Yasmin and her family were kept captive on a remote farm in Gray's Harbor County with no contact with the outside world by a controlling, dominating father who abused the family physically, sexually and psychologically (though he did not sexually abuse little Yasmin). Her mother, whom her father brought from Bangladesh at age 12, and who could neither read nor write nor speak English, was only 14 when Yasmin was born. Her father falsified all their documents, locked up all items of identification, and would only take two persons at a time off the farm under his close supervision. He did horrible things, nearly beating her uncle to death in the presence of the family, forcing him to dig his own grave. Finally, he was arrested and imprisoned when Yasmin was four, but she has vivid memories of almost unmentionable things that go back much earlier than that. She is shaped by those memories. But even more so she is shaped by realizing, "This is my father and I have to come to terms with that. And there are even some things I admire in this otherwise exploitative father." From this background she has developed a passionate drive to understand complex, conflicted persons. No wonder she is a law student!
She has transformed her trauma into a triumph by seeking to understand everything in a three-dimensional, multi-faceted way. She knows that nothing is simple, especially people; nothing can be taken at face value. Because her early life was so traumatic, she just had to try to understand things around her from all sides-or she chose to do this. She sees oppressors and the oppressed both having their own traumas. She realizes that she either had to forget her childhood or to understand it. She strove to understand, developed a passion for books-perhaps both because her father was a scholar and her mother could not read-while others of her family chose to forget and rather than choosing books, they chose drugs.
Out of this understanding that people are multi-dimensional, Yasmin wants to give her life to create spaces for people to dialogue, to get beyond the images they create and put upon one another, and to find out why people are the way they are. She wants to confront all forms of human exploitation-of which human trafficking or modern day slavery is one kind-and see people not just as victim and offender but how they got into that and what more is there to them than that. She has a very big agenda from the huge trauma of a very small girl. If Yasmin can transform her trauma into that kind of triumph, what of whatever we experience can't we transform into our own triumphs in life both for our own living and for the lives of others?
My Own Story
Sometimes when you give examples from the lives of others, they seem so large-dimensional or so different from your own, that they don't come home to you and your seemingly ordinary, non-dramatic life. I've got nothing like Khaled, Rebecca, Andrew, Tommy, and Yasmin in my background, but I've got something like a trauma. It's not worth writing home about, but it's what my life was given to be, so it's mine and I have transformed it into a small triumph you are witnessing right now. Let me give you my own example. Perhaps this will help our students and my fellow Rotarians consider traumas of their own lives and what they have made of them.
When I was young, a boy in Juneau, Alaska, and even a teenager in Washington, D.C., I was almost pathologically shy and sensitive. I could not stand to be apart from my parents or else I'd cry. My four brothers and sisters could bring me to tears at will-though thankfully and lovingly they hardly ever did. I was so shy that at Boy Scout Camp-where I was dreadfully homesick the whole time but did not have the gumption to say, "I don't want to go this year!"-I did not have the assertiveness, while sitting with Troop 33 in mess hall, to reach out and take food from the platter of French toast placed in the middle of the table, but waited for it to be passed around, which it never was! I starved till Parents' Sunday when Mom and Dad would bring food: chicken, potato salad, and chocolate chip cookies, which I'd then hide under the bunk in our tent until bold rats and squirrels appropriated them! I needed a younger sister to invite her girlfriends as my dates for the mandatory school dances at my high school. I still remember painfully going totally blank barely into the recitation by memory of a piece in an elocution contest in front of the whole high school and needing to be called off the stage by the teacher after what seemed hours of silent, public humiliation.
My challenge as a child is nothing to write home about for sure. But what I believe I transformed this minor trauma into was an ability to go within myself in reflection, a depth of presence to myself, a drawing from a deep well within, a learning to speak from who I am and what I treasure interiorly, and the development of a life of daily prayer and poetry. That's my way of transforming a trauma into a triumph. I remember once saying in an offhand manner, as a sort of throw-away line in the middle of a 10‑week college course on world religions I was teaching, "Shyness is the most personal of all human emotions; it is simply the shadow side of the perception of the preciousness and vulnerability of relationships." (Rollo May) On the last day of that course one college student, a 20 year old young man, came up to me and awkwardly said-for he too was shy-that this one sentence was worth more to him than the whole rest of the course! Someone had told him that being shy is not only okay but can be a feeling of sensitivity and of treasuring something precious. Shy people don't give themselves away easily in relationships; they've got too much to give and they realize the risk of the giving. That's my little story, my little triumph.
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I wonder if we all have some capital "T", or small "t" trauma in our past around which and from which we have spun a pearl of great price. Of course we can be trapped in our traumas, locked up in them, unable to shatter or break through them. Khaled teaches little children to release their traumas by dance, music, shouting, screaming, punching. But it's always more than that. It takes the help of other people. Khaled needed the compassionate nuns; Rebecca needed social workders at Childhaven; Andrew depended on fellow students to help him to "J‑walk"; Tommy needed a final stable family and a safe college which he could call home and where he could have friends; Yasmin required rescue by police and great teachers and mentors; I needed the companionship of the Jesuits and the pebbles in my mouth of being asked by others to give lots of speeches.
When you look at what is the triumph which is won from a trauma, it is always the unique shape and flow and wonder of your own personal life, the person you were created to be now being released and coming forward. We honor you, our students, today as "Winners for Life". May that life be nothing less and need be nothing more than your own true life, and may we your Rotarian friends and mentors be privileged to be some of the people by whom you are helped to transform your traumas into triumphs, so that you may be not only this day but always, "Winners for Life."
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