the heart on my sleeve

cropped-dsc_0259.jpgI think my elder child, with her bright smile, energetically skipping down the path to our home. Her greatest worry tonight was whether or not Em would arrive home from her committee meeting on time to tuck her in with a good night kiss. It’s a big worry for a young child and not one I treat lightly as she anxiously listens for sounds of movement down the hall. No worries, her hopes are realized as Em gently opens the door and peeps around the corner. Our girl sighs and wriggles deeper into the blanket as she holds on to me with one hand and reaches for Em with the other. Her snores gently beside her, both mommies are home, she has a full belly and a snuggly bed – all is right in her world.

And then I think of Meem, the 9-year old girl who works 12-hour shifts in a garment factory, hunched over for hours at a time, working her small hands at the same tedious, numbing task for what amounts to less than pennies a day.  She’s featured in the Toronto Star series on sweatshops in Bangladesh, specifically the article, “I got hired at a Bangladesh sweatshop. Meet my 9-year old boss” by Raveena Aulakh.

Meem is a lovely child with a bright smile and the towering responsibilities of an adult. You may find yourself asking the same question that currently nags at me – how old was Meem when she started her back-breaking, upward climb to boss at the ripe old age of 9? Did she start her career at 6? 5? 4? I tug the back of my shirt until I can read the label – made in Cambodia – should I be relieved? Did small hands construct this shirt on my back? Or was this a sweat shop of a different kind?

When I think of my daughters and Meem, I think of their needs as children, their hopes and yearnings as human beings. The only true difference between them is an accident of birth. The location and economic status of that crucial event has led to an incredible divergence of expectations, from the simplest thing…hair clips (apparently Meem longs for new ones)… to education and the ability to discover and express their potential, as an individual and as a member of a community. What might Meem accomplish with a full belly and a snuggly bed to get her through the early years? She’s tenacious! She aspires to greater things, for her own sake and the sake of her family. And she’s one of many such children, exploited and brutalized, but looking up from their hunched work prison to steal a glance at the future where change might be. There are so many Meems…thousands, millions of Meems and Zakirs. And all they want is what every child, in Bangladesh or Canada, has a right to, education, food, shelter, clothing, opportunity and compassion.

I think my daughters would be intrigued by Meem – it seems to me all small children are in awe of older kids. That’s where they’ll be one day and they can’t help measuring up the future as it might apply to them. They would be shocked to know that some kids don’t get to read books after dinner, or that they don’t eat regularly, if at all, or go to school and learn to speak French. She’d want to know what grownups are doing to help those kids, to help Meem, and I’m not sure I have a believable answer for her. Kids are so logical, and my little one is also incredibly compassionate. She wouldn’t understand all the grownup crap that stands between impoverished kids and what they really need. She wouldn’t see the unnecessary enormity of the challenge, she’d just see Meem.

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