The Parsnip Girl

From the window of my van where we sat stuck in traffic, I watched her pull tops off the parsnips, picking through a stack to choose the best for her family. As she sat them on the scale, I thought maybe she didn’t want to be charged for the extra weight the useless stems might add to her transaction. Smart thinking for a child her age.

She was maybe 7 or 8… maybe 10 if you factor in possible malnutrition. I thought of my daughter, about the same age, who loves it when I tell her at the grocery store to get 3 cucumbers or 4 tomatoes… my daughter who is learning how to tell if an avocado is ripe or how to pick bananas. She feels grown up and accomplished when she’s able to help me in the store. But I can’t quite picture her on her own in a crowded market like this, negotiating like a pro and gently chiding the vegetable seller until he throws another small parsnip on the pile in exchange for the small wad of bills she places in his open hand.

“My daughter would have a lot to learn here,” I say, to no one in particular.

“Be glad she doesn’t have to know how,” someone says back.

And I am grateful for this simple truth. My daughter doesn’t have to know what it’s like to stretch a few small bills into enough for a meal. She doesn’t have to negotiate with grown men to feed our family.

And given where I’m seeing this little girl — on the edge of a refugee camp with God-only-knows how many people (800,000? 1 million?) — it isn’t lost on me that my daughter’s vegetable-buying-skills aren’t her only knowledge gaps with this girl in the beautiful orange dress. Though I don’t know details of this girl’s story, I’ve heard enough to know it’s unlikely to be one of protected childhood innocence. I think about the possibilities…

My daughter doesn’t know what it’s like to flee across a river in the dead of night, balancing babies and baskets of belongings on her head and hoping to make it to the other side.

My daughter doesn’t know what it’s like to hide under a pile of bamboo while her mother is raped, while her father is shot. She doesn’t carry the memories of saying goodbye to the grandmother who is too old and frail to make the journey; the one they left behind.

My daughter doesn’t know what it’s like to frantically gather a few belongings and run to the cover of trees before the fire that’s been set to her village consumes her humble house, hoping to escape the eye of encircled soldiers with guns aimed at people fleeing.

I’m so glad my daughter doesn’t have to know.

But I can’t ignore this little girl who does know. I see confidence and intelligence in her strong posture and the way she doesn’t shrink back from the adults around her. I see her mother’s lessons come to life in the way she tosses the vegetables in her hands, picking through the piles until she finds the ones she wants and inspecting each for unacceptable imperfections. I imagine she’s quick-witted and bright, just like my daughter. I’d imagine that if she’s given the chance to dream, she’d come up with something fantastic for her future. She might want to be a teacher or a doctor or maybe even a pet groomer, just like my daughter. She could be an executive or an astronaut or whatever else she wanted to be.

… If she weren’t here.

I know miracles are possible… and maybe her life will someday be a story so fantastic it’s made for the movies. But reality tells a different story. Reality says life isn’t meted out on scales, is it? She’s not getting opportunities in equal measure to the losses she has experienced. She’s not even getting the same helping of possibility that my daughter receives every day. The equations of human experience are rarely balanced.

I’m unwilling to come to a place like this and tell you about how happy everyone is, even though they have nothing. It’s not that it isn’t true… there are beautifully happy people, content and thriving right where they are. And we should humbly look for lessons we can learn from others’ lives.

But sometimes I think we like to say that to ourselves because it makes us feel better about not doing much to adjust the scale.

And as I watch the little girl out the window, I find myself wondering what the world would look like if I took her education as seriously as I take my daughter’s? What if I cared for her emotional healing as much as I would care for my daughter’s? What if I advocated for her future as much as I do for my daughter’s?

What would the world look like if we each did that for one child who wasn’t our own?

Traffic unsnarls and the cars move on. She disappears from view and I will probably never see her again. But there are millions of little girls buying parsnips and boys driving rickshaws and girls gathering firewood and boys herding sheep and girls cleaning houses and boys laying bricks and girls selling their bodies and boys running drugs. And the questions remain in my heart… What if we each tried to balance one little life’s scale?

What if she didn’t have to know only this world either?


I’m so grateful to Partners Relief and Development for bringing me on this trip. I’ve learned so much about their work on the ground and my admiration has only deepened as I’ve seen up-close their efforts to bring free and full lives to children of conflict. If you want to be a part of balancing the scales, Partners is a great place to check out.

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