11/12/2013 10:58 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Survival Girls -- Ming Holden's Book Debut

Ming Holden makes her book debut with her non-fiction novella, The Survival Girls, based on her work with Congolese refugee women who are survivors of gender-based violence.

A Mary Poppins-like tale with a twist, we see the main protagonist, Ming, landing down in Kenya through what seems like sheer coincidence. Once there, Ming works her magic, helping to heal wounds, creating spaces, "checking in," and advocating for rape survivors when it seems like no one else will. When her work comes to an end, Ming takes off, as if by umbrella, even though we wish she'd stay longer.

While the comparison holds to a certain extent, it quickly becomes obvious that Ming is about as far from Mary Poppins as one can get. Instead of arriving promptly for meetings, as would Mary, Ming tends to wake up past her alarm clock, strolling in at her own beat. Instead of being prim, proper, and desexualized, Ming reflects openly on her sexual relationships, the times she tried psychedelic mushrooms, and the night she woke up with vomit on her scarf after having missed her New York subway stop. This version of Mary Poppins is just as flawed as any of us, which helps make Ming's story believable.

Ming is clear from the beginning that this is her telling of the story, not that of the refugees, helping avoid any I, Rigoberta Menchu-like pitfalls. Still, Ming opens up the women's lives just enough for the reader to grasp the severity of their trauma. Ming does the same with her own story, hinting at psychological abuse, bodily trauma, and a painful abortion. She speaks of trauma with the insight of a neuroscientist, the way a survivor who has fully unpacked her experience can. Like the women she works with, Ming proves that she too is a Survival Girl. This is what enables her to establish such a close connection with the women she meets.

From a human development perspective, Ming's intervention fills a gap that no one else seems willing or able to fill -- not the government, not development agencies, and not any local organizations. The Survival Girls have seen other interventions -- people who come and go, starting projects and leaving them unfinished. Those types of interventions raise false hopes and, as Ming points out, run the risk of reinitiating the traumatic cycle.

Ming very modestly admits that all she creates for the girls is space. This is partially true. Ming has come across a group of extraordinarily talented young women who can sing, dance, act, and improvise with total confidence. Yet these are also girls who collapse into Ming's arms, shattered from wounds that are still red and raw. Ming offers what she can -- love, support and positive affirmation -- because these are the things that helped her through her own struggles.

Ming's advocacy for the Survival Girls, whom she comes to regard as "her girls," is unwavering. When external situations develop that compromise the girls' work and risk further traumatization, Ming defends them unrelentingly. She goes so far that even the reader might want to tell her, "Come on, Ming. Get real. This is just the way things are."

But Ming doesn't settle for things the way they are. This is the same woman who, as a Henry Luce Scholar and recent graduate, helped a man from Inner Mongolia secure his refugee status. This is the same woman who, in response to criticism about "culturally appropriating" the stories of refugees, says, "I work with Congolese girls in a slum of Nairobi, refugee girls who have been gang raped and left to die by people who slaughtered their parents in front of them. I can either write about that or not." This is a woman who will stop at nothing if she can help someone heal, through development work or the written word.

This is why "our Ming," as the Survival Girls lovingly call her, is currently their best advocate.

Ming's work is proof of what fresh energy can bring to a development project and of the sacrifice that is needed for success. Funding streams for art-related work with youth in developing countries are, unfortunately, extremely limited. To carry out her intervention, Ming had to cover her own expenses, which she did through a scholarship and personal funds. Had she not done this, the Survival Girls might not have found their voices the way they did under Ming's guidance, nor would they have gone on to develop their own organization that continues to engage young refugee women and survivors of violence through art.

Ming happens to be a talented enough person who can execute youth empowerment projects and capture both the beauty and cruelness of the tale. There are times while reading that you will laugh as loud as you have ever done, after which the laughter will transform with unexpected swiftness into tearful lamentation. You'll wonder, like I did, if you've ever read anything that has taken you on such an emotional journey in such a short period of time.

You will feel forever changed after reading The Survival Girls. The book can be found on Amazon. All proceeds go to support the Survivor Girls directly, a noble move on Ming's part to help sustain this work into the future.