timidness broke. After a short time her hands were covered over and over again with pink and red glitter. In the end, as she proudly looked at her calendar, it didn’t seem that she wouldn’t be able to act like a child anymore. Just to be able to have fun, to tell me what she likes and to have some control was enough for her. Now, she seemed to be just a little girl with long, dark hair, thin figure, barely as tall as my hips with beautiful, shy but smiling eyes.