Summer Sisters

August 6, 2011

  Our camp in Ukraine was for children from at-risk families.  We didn’t know their stories; we only knew that the reasons for their status were varied, from financial needs to different kinds of abuse, including alcohol, etc.  Most of the children looked like any other normal children, without showing any external signs of difficulties–except for these 2 little girls who were sisters.   Natasha and Irya (*names changed) were almost always together, either seated or standing side by side, while holding hands.  They would whisper often to one another, with Natasha, the 10 year old, frequently instructing her little sister about what to do or where to go.  They would be found at the periphery of the scheduled activity until asked to join, which they were always eager to do.  They loved the crafts and were cutting foam shapes for a collage in the picture above.

They sat at my table for meals.  There were no assigned seats, but the random chairs chosen on the first day were the ones we always occupied, so Natasha sat next to me, with Irya at the end.  Always quiet and hungry, they cleaned their plates during each meal, with Natasha actually licking her remaining mashed potatoes from her plate once and using her bread to sop up left-over juices at another.

On Monday of our camp week (we arrived late Sunday afternoon and left on Thursday), at lunchtime, I noticed some small thing that was just a normal, everyday thing, and I responded to help with a light touch with my hand on Natasha’s back.  She recoiled.  I immediately realized the depth of their need — and of their hurt — so I deliberately kept my distance after that.  If I needed to pass by the girls back at the cabins, or during craft time, or at any in-between times, my steps formed an arc around them, rather than a straight pass.  I smiled each time, but I kept the space between us.

I guess it was Tuesday when the accident at the table in the dining room occurred, and I found myself undone, as more evidence of their wounding surfaced.  The plates were just being served and passed to each of us at the table.  I don’t know how an accident like this was even possible, since little Irya never moved and kept her cautious hands in her lap, watching for her sister’s hands to move first, but things happen simply because they’re children and Irya’s plate was somehow knocked off of the table, crashing to the floor, scattering food and breaking instantly.  Irya burst into tears, and crumpled into hysterical sobbing.  Each of us tried to comfort her, reasssuring her that it was OK, and the dining hall worker brought her another plate, but it took a while for her to be all right enough to eat.  Meanwhile, I myself lost it.  It didn’t take much to imagine a scene that the poor child must’ve experienced at her own home in a similar setting, and the heavy symbolism sank into me, leaving me a puddle of tears too.  I noticed Natasha stealing glimpses of me, registering nothing on her face, but watching, just the same.  15 year old Kaitlyn (from our team) took me outside of the dining hall for me to “get myself back together,” and we prayed for the girls–and for me to stop crying.

All of the other children formed early, easy relationships with our American teens (on our team) and by the end of the week, more crafts, nail painting and hair braiding became the natural glue that would stick them together in their memories forever.  But it wasn’t until Wednesday that Natasha and Irya came away from the edges of the activities.

It was on Wednesday afternoon when the girls were standing pressed against the cabin, that I saw both of them watching Charlotte French braid another  older girl’s hair.  I was right there, aware of the girls, and I whispered to Charlotte that I thought they’d let her do their hair, too.  So when she finished Zena’s, she asked them if they wanted to be next, using motions to express her willingness.  It was a turning point.  After their own personal hair sessions with Charlotte, with their long French braids trailing down their backs, they were Charlotte’s:  they held her hands; they sat next to her at the campfire; they hugged her after s’mores, and they blended with the group like old pros.

During the whole week, I would see Natasha looking at me, never registering anything on her face, but watching just the same.   I, too, was soaking them in — enjoying the interactions among our girls and them, and delighting in their interest in each camp activity.  I had one last opportunity on Thursday when most of us were on the bus, waiting while a few of the other children waited for the drivers of a van to take them in the opposite direction from our bus route.  Natasha and Irya were among the small group being driven in the van, and while they were waiting, Anya (our lovely 22 year old Ukrainian translator and Bethany social worker) had her arms resting loosely and naturally on each of the girls’ shoulders, as though that were an every day occurrence for all of them.  They were in my direct line of vision, since I was just inside the bus door and they were standing about 10 yards away on the ground outside.  Again, I was letting the scene sink down inside of me, and while I was looking, Natasha waved toward the bus.  I wondered who she saw, so I turned my head to look, and found that it was me!  But by the time I realized it, she had looked away and I missed my chance to wave back.  They didn’t move from their spots, though, and after a few more minutes, the van arrived.  Natasha looked once more back at me, and this time, our eyes met.  She waved again and I waved back.  She nudged her sister to “make” her wave at me, too, and then they boarded to return home.  Jesus saw the tears that came as I saw them step inside that van, and I knew He would see their’s too.


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