Naeha Lakshmanan's experience as a part-time volunteer
Coming to the SACH house, I expected to play with and maybe even bond with some kids, but what truly surprised me were the bonds I created with the mothers. When we think of SACH, we think of the children being saved, but it is important to recognize that the child’s illness and recovery affect an entire family. During my time in the house, we had a lot of younger children and thus, a lot of moms in the house. The moms not only took care of their own kids but also often helped take care of some of the older kids who didn’t have a mom with them. These women have families and responsibilities back at home. They have left the world they know to come to Israel and help their child get the treatment they deserve.
Some mothers spoke fluent English while others only spoke Swahili or Amharic. We used facial expressions, gestures and small phrases to have full conversations and learn more about one another. The Ethiopian moms, in particular, loved to show me pictures of their family members back home, as they felt that I looked Ethiopian. In fact, one mom realized I looked exactly like her little sister. The mothers became my adult friends, helping me to discipline the children or get through to them when necessary.
Upon my arrival to the SACH house, there were a few kids that immediately gravitated to me. One in particular, Betelhem, whom we all lovingly called Betty, quickly formed a strong bond with me. Betty is 3 years old, from Ethiopia, and when I met her, had yet to receive her surgery. Betty’s mom spoke almost no English, but she knew that I adored her daughter and instinctively trusted me to take care of her. After three weeks of playing with her, holding her when she cried, and teaching her to braid Barbie’s hair, I learned she would be going in for surgery. Knowing it was unlikely I would see her before I left Israel, I said my goodbyes and gave her a big hug before I left for the day.
The next Sunday, Betty went in for surgery. In the afternoon, a group came back of the hospital and I was surprised to see Betty’s mom amongst them. Many of the Ethiopian moms huddled around her as they all began to talk in Amharic. I reached out to the Ethiopian nurse, Al Shadai, and she assured me that everything was fine, but with Betty in surgery, her mom was too worried to be at the hospital. I sat down next to Betty’s mom and said “Betty surgery, good!” with a big smile on my face. She gave me a big hug and then held on to my hands. She held on to me for the next 30 minutes as she spoke to the other mothers. It was in that moment that I realized that we think of our jobs as providing support to the children, but in actuality, it is just as important to provide emotional support for the mothers.
This connection with the mothers was made clear once again when I was leaving the house. As I made my rounds to say my goodbyes, it was as hard to say goodbye to these mothers as it was to say goodbye to the kids. Many of the mothers tried to have me stay for dinner or come the next day, while others stopped me to take a picture of me with their child. The goodbyes with two mothers were particularly painful.
Mama Abigya and Mama Ranya were my closest friends in the house. Abigya was the house princess and Ranya was the house sweetheart. Mama Ranya spoke excellent English and thus, we were able to converse rather regularly. She would tell me about her family back home, her concerns with Ranya and how difficult it had been to worry about Ranya for the past year. It was clear she was an incredible mother who would do anything for her daughter’s health, but she also really missed her home. I enjoyed talking to her while we played with Ranya and learning more about her background while telling her about mine. As I was leaving, she promised to let me know about Ranya’s surgery and follow up with me over WhatsApp.
Mama Abigya was a huge help with the older kids. Despite her minimal English, she would do her best to translate for us or use hand motions to help us understand what the children needed. She loved to look at pictures of my family and me and showed me pictures of her as a child. Abigya loved to be carried around the house and loved to tickle me when we were on the grass outside. Being close to Abigya, I often tagged team with her mom to stop her tantrums, discipline her, entertain her and get her to eat. Saying goodbye to Mama Abigya was saying goodbye to my mother in Israel.
Speaking about the mothers wouldn’t be complete without talking about the nurses. Al Shadai, from Ethiopia, and Fatimah, from Zanzibar, were the nurses who had come with the older children. For these older children, these nurses were like their mothers in Israel. They took them to the hospital, took care of them there and provided emotional support for them before, during and after surgery. For us, the nurses were essential to properly communicating with both the mothers and the children. Al Shadai and Fatimah are my new sisters, who fed me when I was hungry, laughed and danced with me and worked on every last puzzle in the house with me.
All the mothers, children, nurses and volunteers at the SACH house truly become a family, despite the different cultures and languages. While I didn’t live in the house, these people had become a part of my family and I had become a part of theirs. I leave this house with endless memories, new sisters and brothers, close friendships and several invitations to Ethiopia and Romania.