Whispers

“He asked for a service, but that was just his way to get into my room.

“I knew something was wrong as soon as I closed the door. He started to look through my things. He wanted to see if I had money hidden in there. I was afraid of what was happening, but I tried to stop him. But he had brought a rock with him. A big rock that he’d just picked up from the ground. He hit me, hard, on the side of my head.

“I don’t know how long it took to wake up. I really have no idea. But the pain was so bad, I screamed, but my screaming was weak. One of the girls heard me, but the sound was so short, she thought it was just a joking scream.

“He searched through everything. He kept looking for more money. Then he found a small bag where I had some beauty supplies. Sometimes the girls want beauty treatments, and I learned a few of those things years ago, so I help them.  In the cosmetics bag he found my scissors, and I thought, ‘This is it. He’s going to kill me. He’s going to use those scissors to stab me, and there’s nothing I can do to save myself.’

“He didn’t stab me. But he used the scissors to threaten me and to make me keep quiet. He searched the room for everything he could take. He found my phone, money, little things like earrings. Worth nothing, but he took them anyway.

“And then he raped me.”

This is when the tears start, and we sit in silence because there is nothing else to do. There are no words of comfort, no pithy self-help encouragements, and no solutions. So we sit in Burger King and silently watch a lifetime of grief drip onto the table.

These are holy moments.

For many, the idea that a working prostitute can be distressed by rape seems a contradiction. They imagine that constant exposure to sexual activity with strangers means that all sexual activity is pretty much acceptable. It isn’t. For these women, there is a sliver of dignity in the ability to say yes or no. There is a thread of self-ownership. When that last choice is removed from them, stuffed years of abuse and trauma spill into everything.

It’s complicated.

And then the stories begin. Stories of childhood, loses and abuses. Of things seen and experienced far too often in the life of a child. But in these compartmentalized lives, where every part of existence is divided and packaged, loss of control in one area often leads to years of secrets being exposed.

“I was one of seven and life was hard, but that’s the same for everyone here. Things are hard but you don’t know it because, well, that’s how everyone grows up. There were bad people that came into our life, into our family. One day, one of my brothers tried to do something bad to me. Something shameful. I told my mother because it was bad. She said, ‘Well, he isn’t really your brother anyway. I was raped and that’s how I got pregnant with him. So it’s not like he’s your real brother.’

“That day I came to understand my mother a lot more than I had before. So many things made sense.” More tears for a fresh agony.

“I’ve tried for years to get out of this life. I hate it. We all hate it. I’ve always tried hard to save money, and I’ve managed to do it. But every time I have enough money to maybe try to leave and make a different life, something happens, and the money is gone. One time, I had saved a lot, but I got really sick and had to use the money for medical care. It was gone in an instant. And then my youngest, she also got sick. She has respiratory illnesses. The medicines are so expensive. Sometimes just one medicine costs me $150 for one week. How can I pay for that any other way? Can you imagine? We all want to get out, but it’s almost impossible.”

Broken lives are precious things. We don’t offer pat solutions. They don’t exist. But whispers of hope. We can offer those. And when the whispers are loud enough…sometimes, a woman will be brave enough to try to leave.

Last week, J enrolled in a high-quality beauty school. It won’t fix everything. It won’t change everything. But it’s a step, and it’s a good one.

It’s also very, very brave.

Mending

How much do we love her? How many of you remember L? Shot 7 times and left for dead. I can never say it too often… she’s a walking miracle. (see 2017 story here)

Pandemic life has been very hard on her. The tiny squatter village she lives in means there are no sales at her little shop. But she smiles and she prays and shares the little she has with those who are hungry. How far she has come. The bullet that shattered her upper arm? Still there. But today she took the brave step to use that always aching arm to learn to sew.

some of the neighbours L shares her food with


Sewing machines are magic. Sit beside a woman as she learns to sew and she’ll tell you all sorts of painful life stories. It happens every time. Part of our conversation went like this:

Me: “Darling, why are you shaking?”

L: “I’m so nervous. I was too scared to sleep.”

“Why are you scared?” (btw, we know why, but she needs to say it)

“I’m scared because I don’t know how to use the machine.”

“Sweetie, you’re here to learn; you don’t have to know how to use it.”  This went on for a while but then we got to the truth…

“When I was 5 my mother sent me to sell in the market. If I didn’t sell anything she would beat me in the street with all the people watching. She told me I was stupid and useless and not fit to learn anything.” In her fifties and still carrying the lies that were heaped on her as a teeny little girl. It breaks my heart.

scars from surgical repair


“Darling, am I going to shout at you?”

Giggles, “No.”

“Will I ever hit you?”

More giggles, “No.”

“Do we love you?”

“Yes, you do.”

“Yes, we do. No one’s going to hurt you. Today you’re going to learn to sew.”

rod, screws and remaining bullet in right arm


She sat at the machine for 4 hours. Did she manage to sew in a straight line? No. But she will, no matter how long it takes. She’ll get there, eventually.

These are moments I wouldn’t exchange for anything. If weeks or months of practice means undoing some of the hurt of a lifetime, dang, totally worth it.

first day at the machine

A Week in a Life – Part 2

This blog first appeared as a series of seven posts in Tamar’s Hope private Facebook group.  For permission to join please click here.  

Post 5

Sitting on the front step she suddenly burst into tears. That makes three times I’ve seen her cry. It’s becoming a habit! Turns out, she, like many of the women we work with, is about to be evicted. She’s been out of prostitution for months, but she hasn’t found any employment. Fear, trauma, illiteracy, pregnancy and a pandemic will do that.

We’ve been told it’s illegal for landlords to throw tenants out during this COVID craziness. Where’s that hysterical laughing emoji when I need it? Illegal means nothing to the poor. The rule of law only applies to the people strong enough and educated enough to fight. Y can’t fight. Y can barely live.

Y’s daughters – age 5 and 3

And if you’re wondering if it would really happen, if a landlord would really throw a heavily pregnant woman and her tiny children into the streets. Oh hell yes! Happens all the time. Some find a cheaper, nastier place to live. Some end up under tables in the public market. Some are in doorways.

Her terror is real.

We were able to help with that for now. But we can’t do it forever. There are too many women, too much need, and far too many awful stories. There are no easy solutions for these nightmares. But for a short time at least she’s able to breathe easier…

Post 6

Who in the world calls at 6.30 am on a Sunday morning?

Irma does.

“Y had the baby.”

Say what?

“Yes, she had him alone. No one heard her screaming. I just found her. The room is covered in blood. She was all alone.”

Volunteer firefighters took Y and the baby to the public hospital. They told her she could deliver the placenta once she got there. Okey dokey.

No one should have to give birth alone in a dark, empty room, but for Y it’s just how life seems to go.

She’s been in the hospital for a few days now. We can’t visit because COVID.

And she can’t leave.

Why?

Y won’t be allowed to leave the hospital with her child until she gets an official document from the volunteer firefighters that she did indeed give birth to this baby.

Yeah.

Illegal adoption and child trafficking have been a huge problem in Guatemala. So laws exist to try to stop that evil. But I think if a woman shows up with a bloody baby still attached to her body by a cord…that should be proof enough that the child is hers. No?

No.

So now we’re in the process of trying to get the paper. We can’t get it. We aren’t relatives.

As if she isn’t dealing with enough fear, now she has the threat of not leaving with her child. It’s too much.

Post 7

If you read part 6 yesterday, you’re just about caught up. That happened last Sunday, Nov 1. And what a week it’s been. Y was whisked away to one of two public hospitals in Guatemala City. If you’ve followed our stories and blogs over the years, you’ll have read about the horrors of those places. Dirty, broken, underfunded…these are not places you would want to be.

And yes, if you’ve been keeping up with the story, the woman with the umbilical cord attached to her body, was required to prove that she had given birth to the tiny, bloody baby she held in her arms. That set off a new level of chaos and stress. Y was told in stern terms that she would not be allowed to leave the hospital with her baby without adequate proof that he was hers. She was terrified. Y knows all about being powerless. It’s all she’s ever known and she always loses. Try to imagine what it would feel like to know a hospital administrator could remove your child, not because of fear of abuse or neglect, but because you are weak and can’t fight.

A relative needed to get a paper from the ambulance service confirming that Y had indeed birthed a baby in that tiny, dark room. It had to be her mother. Her mother deserves a whole other series of stories. Suffice it to say, she’s not big on maternal feelings or care. She reluctantly agreed to chase down the papers…but we had to pay for the taxis to drive her around. Okay. Whatever.

When she delivered the paper to the hospital, there was yet another problem. She’d given Y’s age as 18. She’s 26. Like I said, she’s not big with motherly warm fuzzies.

And then there was the problem with the baby’s birth certificate. He couldn’t get one because Y doesn’t have the official government ID I talked about earlier in the week. No birth certificate, no leaving the hospital.

Again, she was terrified. To Y it looked more and more impossible.

Her mother started creating uproar about who knows what. It wasn’t for Y or the baby. But whatever it was, it was a doozy, and in the end security guards removed her from the hospital. Nothing says welcome to the world little one like a tragi/comic soap opera unfolding before your tiny eyes.

Irma, Y’s guardian angel spent the week battling administrators, social workers and Guatemala’s monolithic bureaucracy until she was, with much signing of paper and money changing hands, able to sign a temporary form giving Y the right to leave with her child. But five days in, there was just one more small detail.

Y couldn’t leave without providing the hospital with hand sanitizer and wet wipes. So basically, give us some supplies or we keep your kid. And while you might think this is a very small thing, the reality is that the majority of people in that hospital cannot come up with the money for things like this. Relatives wander the halls begging from the families of other sick people asking for help with medical bills. The poor begging from the poor is devastating.

Dear Irma came scuttling from the hospital desperate for help with this final hurdle and $10 bought enough supplies to allow a mother to leave the hospital with her own child. Without Irma I don’t think we could not have helped Y at all. I worry about all the people who don’t have an Irma in their lives.

We stood outside waiting. As soon as she was released Y threw herself at us and burst into tears. She hadn’t eaten or slept for five days. She was just too afraid of what they’d do to her and her baby.

It was hard to walk to the car with her clinging on. I think she thought if she didn’t hold on, they might drag her back inside and take the baby away.

But now she’s home. She has her boy, and we are working through the process of giving them all legal identities.

He’s beautiful. Of course. 6 pounds 8 ounces of miracle. He has no name. She wants us to name him. We want her to do it. It’s a standoff right now.

And now we all have to breathe deeply and try to figure out life. Y is just one of hundreds of sexually exploited women we work with. Each one has an equally devastating story. They all need help. They all need a miracle.

Thanks to those of you who’ve taken the time to read Y’s story. She matters.

A Week in a Life – Part 1

This blog first appeared as a series of seven posts in the Tamar’s Hope private Facebook group. For permission to join please click here.

Post 1

When we found her in February, she was a different person. Something huge had shifted in her life. Y has always been one of the most accepting of the women we work with. Accepting of her reality and means of making money.

“It’s just a job like any job,” and then she’d laugh as we told her she was worth more.
But in February it wasn’t just a job anymore. Within minutes she was sobbing and pleading with us to help her leave. Years of denial and acceptance vanished with those tears. Always quietly controlled, she was overtaken by the distress and humiliation of her life.

Sometimes well-meaning people will tell us it’s a woman’s right to sell sex if that’s what she wants to do. So far, we’ve never met one who prostitutes herself because she wants to, because she likes it, or because she’s choosing this life over another means of earning a living. Some hide it well. Some pretend that everything is fine. Some, like Y, insist it’s just a job. But, eventually, the horror of their life breaks through. No one can smile forever.

Y didn’t leave that day. They rarely do. But something had shifted in her thinking, and that was amazing enough.

 

We kept in touch with her during lockdown, sending help as we could, and when Shawn returned to Guatemala in September, she was one of the first he went looking for. He found her sitting on a ledge outside the overcrowded rooming house where she lives with her two little girls. She’s a little girl herself – small, frail, and vulnerable.

And pregnant.

Post 2

The pregnancy was almost as much of a surprise to her as it was to us. She doesn’t know who the father is. Some random man paid pennies to own her for twenty minutes and fathered a child he knows nothing about.

We went back to see her last week. It was my first time seeing her since she sobbed eyeliner and lipstick into my shirt.

“Darling, how many months are you?”

“Maybe four,” she said.

Umm, nope. Definitely not four. She’s an itty bitty thing. Her nickname is Skinny, so she’s never huge when she’s expecting, but that was no four month bump.

Maybe it seems odd that she had no idea when she was due. It wasn’t that she didn’t notice or wasn’t aware that her period had stopped. She noticed. She knew. But here’s the thing about anticipating the future. It requires hope. And hope is something she has never known.

Y’s two girls – age 3 and 5

Time doesn’t mean anything in an abused life. Every day is the same. Every day is a struggle to survive until tomorrow. There just isn’t time or reason for anything else. If you don’t have enough food for your children today, tomorrow doesn’t exist.

Hope is the luxury of the secure. Hope counts days because good things are coming. Hope plans for the future because tomorrow is to be enjoyed. Hope anticipates good things and assumes that things will turn out well.

Hope is for the privileged.

Post 3

We sent Y for a medical checkup. She’s had absolutely no care during this pregnancy. The nice people at the clinic told her the baby was due in the first week of December. See? Not four months! Well, at least we have a working date. Time to get stuff done.

And, it turns out, there’s quite a lot to do.

Y lives in a rooming house. She rents one tiny room and shares a communal toilet and an outdoor sink. Her friend Irma lives in the same building. Irma is an angel. Irma, we’ve begun to realize, is the only reason Y has survived this far.

As we chatted, somehow we figured out that Y has no government ID. She doesn’t really exist…at least officially. And if she doesn’t exist, neither do her children. It’s very complicated. I won’t bore you. But it’s just another miserable layer of vulnerability that means that Y has to rely on others to do the most basic things for her. She has little or no authority over her own life, let alone the lives of her children. She can’t get them vaccinated. She can’t enrol them in school. She can’t get herself any kind of education. Missing that one little card means she sits on the edge of society unable to take any kind of control of her life. That card means a lot. I have one. Shawn has one. But this little Guatemalan has been denied that basic right. So now we start the process to make her real! To give her legal proof of her identity. It’s the first step in making real change in her life.

Post 4

You know what’s hard? Measuring trauma. That’s hard. Statistics tell us that the majority of sexually exploited women exhibit the same level of PTSD as military personnel returning from active combat. So why do they do it? That’s a question with a very complicated answer. Very complicated. But what we know is this – the trauma starts long before they end up being paid for sex work.

Y has known nothing but trauma, honestly. She was sent to sell sex at the age of 12. Twelve! I think I still had dolls when I was that age. Can you imagine? Nope, can’t. But it started before that. Irma casually threw out the fact that Y had first come to live with her when she was only eight years old.

“It was after her brother raped her,” she said. “Her mother didn’t do anything, so I brought her with me.”

And Y sat with her head bowed, as though living with that horror is the most normal thing in the world.

buying supplies with Irma

Of all the things I believe I’ll never get used to, I know I’ll never be able to grasp this throw away attitude to unimaginable horror. Not because no one cares, but because it’s so common, so much of a daily reality that it just doesn’t warrant much of a reaction.

Raped when she was eight, but the abuse probably started long before.

So if you ask why they do it. This is why. Childhood sexual abuse is the boot camp for sexual exploitation. And no, it doesn’t happen to everyone you know who’s been abused. But dang, it happens to a lot. And where you live there are support services, and social security payments, and free schooling, and employment. Here there’s nothing like that to make life more livable.

We know that all of the women we work with have suffered unimaginable trauma. Things that I likely don’t know exist. Yet they keep going. They have to. To us, Y is particularly broken. She lives with the wide-eyed terror of someone who knows that horror is only moments away. It’s like she lives at the worst point of a slasher movie, all the time. It hurts just to watch her live frightened, try to parent, and struggle to survive.

Sew Happy

We sat for hours on her tiny single bed. It served as chairs, cutting board, ironing board and work station. Two years ago we had sat together in La Puerta when she asked if I thought she was capable of learning to use a sewing machine. Classes started that day. She loved it so much that we signed her up for a course and loaned her a machine. It was quite something to sit in her room on La Linea and watch her do her sewing homework between clients.

And then came the day she was brave enough to leave the exploitation she’d been forced into. Life has been hard but she’s kept going, refusing to look back, even enrolling herself in primary school so that she can eventually enrol in an advanced dressmaking course.

So, there we were, sitting on her bed as I showed her how to make some fancy stuff for our friends’ store. It was hot and uncomfortable and she was as happy as can be.

She turned to her machine (still a loaner – we’ll get her a good one when she’s completed her courses). I was pretty much only thinking about my aching back when she let out the deepest, happiest sigh. “Today I am living my dream. I am sewing as a job.”

And again I realized I have the best job in the entire world.

Still Waiting

They call her Skinny.

Guatemalans are blunt and not entirely politically correct in their use of nicknames.

We’ve known her for five years.  On our first day visiting La Linea she sat on her little plastic chair next to her room and the public urinal that perfumed the air around her.  She looked so frail, so sad; and she refused every attempt we made to engage with her.

It took 18 months before she agreed to accept a cup of coffee from us.  A year and a half for that small victory and I danced for the rest of the day.  Success!  She said yes.

From that point on, our aim was to see if we could get her to smile.  That took a while, but not another 18 months.

Skinny finally visiting La Puerta

We asked for a little of her story.  How long had she been in this life?  She started stripping when she was 12 or 13.  Honestly, I will never get used to these throw away realities.  I played with dolls and listened to Abba when I was 12.  She removed her clothes for leering strangers.

Sometimes we’d ask if she wanted to leave.  She’d sneer.  Of course not!  As far as Skinny was concerned, it was an okay way to make money.  Everyone had to survive somehow; this was her way.  It didn’t bother her.  She didn’t care.  It was just a job.

On Mother’s Day almost two years ago, her sister was murdered.  A death likely arranged by someone we know.  Skinny’s sister was a tiny, vulnerable, destroyed child-woman.  Her children had been removed from her care, and she would sit huddled in the corner of La Puerta colouring with a force and focus that was heartbreaking to see.  But one day someone decided they’d had enough of her brokenness and a single bullet stopped everything.

After the murder, Skinny moved to another centre of exploitation in the capital.  Word was, she was the next to die if she stayed on La Linea.

We don’t work in that area yet.  We will.  We have plans, but the plans need people, so as yet it’s just a dream.  But we’ve visited.  It’s one of the most depraved and dangerous places in Guatemala City.  It’s filthy, loud, crowded, and filled with people who believe life has absolutely no value.  At the same time there are fighters.  Individuals struggling to make a living and provide for their families. Good people, brave people, all trying to survive in a festering open wound of human depravity.  There’s nowhere quite like it.

A year ago we found Skinny there.  She screamed when she saw us.  It was a sweet moment.  I still remember the years of refusals and the wall she put between us.  A year ago it was still okay to do what she’d been doing forever.  It was still a way to make money.  It was still worth it.

Yesterday we visited again.  We entered brothels and bars, handing out flyers for next week’s medical clinic.  We chatted with women of all ages.  Some were happy to talk, others were obviously afraid.  Why on earth would these giant gringos want to talk to them.  I sat with a few in a bar.  We laughed a lot and I was reminded again how much I love my job.

On the way back to our car, we turned a corner and there she was.  Skinny…frail and painted and beaming.  After kisses and hugs and more kisses there came a sudden flood of tears.  She misses her sister.  There is no justice in Guatemala.  She will never see her again.  Life is so hard without her.  She has no hope.  Apart from her sister’s funeral, she is someone who has never shown emotion.  She’s stoic.  She accepts her lot.

Sobbing, she beckoned me to a dark corner of the brothel.  She didn’t want the other girls to overhear what she was going to say.

I can’t stand it anymore.  I can’t continue in this life.  I hate it.  I hate it.  Please help me.  Please.  I can’t do this anymore.  This life is terrible.  Terrible.  Please.

Tears poured down her facing, peeling the cheap liner from her eyes.  She cried with a force that was devastating to see.  It was grief.  Grief for everything she had lost – everything she had endured.  But it was also hope.  Hope that there might be something else.  That there might be a way out.

We will talk again next week.  But this is huge.  HUGE!  She was never going to leave.  For Skinny, prostitution was a legitimate way to provide for her children and she thought we were kind, foolish gringos because we aren’t fans.

It took five years to get to this point.  Five years of refusals, anger, aggression and then reluctant acquiescence. Five years of pizza, and games, and jokes, and hugs.  Five years of waiting and being told, NO!

We are often asked what we do all day.  Honestly, it’s pretty boring.  Amazing things happen, but most of the time it’s quite mundane.  When we’re asked we usually say, “we wait.”  People laugh when we say that, unsure of what to do with such an answer.  But it’s true.  Most of our job is waiting.  We wait for the hug to change, for the hand squeeze to tighten, for tears to fill dark eyes, and for whispered questions of escape.

If you’re interested, we have no idea of our next step with her.  We’re heading back to Canada in about ten days and then we won’t be back until the summer.  Until then, we are going to try to figure out something for our precious Skinny.  She is the reason we do what we do.  She is the reason we walk through sewers.  She is a gift.

 

 

Still Walking

It’s been almost five years. We’ve walked these tracks and visited the rooms that trap hundreds of women so many times we can’t even begin to count. We’ve learned so much and changed so much. We’ve discovered depths of love we didn’t know we were capable of. We’ve lost dear friends to murder and have witnessed unimaginable suffering. BUT we’ve also seen extraordinary joy.

The women of La Linea have allowed us into their hearts and lives. We know their stories, their children, their dreams; and for many we are allowed the extraordinary privilege of being trusted with the knowledge of their real names. Most of the time we’ve done this alone, and that part has been really hard.

Volunteers have come and gone while we’ve prayed and waited for some who are willing to be in it for the long haul. Most of all we’ve prayed that the church in Guatemala would step in to serve these women. Our most earnest hope has been to see women who once knew the horror of exploitation to return and tell their sisters that there is hope. Driving to La Puerta today I was again asking Shawn when this was ever going to happen. Five years is a long time to walk alone.

And then there was a knock on the door. We knew that three friends would be joining us today. We were wrong. Eleven women, four of them former prostitutes, spilled into La Puerta, filling the space with laughter and love. Some of these women are counted among those we’ve known for the full five years. And here they are, transformed, full of hope and desperate to love the women of La Linea.

If you’re wondering, of course I’m still crying. This is a short visit but it’s also a miracle. Today five years of tears and whispered, pleading prayers is worth it.

Ready to Roll

Destination El Trebol, Terminal, Cerrito, Chimal, Zona 7, Villa Nueva, or dozens and dozens of other sites (no exaggeration!) around Guatemala City where many thousands of prostitutes are being exploited every day.  We are so excited to finally roll out our new mobile ministry centre!!

Since the day some very kind missionary friends donated their school bus to us back in November 2016, it’s been a labour of love, and sometimes patient endurance, as we oversaw a metamorphosis that included three different body shops, a roof raise, many obstacles and learning experiences, countless hours, and, of course, the very generous support of our donors.  But we’re delighted with the result of the 30-month journey and the whole new possibilities ahead!

This mobile centre will help us get into new areas where women are “working” and reach out to them with a safe place to come and hang out with us and our other Tamar’s Hope volunteers.  Like with La Puerta, our fixed ministry centre, our goal is to use the space to extend relationship to sexually exploited women, share the hope of Jesus with them and help draw them towards healthy life alternatives.

We imagine girls playing games with us at the tables.  A heart to heart chat perhaps on the sofa.  A time to relax in a comfortable, secure environment.  A chance to learn about education and other resources.  I can already smell hot cinnamon rolls from the oven!

*note – we are still receiving donations for this project to cover the final $5000 of expenses*

Pig Skin and Possibility

It seemed a little conspicuous, even menacing.  The ruby-coloured vehicle with excess chrome, tinted windows and underbody lights seemed somewhat out of place for a small town like Sanarate.  As it circled the central park and crawled by us for a second time, the pimped-out pickup was hard to ignore.  But only once we stepped around another corner did our friend D turn to tell us the owner was one of the prestamistas whom she owed money.

Main Street Sanarate

Until two years ago, D was happily running her own little shop selling simple lunches and chicharrones (deep fried pig skin –  no, don’t knock it til you’ve tried it!).  But then business turned sour when her then boyfriend convinced her to move her eatery to a “better” location and borrow money on his behalf.  Sales were never the same and the fella was soon gone, leaving D with all the debt.  Even after liquidating the few assets she had from her kitchen, she still didn’t have enough to pay the rent she owed on the building.  At the time, borrowing even more seemed her only option to feed her hungry kids and keep the roof over their heads.

D and her kids in their humble two room house

For women of D’s socioeconomic standing, there’s no such thing as financing from banks or legal lending institutions.  In Guatemala, the poor, when desperate enough, can only find credit from the neighbourhood loan sharks – prestamistas – who are always way too happy to help!  Over the course of a few short months, D found herself impossibly indebted to not just one but FIVE prestamistas.

As wonderfully merry and generous these dudes can be when it comes to credit approval, they aren’t known to be quite as gracious with any defaults.  D had a friend once who tried to modify her repayment schedule.  Shortly after her body was found in a nearby river.  For D, turning again to prostitution to survive seemed at least better than the river.  She had been back on La Linea on and off for the past couple years.

“So how much do you still owe?” I had asked in an earlier conversation.

“Q4850.” She was precise.

Doing some quick math in my head, that was about $850 CDN.  I figured it could be worse.  “And how much are you paying in interest?”

“5%.”

Well hey again, it could be way worse!

“5% per day,” she expounded.

“Say what??!!”

Yup, some of these guys had been showing up at her door every single day to demand at least 5% plus a token of the principal.  When she was off “working” they’d still come to harass and threaten her young children.

the debt cards, now cancelled! one was titled “The Blessing” Investments!

Natalie and I were walking the streets of Sanarate with D last week, scoping out a suitable place to help her relaunch her chicharronería.  She had the know-how and previous experience, she had a workable business plan, she had the faith to trust God with the unknowns.  What she needed was a means of escape from yet another form of wicked exploitation, the moral support of friends, and some modest financial help.

That very day she secured some building space on a busy street.  So we made a business agreement with her then and there which included a grant to pay out the prestamistas and an interest-free loan for all her start-up costs.  In less than a week she had purchased everything to equip a small kitchen, arranged her meat suppliers, ordered signs, contracted a plumber to install a utility sink, and lit the deep fryer.  We returned to visit this week to find she’s already reaching 80% of her daily sales target!!

and she named it after Tamar’s Hope

D was beaming and almost skipping about the kitchen as she served us and many other customers.  The door to her room on La Linea is now firmly closed.  The door to Chicharronería Tamar is wide open.  And so is a whole new chapter of life for D, filled with hope, dignity, and gratitude to Jesus.

While we were enjoying lunch together in D’s shop, one of the prestamistas circled by again, this time to offer some more credit should she need it.  “No thank you and get lost!” was her polite reply.

A LITTLE SPARK

Her family called her Chispita (little spark), but to us she was Yocelin.

The first time we met her, she sat huddled over a chair, her tongue pointed in concentration as she frantically coloured a sheet of paper.  What she produced with that fierce effort was heartbreaking – a toddler scrawl without definition or plan.  She wasn’t trying to draw a thing, just filling the page with a single colour.  I wondered if maybe it was the first time she’d ever held a crayon.  As the months passed and we got to know her a little better, I became certain that it had been.  Her’s  was a life without chances.  She hadn’t spent her childhood singing pre-school songs and watching Sesame Street.  For Yocelin, the simple act of holding a crayon was foreign and complicated, and she proudly displayed her scrawl to each of us at the end of a long colouring session.

We’ve known and loved Yocelin’s sister, another Y, for several year.  She was a challenge to win, refusing our offers of coffee and cookies with a determined shake of the head.  But when she finally accepted, after a year of gentle persuasion, we knew that something big had happened.  From that point on, Y became our firm friend and advocate.  Then, one day, she showed up with a whole pile of family in tow – her mother and a couple of her sisters wanted to colour as well!  And that was the first time we met Yocelin.

She had been a regular on La Linea for many years but was hidden in the back rooms where girls are rarely seen by non-customers.  But then tragedy struck.   One of Yocelin’s three tiny children died in her care and the others were removed by the state.  She was told she’d never get them back if she continued to work in prostitution, so for a while she left.  But for a girl with no education and no hope, it was inevitable that she’d end up back on La Linea.  For the most broken of these women, they have nowhere else to go, and know no other way of earning the money they need to survive.

She’d visit La Puerta with her sister.  “Yocelin, how old are you?”  She had no idea.  “Okay, sweetie, how about you tell us what month you were born in?”  We like to celebrate the ladies’ birthdays with a cake and a lot of fuss.  Celebrating the uncelebrated is a thing at Tamar’s Hope.  But she couldn’t even narrow down her birth to a particular month.  She wasn’t being difficult.  She had no idea.

How little do you matter, do you think, to yourself or to others, if you don’t even know when you were born?  It was a small indication of a desolate life.

At the end of 2017 Yocelin had another baby.  She was terrified the authorities would find out and remove her remaining child, but she managed to keep the secret pretty well, although, in reality, it would only be a matter of time.

On Friday last the staff of Tamar’s Hope celebrated the women of La Linea with a Mother’s Day party.  I missed all the fun, but I saw the photos and loved seeing the laughter on their faces as they played games and ate good food.  Our dear friend, Carolina, a former prostitute, returned to share her story with the ladies.  There is such power in a former working girl telling her sisters what it’s like to be free…and that freedom really is possible.  Yocelin sat beside Carolina as she spoke.

Yocelin listening to Carolina at the Mothers’ Day party

Like everyone else, Yocelin left with a full tummy and a gift.  Gifts are good, and it had been a good day.  She had been loved and told that she mattered by people who really meant it.  Sometimes, even in the life of a prostitute, good things happen.  They just don’t last very long.  A few hours later, as she stood outside a local pharmacy, a man approached her and fired a single shot through her heart.

She was only twenty years old, the mother of four, and she had known nothing but suffering and loss for her entire life.

Yesterday we sat with her family and friends as they wept over her coffin.  What do you say to a mother or a sister in a situation like this?  Actually, nothing.  Once again there are no words.  The simple box that held her broken body sat in La Puerta for a little while as her family wept and her co-workers passed through to pay their respects.  It was a bleak scene as we mourned a wasted life surrounded by others who live in daily dread of the same fate.

Her mother was just about the last to leave La Puerta, helpless with grief.  We all know it, but it bears saying again.  No mother, no parent, should ever have to walk behind her child’s coffin.

Our friends placed her coffin into their minivan (yes, really) and drove her to the cemetery.  The poor are buried in layers – like a wall of oversized shoe boxes covered in faded plastic flowers.  It’s a pitiful place.  The family gets to watch as their loved one’s coffin is bricked in and sealed with cement.  But it’s not over at that point.  If they fail to pay the annual fee, the authorities will remover her body and toss it into the garbage dump that adjoins the wall of tombs.  Death in Guatemala is a particularly brutal business.

So that’s it.  Yocelin, like so many of her working sisters, is gone.  She lived a life without joy or hope and we are left mourning one we couldn’t pull out of the misery of prostitution.

#becauseprostitutesmatter  #tamarshope