April 12, 2014 my daughter got married.
April 13, 2014 my husband turned 60.
April 14, 2014 my family hosted a Passover Seder for nearly 40 people.
And on that same night, nearly 300 high school-aged girls were evacuated from their boarding school in Nigeria - not by by the military as in a true emergency, but by men intent on their physical and emotional destruction.
Dozens of girls escaped in the first few hours. 219 have never been seen or heard from again.
Frankly, on the surface - as a white, middle class woman from metro Detroit, I'm not sure I'm the demographic to feel so emotionally connected to a story that is taking place over 6,000 miles from my home. But, as a mother, a sister, a daughter, an artist, a peacemaker - I remain... devastated.
About two weeks after the kidnappings, that, for a short time, had people taking selfies holding signs that read #BringBackOurGirls - I had the opportunity to visit a well-to-do parochial girls high school in a lovely Detroit suburb. As the student body gathered for an assembly I couldn't help think that here I was looking at what 300 girls really looks like. There was laughter (a LOT!) and chattering and spirit and love and silliness and caring and possibility and joy and a sense of purpose. There was a future for the girls in front of me.
Could THIS really be what the Nigerian girls had looked like the day before their kidnapping? So alive! So full of life and promise - the love of parents and hope of families sacrificing for them to be the very best they could be - just like the beautiful girls in front of me.
A week later I was to attend a mosaic portrait workshop in Lansing, MI hosted by a well-known mosaic artist, Carol Shelkin. In the prep email she'd sent out that week we were told she would provide the imagery for the class. She felt it was important to focus on the techniques of creating these portraits - it would be less distracting if we didn't actually know the person we were working on.
I did not hesitate, but immediately wrote and asked permission to create a portrait of an African school girl.
I was shaking when I arrived to the 2-day workshop - imagery in hand. By now, we had seen pictures on the news of the kidnapped girls - not in the brightly colored dresses and headscarves of their school and family pictures, but huddled together in dark grey fabric - covered from head to toe. Their faces were flat, dark - a sick-sad combination of terror and resignation.
The photos the kidnappers released were drained of all ...life.
"We begin with the eyes," Carol said, "And work our way out."
I am often emotionally connected to the art I create - the serious pieces that connect me to a group of special kids or a faith community. It helps me in the creative process to feel a spiritual bond with the eventual "home" of a given piece of art that I may spend days or weeks bringing to life. But, I tell you now, the moment I finished the first eye on this portrait I have never felt so drawn in. I've heard writers speak of characters who "demand" to be heard in their novels - characters who take them in directions they'd never expected when they began. And, now, she was speaking to me - those eyes were all I could see when I went to sleep that first night - and they continued speaking - outraged, demanding, pleading and wistful....
Don't forget me. I am here.
Like much of the art I make - she is mine - yet... not mine. At the moment, she lives in the art room at the Song and Spirit Institute for Peace where I work. She presides over a room that bustles with creativity and joy, camaraderie and support, learning and love and care for all. Perhaps a place like her school was - on April 13, 2014.
Emem means "Peace" in the Efik language of Nigeria. I put the word in glass on the corner of her portrait and I send a breath of peace to these girls I can not forget. I send one to their mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters whose loss is more than I can imagine.
I won't forget you. I am here.
In recent weeks, activists marking the anniversary of the mass
abduction in Chibok, Nigeria have changed their slogan from
"Bring back our Girls - Now and Alive"
to "Never to be Forgotten."