Sitting in silence, I watched as Elizabeth’s cousin mopped the floor of their two-room house, ashamed that I had not removed my muddy boots before entering. I had been invited to meet Elizabeth’s twin sister, which led to a short walk out of the gates of St. Bakhita’s to a row of small apartments where families upwards of seven or eight lived together. Although we had only met a day ago, Elizabeth and I really connected over a mutual sense of humor and a love of sparkly pink nail polish. While only sixteen, Elizabeth was enrolled in and living full time at St. Bakhita’s vocational school to learn a marketable skill so she could enter the workforce. When I was sixteen I was a junior in high school and the biggest cause of stress in my life was over if I would pass my driver’s test. Unfortunately, Elizabeth got a much better deal than most in her situation – including her twin sister. Married off at 15 to a 33-year-old and moved hours away from her family with little to no methods of communication, she was back after not seeing her sister since the wedding, pregnant with her first child.
We had been sitting on the steps of the school that afternoon when Elizabeth confided in me about her sister, how she hadn’t seen or heard from her in over a year, and for all she knew she could have multiple kids at the moment. While this clearly saddened her, her greater burden came from opening up about how worried she was about not being successful in the work force and not being able to send funds back home, where she had multiple younger sisters who would probably fall to the same fate as her twin. When we talked about her greatest dreams in life she shyly told me that she would love to be a doctor.
Ever since she was a little girl, my younger sister Emilia has dreamed about being a doctor. Her favorite toys to play with were her doctors kit, which included a fake stethoscope and blood pressure cuff. Everyone in my family took turns being the patient thousands of times, and now that she is fifteen, she is starting to actually pursue this dream. I recognized the same passion in Elizabeth’s eyes as she opened up to me about per passion that I see in Emi’s. The difference is, that right now Emi is applying for summer internships at local hospitals, looking at colleges that have the best pre-med undergraduate programs and studying to improve her PSAT scores. For my sister, a sophomore at the top of her class in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the only thing keeping her from eventually becoming a doctor would be her own choices. She may walk into her first chemistry class and decide it’s not for her (not unlike many of my freshman friends), and I’m sure she will then go on to be successful in whatever other career path she chooses. Unfortunately, for Elizabeth, a sixteen-year-old who has not even started her secondary education from Kolongo, Uganda, everything is keeping her from her dream. The embarrassment she had while telling me she wanted to be a doctor is the same that I would have telling someone that my dream was to become the first woman admitted into the NHL – unrealistic and unattainable.
The thing that surprised me the most about the girls at St. Bakhita’s was how young they really are. Because they are all preparing to make a living on their own, I had been expecting these girls to be much more mature than I had been at their ages, and in some ways that was true, but I saw myself in Elizabeth and her friends. Especially when they were brought out of the traditional classroom setting to do normal teenager things, like taking selfies and playing soccer. The laughs and smiles from the girls as they kicked my butt in soccer transcended culture, and might as well have come from the girls in my junior year PE who also kicked my butt in soccer. Yes, we needed to interview these girls to help them and watch them sew and learn mathematics, but the only way that we or anyone else will ever be able to make a real impact on their lives is if we examine them for what they really are – children. It is not fair that Elizabeth extended the greatest form of hospitality that she could to me by inviting me into her house and vulnerably introducing her family and sharing her story, while I emailed her yesterday from my three-story house on my MacBook. The disparities in wealth are greater than I could have ever imagined, but the disparities in the disposition of teenage girl do not exist. A sixteen-year-old should not have the burden of supporting her entire family on her shoulders, nor should she be married to a man over twice her age. While I am not naïve enough to think that we will be able to solve this cultural crisis, we do have the opportunity to make these teenage girls lives better, and it is so important that we do not waste it.