Dr. Michelle Harrison just celebrated her 80th birthday, surrounded by the 14 girls she is raising in Kolkata, India and the dedicated staff who are helping her. Four of these abandoned girls are now young adults preparing to embark upon professional careers.
How does a Jewish doctor born in New York City end up running a home in India for girls nobody else wanted, I ask, unoriginally, at the beginning of our Zoom conversation.
“In my generation, there were lots of people entranced by India -- and I wasn’t one of them,” she answers, impishly raising her shoulders and smiling.
Harrison never retired. A family doctor, psychiatrist, and OB-GYN, she was involved in President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty program, The Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, taught at Harvard, Rutgers, and the University of Pittsburgh, and served as Worldwide Director of Medical Affairs for the Johnson & Johnson’s (J&J) Consumer Division and then as Executive Director of J&J’s Institute for Children. Following a break to recover from cancer, fate conspired to bring her to India to raise girls rejected for adoption, six of them severely disabled.
Sitting before me on Zoom, dressed in a sari, the red mark of the married woman on her head, she has barely a wrinkle on her face. Her slender body exudes energy one associates with much younger women. Each question produced a story that would fill an entire chapter in the autobiographical book I hope she writes. I had to greatly pare down what she told me to fit the scope of this article.
After her quip about never having been entranced by India, she goes on:
I first need to tell you about my grandmother, who was known as the Angel of Ellis Island. She came over from Russia as a teenager. She ended up working at Ellis Island for a number of years, helping unmarried young Jewish women coming in and making sure they were going to real families and not being trafficked. She also helped immigrants pass the intelligence tests and if they were sick she helped them so they wouldn’t be sent back. She did what she could to help.
She used to take me to the ocean when I was a young child and I remember she pointed out across the ocean and said, ‘Don’t ever forget the starving children in China.’
In high school, I wrote an essay on the meaning of life. A friend of mine had just come back from the Korean War and he brought pictures of Korean orphans. That was an epiphany for me, and I wrote about dedicating my life to caring for orphans.
If you know all of that, it is no surprise what I am doing.
I was pregnant with my first child when my husband left, so I raised her as a single parent and I wanted another child. I started looking at adoption. At that time, if you were single, there was either Central America or India. If I had got a Guatemalan child I would be in Guatemala now. There was the feeling that somewhere there was a child out there and I was supposed to be raising her. I was close to 40 years old.
My daughter was two months old when she came to me. I love being a mother. I wanted her to be connected to her culture. So we got involved in various Indian organizations. She was very attached to Indian music. As a baby, she would only fall sleep to Indian music.
Many adoptive parents convert their children as infants and raise them as Jews. Why did you not do that?
It never occurred to me that a child I took would need to be converted. I didn’t want a symbol of why my child didn’t belong in my family, that something had to be done to make her okay – that didn’t sit right with me. For me, adoption didn’t erase her past.
Where did the idea to open a home for kids in India come from?
In 1999, I got breast cancer. In 2000, my daughter and I traveled to India together. Her orphanage was still open. We came for two weeks and stayed for six. We discovered scams in the adoption ‘industry’ and I was warned I was making people uneasy and it wasn’t safe. I was told to stop. Of course I didn’t.
What I saw was that nobody was thinking about the children. It was about business and about laws and rules. Nobody had their eyes on the children and the more I saw that, the more I felt I had to do something.
I discovered that the NGOs weren’t taking full orphans because they had to ‘get rid of’ them at 18 – government funding stopped at 18. So they took half-orphans, the child of a single mother is not an orphan. Some were actually boarding schools for the poor, but they called them orphanages so they could get donations.
I was looking for the institutionalized girls who had lost family, community, and some who didn’t know what their names were. The ones who had been abandoned, kidnapped, dumped, and had no one to go back to. Those were the kids I wanted. I had had experience in the USA with deinstitutionalization and the creation of group homes.
How did the girls come to you?
I wrote a business plan, gathered people I knew in India, set up an NGO, and registered it in late 2006 under the name Shishur Sevay, and the kids came in early 2007. The children came by order of the Child Welfare Committee, monitored by the Social Welfare Department.
When we were given the license to operate, I was thinking about eight girls and had not considered disabled kids but when I went to pick up the last group of three kids, they told me about four handicapped babies and would I help out and take two? I looked at these four babies and it was a Holocaust moment for me. I took all four.
I figured if I took $200,000 and made a plan for 20 years, I could raise eight girls to independence. If all I ever did was raise eight kids, that would be fine. But the minute I took in children with disabilities I was committed to a lifetime of care and costs soared, mainly for staffing and medical costs.
It turned out that having the babies made us into a family instead of a dormitory or hostel. In Indian families, older siblings care for the younger ones. The older girls I took in, aged 6-8, mourned for the siblings they lost more than for their mothers. One girl wouldn’t go to the movies with us, not knowing if her brother and sister were eating.
One -- a girl and her two younger siblings who nobody wanted after the mother died and the father had already gone – were dumped at the side of a pond by a relative. The two younger ones were enticed away by a woman with food; the girl tried to keep her sibs from going but they ran to the woman. She lived alone for a long time– in railway stations -- and all kinds of horrible things happened to her.
So my older girls are devoted to the now six handicapped kids (because we later rescued two more) and take care of them. One said she hopes that when she dies she can give her eyes to the one who is blind. Another was asked what she wants to do when she grows up, and she said she wants a good job because she has 11 siblings to support. She wants to be a special education teacher and I have started her in a yoga certification program that will help with that goal.
A month after they came, I started them with dance three times a week, not for dance but so they learn body discipline and all do the same activity. We later included the kids with disabilities. At a certain point, I put them into a dance group and three years ago, one was chosen to be a dance trainee with the troupe. She is going to study dance in college.
I also started them in karate and our oldest, who is an artist who has exhibited publicly, now has a black belt and is teaching karate at a private school, earning a salary. She continues with her art at the same time.
It had to do with letting them become themselves.
Also, I was an ‘at home’ mom to them. I remember thinking that what these kids need more than anything else is a ‘mother’ at home, checking their homework, and that is what I did.
It took ten years before they could begin to think of a future. People don’t understand grief and trauma. It didn’t surprise me that it took this long and that’s why I had to use my own money. Donors expect miracles. The miracle is a place where they allow you to grieve for ten years.
I also tell the girls to respect their past and respect their mothers. One girl didn’t want to study. I said, ‘If your mother was alive do you think she’d be proud to hear that? You have this chance and you say no, I don’t want this chance to be educated!’ [As Harrison related this to me, she bounced her shoulders up and down in imitation of teenage resistance.]
I always made it clear I was their second mother. And my job is to be the best second mother I can be. Those are the kinds of attitudes that allowed them to grow and feel like they had a chance.
We also started a free community preschool in rented facilities for underprivileged neighborhood children – there is a donor for that. I did it because the girls wanted to give back and I felt they needed it. They are the teachers and they work around their schedules. One girl, who felt lost, discovered that she’s a capable administrator and she’s the go-to person for whatever you need. She is essential there. If my administrator is out sick for two days, this girl takes over.
Tell me a bit about the disabled kids.
Two girls have cerebral palsy and are cognitively okay – but the palsy is so severe they cannot walk , talk, or feed themselves. I bought a Tobii eye tracker for one of them so that she can communicate with us, paying for it out of my own money in case it didn’t work and I couldn’t justify the expense to donors. It opened up a world of communication for her and we then bought a second Tobii for the other girl.
We pay for private hospitalization when needed, and private doctors because that is what I would have done for my own daughter. There are wheelchairs, physiotherapy, speech therapy – and one-on-one staffing for feeding the girls who are at risk of choking if they are not fed carefully enough.
Of the two that we took in more recently, one is brain injured from birth – blind and seriously cognitively impaired and she’s the happiest person I know. Another is autistic with some cognitive impairment and is physically disabled – she can’t walk or crawl much, can’t feed herself, isn’t toilet trained. Aside from one, none of the disabled are toilet trained. They were not expected to survive at all.
It’s all about connectedness – to not feel alone in the universe. That’s what we’ve been able to give our children with disabilities rather than them laying on cots somewhere all day. They have lives. They’re not alone.
How are you planning for succession? After all, you ARE 80 years old.
I have a team that is going to support this project after I am gone – they probably see me as an obstacle. [Harrison chuckles]
Now there are 14 teens to young adults aged 12 to 23, six of whom are in wheelchairs, and we are not taking any more children. I created a whole community around the girls. One teacher told me it is no longer just a job for her. I fired a lot of people and those I have now are really devoted.
Only one girl is talking about marriage so far and it is possible that their earlier traumas means they will prefer not to marry. In India, nobody sends girls out of the home unmarried. I’ve identified two of the girls to slowly train in how to run the home. Currently, we’re working with the government to be recognized as a lifetime residence.
You wear a sari and you are not part of a Jewish community. How is that for you?
I love wearing saris, and to the Indians, it means that I like India and I like them. To my kids and the staff, it means I’m not going anywhere – I’m part of their world.
In my childhood, we did the Jewish holidays and I went to Hebrew school after regular school. Ours was a household that viewed everything going on in the world through the prism of ‘Is it good for the Jews?’ I learned a lot about Israel and I wanted to live on a kibbutz as a teenager.
However, when I was ten, we moved to a farm and the town where I went to school was vilely antisemitic and on the other side was a town with a Jewish community center and a youth group where I started to make friends. My father was asked to join the synagogue and then we were turned down because it was discovered that my parents had led the defence of the convicted and executed spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. Nobody would buy our farm produce in the market anymore. For me, getting turned away at the synagogue had a profound effect on me.
This might sound ridiculous, but I have tried many times over my lifetime to reclaim some sense of Jewish community and I haven’t been able to. And what’s weird is that my sense of Jewish identity got stronger in India, partly because I had to define myself as not-a-Christian-missionary, that I wasn’t going to convert anybody, that in my religion, just like Hinduism – you have to FIGHT your way IN.
I am a Jew living in the Diaspora. Following in the traditions of my family, I try to do good. When I die, I imagine being asked, “Did you make good use of this lifetime?” I want to be able to say, “Yes. I was here and tried to do my part in relieving suffering and building bonds of love.”
Right now, I am kvelling in Kolkata because my girls are doing so well.