Matthew: Chapter 17 (paraphrased):
Jesus and his disciples are in a crowd of people. A father brings his son to the disciples claiming the son to be a lunatic and asks the disciples to cure him or “free him from his ‘devil’. The disciples’ attempt at this fails and only after Jesus frees the boy from his “devil” do they ask Jesus, “why couldn’t we do that?”
And Jesus said to them, Because of your unbelief: for truly I say to you, If you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you shall say to this mountain, move now to a different place; and it shall move; and nothing shall be impossible to you.
I want to share with you a story of faith and of courage. A story of selflessness and bravery. A story that begins with tragedy, but that culminates with love and family. This is also a story with two beginnings, each a half a world away from the other. About a woman I’ve never met in person, but who has impacted my life immeasurably and who inspires me daily.
Kamala Raju Agrawal was born in the Indian state of Karnataka in Southern India. There is no known exact birthdate, but it is believed that she was born sometime between 1969 and 1974. There is nothing known about her early life. She must not have attended much school because we know that she was illiterate and unable to read or write. She probably grew up doing the kinds of things that most little girls do. But at some point – and very likely at too young an age – she was placed into an arranged marriage. Arranged marriages still happen in many places in India. It is not known how long she was in this marriage, but I know that after some period of time, the family she married into sold her into the commercial sex trade.
Through the type of human trafficking that you hear about in the news occasionally, that is how she came to Mumbai (Bombay). No one knows how long Kamala worked in that business. But at some point she became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter. It is not known where the baby was born, but it is very likely that she was born in the brothel where Kamala worked. It is also possible that the baby was born in the streets. There is no way to know who the father of the girl is. Sometime after the little girl was born, Kamala became ill. She eventually became too ill to work, so she was basically kicked out and had to take her baby with her to live a life on the streets. She was too poor to afford any medical care and India does not provide the sort of medical support or welfare for the poor like they do in the United States. So she and her daughter became street people with literally nothing to call their own. If you have seen the film Slumdog Millionaire, then you have had a small glimpse into what a desperate life that is.
But there are private organizations that try to make up some of the slack by working with the poor. One of these is an organization in Mumbai called Prerana. Prerana performs outreach to women in the sex trade and they especially try to help those women who have children. When they found Kamala and her daughter, they were trying to provide vaccinations because there was a polio outbreak in India at that time. They told Kamala about some of the ways they help with kids like her little girl. It appears that Prerana met with Kamala on the streets several times; each time talking up how they could help her daughter have a better life.
There are no photographs of Kamala Agrawal
On July 16, 1998, the day after her daughter’s fifth birthday, Kamala signed an affidavit with Prerana by affixing her thumbprint, for them to take over her daughter’s care and if Kamala didn’t come back in eight days to claim her – that was the grace period – that Prerana would become the girl’s legal guardian and that they would place her into an institution of their choice so that one day she might be adopted. Shortly after Kamala signed the affidavit, the girl was placed in a Catholic orphanage called Snehasadan, which is in a section of Mumbai known as Chakala in Andheri East close to the International Airport.
After that, the girl only saw her mother on a few occasions. She was moved to Snehasadan and lived in House 13. On days when her mother would come to visit, she would be brought to the main office of Snehasadan and her mother would meet her there. Kamala wanted to make sure that her daughter got an education. She did not want her to wind up having the same kind of life that she had lived. She wanted to be certain above all that her daughter would be safe. There are people in India who will abduct young girls off the streets at night and raise them to be in the sex trade. Kamala did not want that to happen to her daughter so it is a blessing that she found such a warm, welcoming, and safe place for her daughter to be. It meant giving her up, but it was the only way that Kamala could be sure that she would be okay.
She always brought her daughter lemon crème cookies, which were the girl’s favorite. Kamala was so adamant the her daughter have these lemon crème cookies whenever she wanted, that she bit the hand of the Prerana social worker, Ms. Kalpana Mistry, in order to make the point that her daughter get those cookies whenever she wanted them. The last few times Kamala came to visit her daughter, she was in a wheelchair, frail and very sick with tuberculosis. Her daughter recalls doing her mother’s hair and makeup to help her feel better.
Kamala Agrawal died on or about December 21, 1999, when her daughter was just 6 years old. More than likely she died on the streets of Mumbai where her body was found and taken to a local hospital. She was likely cremated, so there is no burial place. There are no photographs of Kamala Agrawal.
So, for the first time in her six-year-old life, Kamala’s daughter was alone. She would never see her mother again. House 13 at Snehasadan became her home. There were around 50 girls living there together. When the girl was around 10 years old, she saw another girl in House 13 who became adopted. She asked about what that was and how it worked and then she decided that she would like to have a family too. She made the decision to put herself up for adoption even knowing that it might mean moving to another country. There was little chance that she would be adopted in India. In India, girls just don’t have the kind of opportunity that boys do and at age 10 she was literally unadoptable inside India. The fact that there is also a big stigma in India about kids whose mother’s were sex workers just exacerbated this. But none of that mattered to her. She wanted a family and that was that.
On the other side of the world, during the first week of January 1995, I met the woman of my dreams. Kate Galloway and I were married later that same year on August 5th. After a couple of years, Kate brought up the idea that we should have a child. This is where I became like Jonah and ran for this hills and supposed protection of my own personal Tarshish. With two boys from my first marriage who were nearly grown by that time, having another child was way down the list of things I wanted to do in my life. Yes, you guessed it. This was lower than dead last. In almost 20 years of being together we don’t argue much and when we do it never lasts long. But this escalated in to war and I decided to flat out leave the battlefield, storming out of the house.
I don’t remember how long I stayed gone, but for me it was quite a long time. Well, I can tell you Tarshish ain’t so hot. Whether it was God speaking to me or some other voice of conscience and reason, I finally realized that I needed to be in Ninevah. So back home I went. Without going into the land of T.M.I., having children was something that Kate and I were not meant to experience, at least in a biological sense. My first thoughts were of “whew! Now I’m off the hook”. Eventually our conversations turned to adoption. I finally agreed that it was best to move forward and did so by stating that it would only work if three conditions were met: a) we don’t adopt an infant, b) it HAS to be a girl, and c) the only country I would consider adopting from is India. But I still wasn’t really on board with this and it would be a while before I would be.
After contacting an adoption agency and completing some paperwork and undergoing a couple of interviews, we were delivered a dossier profiling a young girl in India who was available for adoption. The dossier was for Kamala Agrawal’s daughter. Her name is Sarita.
Back in India, on Sarita’s behalf, Snehasadan contacted Family Services Center – an organization that among other things helps facilitate adoptions – and let them know that she wanted to be adopted. She was taking a leap of faith. Her desire for a family was stronger than her bond with her birth country and stronger than anything else. If it meant moving halfway around the world then so be it. They did all of the paperwork and all Sarita had to do was wait. When she was 11 years old, she was told that there is a couple in the United States who are interested in adopting her. Of course, she had no idea what going to America and living there would be like, but she wanted a family so she was willing to go. It seemed like it took forever for the adoption to get done.
After 22 months and what seemed like a lifetime, interspersed with letters being sent and phone calls to Sarita, the day finally came when we traveled to India to meet Sarita and bring her to her new home in America. She was so nervous and afraid. She didn’t speak English well and must have been terrified. To top it off, the very day that we arrived to take her home, she got her first period. She didn’t know what was happening to her and so much was happening all at once. Can you say OVERWHELMED?
The time finally came for us to say goodbye to everyone at House 13. We got into the car and traveled into a part of Mumbai where our hotel was located and that Sarita had never been to before. Within an hour’s time, she went from being in an orphanage to being in a nice hotel with air conditioning and a bed of her own instead of a mat on the floor. She used a knife and fork for the first time. Many Indians eat with their hands, so this was really new for her. She had never used a western bathroom before either. And she just couldn’t believe the food. For the first time in her life, she could eat as much as she wanted! And so she did.
We had adoption stuff to do for a few days and then we flew to New Delhi so that we could go to the American embassy to do the final paperwork. Sarita had never been out of her own neighborhood and now she had been to parts of Mumbai that she’d never seen and had her first airplane trip to another city.
After a few days, all of the paperwork was done and we got on a plane to New York. We arrived home on November 18, 2005. Sarita has been in the USA for almost nine years now and she has accomplished a lot. She has learned to speak English well. She graduated from high school. She won an award and scholarship from an organization called Student Advocacy for “overcoming the odds” and was recognized at a formal awards dinner. She was one of only four students in all of Westchester County to get this award. She became an American citizen. She has a job in a nice hair salon and she is working toward getting a State cosmetology license.
In Sarita’s own words:
I have a lot to be thankful for and there are many people that helped me along the way and I am thankful for each of them. Ms. Kalpana Mistry for reaching out to my mother. Father Placie and everyone at Snehasadan, Ms. Nigama Mascarenas and Ms. Sumita Lopez at Family Service Center and all of the counselors and teachers who have helped me since I came to America. I’m thankful for my family. Not only do I have a mom and dad, I have two sets of terrific grandparents, two step- brothers, two stepsisters and many aunts, uncles and cousins. I could never have imagined having all this until it actually happened.
I wish that I could tell my birth mother about everything that has happened to me. I wish that she could see me in the life that I have now. I wish that she could know about all of the things that I have accomplished. But maybe she can see me and maybe she does know. She wanted me to be safe and I am. She wanted me to get an education and I’ve got one. She wanted me to have a different life from the one that she lived. I have that too. And I am not done yet. I have much more that I want to do and more that I want my life to be. I believe that my birth mother would be proud of me. And I am proud to call Kamala Raju Agrawal my mother. She would be very pleased with my life now and I know that she is happy that I found the most wonderful family ever!”
faith moved the mountains that stood in the way of a better life
I echo Sarita’s sentiment. The faith that it took for one indigent Indian woman to hand over her daughter to – for all intents and purposes – strangers, whom she believed would give her daughter a better life is staggering. I can’t begin to imagine the pain of a mother willfully giving her child away. I can’t begin to imagine the faith it took for her to do this and she did it more than once. First when she signed the affidavit (which was signed only with her thumb print) and again at any time within the eight-day grace period when she could have reclaimed her daughter but didn’t. She lived a tragic and all too short life. In the game of ‘what-if,’ it’s interesting to ponder what she might have become in different circumstances. But her impact continues. I think she would indeed be pleased and proud of her daughter. This poor mother’s faith moved the mountains that stood in the way of a better life for her daughter.
I have a hard time comprehending the strength, the courage, the determination and the love and the faith of this poor, illiterate woman who was Kamala Raju Agrawal. I also am amazed by the faith that it took for Sarita to decide to pursue having a family, literally at all costs. Imagine giving up everything you have ever known to go live halfway around the world with a pair of strangers who don’t look like you. Everything is or will be foreign. School, friends, family, food, language, money, and on and on. Kamala Agrawal’s spirit is in Sarita Agrawal Colquitt. In her, I see her mother. And in her, I see much of Kamala’s faith and determination.
And with that kind of faith, mountains will move.