I was on the motorcycle with a local guide while the 4 other team members crammed into the back of a small car. We were just leaving a Madrasa near Old City, Hyderabad. I didn’t get into the car with them in part because it was already packed, and in part because it wasn’t “appropriate” for a 20-year-old guy to cram into a tiny space with so many girls––I was the only guy in the team of 10 people interning at the women empowerment organization. As we weaved through the winding alleys towards my boss minivan on the main street, my scooter driver stopped by a corner and told the guy sitting there something in Telugu. Twenty seconds later, the guy handed him a bag of a flower, which he handed to me with a smile and a “for you.” I was not sure which of my privileges was at play, but I felt very privileged––to be able to ride in the open air instead of squeezing my face off in a tiny car and to get flowers.

Clicked by Cyrus Chuang

It was one of the trips we made when I was working with Umeed. Umeed carries out programs that aim to help women become financially independent through craftwork and career training. In the beginning, it was hard to believe how challenging the situation was. We heard stories about the participants from the previous batch. “One time, we got a call from an angry husband,” my manager said, “he was yelling over the phone, saying ‘what did you do to her? Why does she start talking (back) now?’ I was so scared for the girl but also so proud of her.” My boss also told me about her being harassed by a participant’s husband because he thought Umeed was “brainwashing” her. “We always need the buy-in from the husband or even the mother-in-law for the women to join our program.” Sometimes the women wouldn’t come back after a few weeks or would come black-and-blue. It was impossible for me to relate to a situation like that.
But my boss reminded me that “Umeed means ‘hope’!” Throughout my time with Umeed, I learned that they have seen successes with past participants. The woman whose husband thought she was “turned” had eventually decided to leave their toxic marriage. Umeed has also connected to government officials who were willing to connect them with the community that might need assistance. “It was not easy to get the women out of the situation, but when we see their excited face when they went to IKEA for the first time or when they get pizza for the first time, we know that we can keep going.”

Although my internship was interrupted due to the pandemic, we moved our work online and managed to finish our project in an unexpected but still meaningful way.

Half a year later, my boss shared some good news. Despite the pandemics, another batch of women had finished the program and was ready to graduate! When the situation seems stark, I realized I sometimes get cold feet. How do I solve a systemic problem that has haunted a society for decades and even longer? But working with Umeed taught me that empathy should not stop at understanding the pain of the underprivileged. Empathy should also help us see hope in the situation and in the people we support. My friend A once told me when she was talking about fighting climate change––even though we are still far from the ideal world, and perhaps we won’t ever see the new world with our own eyes, I would not stop trying to do something to make it work. After all, Umeed is not just for the women we are trying to help but also for the people who work day and night to help.

Clicked by Cyrus Chuang

Written by Cyrus Chuang

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