Week 52

“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the sun,” taught the Qoheleth. True that. As I sit with my second cup of coffee this morning (okay, and third) and consider this past year, it seems 2023 may have been a time for not quite EVERYthing for Tamar’s Hope, but certainly a LOT of things. And my heart is just so dang grateful.

In January, Natalie and I found ourselves down to just the pair of us in this mission to love on sex workers here in Guatemala City. Then one by one, others joined efforts with TH through delivering coffees to women on La Linea, sewing workshops, hairdressing, fixing meals, product marketing and just being all kinds of serving. Last week we went out for a Christmas celebration with a team that has grown by six fabulous part-time staff and volunteers!

Iglesia Vida just marked their one year anniversary of hosting weekly worship services at La Puerta, the TH centre on La Linea. They’ve called it a “mercy campus” in their network of other church congregations as this one is uniquely for former and current working women. It’s another dream come true to see the building being used by other local partners with the same heart to serve these ladies.

Obstacles including a pandemic and lack of staff delayed the launch of our mobile ministry centre, but 2023 was finally the year we dispatched our converted school bus onto the road. Every Wednesday we park her in the middle of La Terminal, another cluster of prostitution in the city, and invite the women there to eat and chill out with us. And they do. By the dozens. It’s been brilliant to get to know yet more ladies and help them imagine new and different futures.

Then just last week, city hall decided to delight us with issuing the building license to continue construction on La Puerta. After 559 days of a bureaucratic dance with multiple government agencies, stacks upon stacks of papers and dozens of signatures, I can’t tell you what a triumph that felt. We put a large bow on said document and carefully placed it under the tree. Merry Christmas to Tamar’s Hope it was indeed!

In this final week of the year, I’m feeling my happy heart – for all the growth and expanded opportunities, and also for the many people alongside TH who make it all possible. Our sincerest THANK YOU goes out to each and every one of our supporters in this work.

We look forward to yet more and new good activities under the sun in 2024 and pray it will also be a time for including more financial partners. Overall donations for 2023 were down by 35% compared to the previous couple years, and we’re stepping into January with trending low coffers.

If you’re not yet part of this fantastic team of TH supporters, well hey, you’re invited! And all are also welcome to spread the word to any friends and family you know would love to “help sexually exploited women in Guatemala regain dignity and wholeness.” More resources are needed to pay our staff (who have come out of prostitution themselves), expand the outreach with the bus, offer more education bursaries as our reach extends to more and more women, and to complete the next phases of the construction project.

It’s a good time.

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Pretty Faces, Beautiful Hearts

Over the past year we’ve been privileged to welcome several new staff and volunteers to our Tamar’s Hope team. These are some seriously servant-hearted people and we love ’em lots. Just wanted to take a moment to show them off to you…

 

ROBERTA - Life Coach and Beauty Expert

RobertaLife Coach and Beauty Expert

Roberta laughs loud, hard and often. (Unless she’s stuck in Guatemala City traffic.) She’s as serious about education and professional development as she is about having fun in any crowd. As a teacher, entrepreneur, hairstylist and life-long learner, Roberta brings a full life skill set to share with her “sisters” from La Linea, modeling what life can be like on the other side.

 

 

EvelynMentor and Hardcore Listener

A few years ago, Evelyn got a taste for learning and has since become a scholastic powerhouse with pursuits into formal high school education, theology and dressmaking. Life after La Linea has taken her all the way to a career as a sewing instructor and she brings her very patient and gracious teaching style to Tamar’s Hope to inspire many others.

 

 

PaulaTamar’s Hope Volunteer

With all kinds of positive energy and quest for adventure, Paula somehow creatively juggles roles as architect, homeschool teacher, business owner, church leader and world traveler. And then occupies her “spare” time generously loving on the ladies at La Puerta once a week and helping Tamar’s Hope develop social enterprise projects.

 

 

JackieTamar’s Hope Volunteer

Jackie is all about drinking good coffee, singing her heart out, improving her English, playing volleyball and hanging with friends on the beach – ideally all at once. She brings every bit of her enthusiasm for life each week to the ladies at La Puerta, leading Zumba classes, playing games and chatting soul to soul, all while drawing on her very helpful degree in psychology.

 

 

ViviTamar’s Hope Volunteer

Vivi hates all bugs and stingy things, loves tending her exotic plants, makes quick friends with any dog or kitty, and would fight you for them with her mad karate skills. During the week she’s busy with her full-time job as a business administrator, but generously shares her every Saturday to laugh and live and love with the women on La Linea.

Bane/Bliss

Sitting through two and half hours of the assiduous, one-by-one marching through diplomas, handshakes, announcements and poses – not just once, but two days in a row –  is right up there among my top 10 ideas of personal torture!! And I wish every one of our Tamar’s Hope partners could have been at last weekend’s graduation ceremonies as well.

Not cuz I hate you. Cuz it was so unbelievably worth every minute of it to witness K, G, A, B, R, and A, six of our TH bursary students, also cross that stage as new auxiliary nursing graduates and well on their way to a whole new kind of life they had never even imagined was possible!!

They will tell you that for them too, it’s ALL been worth it. Facing the fears, the work, the family challenges, the self doubt, the difficult relationships, the shaming, the tears. They now have such a confident hope their tomorrows will not be like their yesterdays.

We and they are so very grateful to all of you who also believe that prostitutes really do matter and have lent your hands and hearts and resources to show it so to these dear women over the past eight years of being part of their stories of regaining dignity and wholeness.

Oh, and I’s story as well! Also a former La Linea worker and bursary recipient. She was one of the nursing instructors capping the graduates as they marched through the gauntlet on stage. How cool is that?!!

Now we can’t wait for the next round of graduates in a few months time! Really. We just have so many ladies to celebrate and be all kinds of proud of!

Existence

When is a sheet of paper a miracle?

When it’s a Mexican birth certificate; that’s when.

Some of you might remember the story, but for those of you who don’t, here’s a quick recap.

G is the mother of three adorable little boys. Her oldest, Y, was born in Mexico, eight years ago. Shortly after his birth, G’s abusive fella announced that he was going to kill her and keep the baby.  He wasn’t kidding. So, like any good mama, she picked up her baby and ran for the border, leaving her abuser and her son’s identity in a foreign country.

Guatemalan citizens are entitled to have kids born overseas registered here, but they must have a birth certificate to prove who the child is. Makes sense. But G had no papers and no way to prove her son’s identity. Technically, Y didn’t exist.

It was a mess. And the messiest part of all? No school for Y. Not ever.

That one missing sheet of paper condemned this little boy to a life of unemployment and abject poverty. No papers mean no job, no right to vote, no official programs of any kind. It’s a life sentence.

Gangs in this country love these scenarios. They snatch up hopeless, futureless kids and brutalize them with a twisted version of belonging that makes boys like Y believe that gang violence is the only place for them. They are terrifyingly effective recruiters.

Imagine G’s fear.  Her bored, frustrated little boy was becoming increasingly difficult to deal with.  His mind wanted to learn, but there was nothing to fill it. His body needed to move, but there was nowhere safe to allow him to play. He spent all day, every day, in a dark hovel with the endless screech of mindless cartoons his only diversion. It was a horrible life for all of them, and G knew the gangs were waiting.

The process of trying to get the papers from Mexico has been long and complicated. Turns out, it really is quite difficult to prove that a little person is who his mama says he is. Cuz, says who? There has been endless form filling, appointments at the embassy, new random requirements never mentioned in the past, and then even more appointments. Eventually, there was a prerequisite so narrow and specific that we believed we had come to the end of the process.  It seemed impossible.

Every week brought us closer to the date we’d have to sign him up for the next school year. But that wasn’t going to happen. The school did us a huge favour last year by allowing us to enroll Y in a pre-grade one program. We paid all the fees, but his attendance was unofficial. The school admin made it clear that this was a favour they couldn’t repeat. So every day saw him get closer to the day we’d have to tell him that school was over for him.

And then suddenly the pieces fell into place. The impossible requirement materialized. More appointments were scheduled, new steps were added to the process, and Shawn, G and our darling friend E stood in lines and smiled at officials. A winning smile can go a long way in Latin America!

 

Please enjoy the photo. I’m sorry you can’t see her beautiful, beaming face. G is beyond thrilled. Y exists.  He’s real. He has a birth certificate and now he can have all the legal papers the Guatemalan government would like to bestow on him. Next year he’ll officially start school. The paper that affirms his life will change his life.

We couldn’t be happier.

One Word

Sometimes it takes one word.

I’m not sure who was more surprised when I poked my head through the door. She’s been gone for years. I’d heard she was back but I hadn’t seen her since my return from Canada, and I’d pretty much forgotten she was supposed to be here.

We’ve known her for years. We know her sisters. We’ve played with her kids. We’ve enjoyed parties with her parents. It’s a lot to know about a person and still not know what’s really going on in their heart and mind. She’s a mystery.

Today the word was “sweetheart.”

It was just such surprise/shock to see her.

“Sweetheart…!”

And the tears started. Not a delicate trickle, but the big globby kind you can’t control. Heartbroken tears. Ugly crying.

We stood in the doorway for a little too long. Eventually she had to close the door to compose herself and fix her soggy makeup.

And once again I’m at a loss for words.

She hates it here, but she comes back. She’s disgusted with herself and with her clients, but she hopes, one day, she’ll meet a good man here. (FYI, good men don’t buy women). She’s stunningly beautiful but she hides her face under a mask of clownish makeup. She believes this place is her only hope…her destiny.

She believes so many terrible, powerful lies.

We’re waiting for her to ask for help to get out. It’s been years of waiting while she’s watched others escape and succeed.

We wait, but she’s not ready.

We wait, and she’s probably still crying.

Oh Happy Day

“It’s been worth every tear!”

You know, when you ask people to talk about their experiences in getting an education, this is a pretty good one. “Worth every tear.”

Yesterday we invited one of our qualified nurses and two current nursing students to talk with some of the ladies of La Linea about school and scholarships and all things education.

We could do it. Well, we do it, all the time. But nothing we say has the power and conviction of a woman who has fought her way out of a lifetime of abuse into a new world of dignity and opportunity.

So three of them came and they were so fabulous.

“We are all capable of SO much. We are more intelligent than we thought. There is more to us than people have told us all of our lives. You can get out. You can have a different life.”

And then we watched as faces started to light up. Not everyone is interested, and that’s fine. Some will never take us up on the offer of a scholarship, and for others, it’s just not the right time. But even with those who refuse, we know from experience that after months or years, some will come back ready to make a change.

But watching the light of hope suddenly get switched on with some of the ladies was, and always will be, fabulous!

One, a high school graduate (that’s a huge amount of education for Guatemala) hasn’t been able to find a job because she has no employable experience. After listening to the ladies she ran, actually ran, to her room, threw on some street clothes, and went with them to the nursing school to gather as much information as possible. She is bursting with excitement. For the first time in a very long time, she thinks she might see a way out.

There were others really excited at the opportunity. We’ll wait to hear from them in the coming weeks. It’s their job to seek out a school and find out all the information we will need to pay for the program they want. Some fall at this hurdle, but it’s the first test we have to see if they are really serious about getting out.

And for the ladies who came back to talk to their sisters, we just couldn’t be more proud. One has a really great job as a nurse in a very nice clinic in the city. She has employment that most Guatemalan women couldn’t even dream of. Now that she has nursing under her belt, she’s interested in studying English.

K, who believed she’d never leave and absolutely didn’t want to study because she didn’t think she was capable, now has a list of courses she plans to take so that she can eventually go to university! It’s a shift of worldview that is impossible to explain.

And then there’s G. Gah, she was hard work. “I can’t do it. I don’t understand. I’m not cut out for this. Can’t you just find me more sewing?” has morphed into, “I’m going to finish all my education because I can do this. I’m not stupid. God has given me a chance and I’m going to take it.”

Watching K & G walk a currently working prostitute to their school to introduce her to a new world was wonderful. They challenged her, encouraged her, and then showed her how it’s done.

Happy, happy days, friends!

No One

“No one has seen me naked for three years!”

That is probably the most beautifully triumphant statement any of our sweet ladies have uttered in recent years.

“No one…”

That “no one” holds so much unspoken power. It means dignity – the years of unspeakable daily humiliations gone forever. It means healing as tears and shame fade into distant memory. It means freedom. Freedom to live unchained to the lies that prostitution is all she was worth; all she was made for.

“No one” makes all the hard steps and challenges so, SO worth it.

There was a time when we thought she’d never leave. She had long ago accepted her fate. It wasn’t that she liked what she was doing, she just couldn’t find another way to provide for her children. So she came to terms with what she was doing. In her mind, it was nasty but it meant her kids went to school. It was dangerous, but it meant her children would be safe. It was humiliating, but it would give her boys the chance at a dignified life. So she did what she needed to do and that meant thousands, truly thousands, of men were allowed to see her naked and make her the living reality of their most perverted dreams. It was awful but her kids made it worth it.

And then came the day when she finally decided to leave. It took years, and it took the influence of so many people saying, “Si, se puede!” (Yes, you can). It takes so much love to convince a destroyed woman that she is worth more than the hell of prostitution, and we are forever grateful for those friends who joined us in loving this woman back to life.

She’s out. And it’s hard. Every single day is hard. Her days will likely be difficult forever. She works insanely long hours for very little money. In her so-called free time, she’s studying to be a nurse. Once she’s qualified, she will continue to earn very little. For the rest of her life, she will struggle to pay her basic living costs, and in the back of her mind, she will know that prostitution would pay all of them and leave her with money left over.

Prostitution will call her forever, and she will have to fight to silence the voice that offers her solutions to endless problems. Returning is a huge temptation.

Yet with all the struggles and an uneasy future, she is overjoyed to be out. And she shares that joy every chance she gets.

Check out that fiercely pointing finger in the photo. I love it. She was at La Puerta to report in on her nursing program and she got chatting with some of the ladies who’d shown up for lunch. The chat quickly became a life lecture. A really, really great life lecture.

Her audience was captivated. None of our words can match the authority of a woman who knows exactly what they are facing every time a client steps through their doors. Nothing we can say will ever compare to the conviction of an abused woman who has fought her way out.

They listened to everything she said, waving her finger like she was running for office.

Next week, she’s promised to bring them application forms for the cleaning company she works for. She wants them out too. She knows it’s possible.

“No one has seen me naked for three years” is a declaration of truth and a promise. It’s a promise of hope for those who truly believe there is no way out.

It is a beautiful thing to hear. We are so proud of her.

Open for Business

The dream was never a building.

We are immensely grateful for it; overwhelmed, actually. But it was never the dream.

It was a desire, certainly. And a need. My goodness, we grew out of the first La Puerta very quickly. But a space is just a space, and we’ve become pretty good at making things work in any space we have.

The dream was laughter. It was for a place where exploited women felt safe enough to throw themselves onto the couch and fall asleep. It was a dream for the freedom to cry, to rage, and to sit in the deafening silence of grief.

But more than anything, it was a dream for a place where sexually exploited women, prostitutes, the most despised women in any culture, would feel free to praise the god they’ve been told they have no right to even acknowledge.

Dreams come true.

Friday was the official opening of the new La Puerta. I wish you could have been there to see it. I wish you could have heard the laughter and enjoyed the tacos. Most of all, I wish you could have heard them sing.

Our new building has been open for a while now, but Shawn delayed the official opening until I could crawl out from under the weight of therapy and doctors’ appointments to return to Guatemala. I’m so thankful he did because missing yesterday would have been awful.

There were games, encouraging words, songs, prayers, and lots of food. Seventy-five people, most of them women who have known nothing but the injustice of exploitation, came to celebrate with us. For the first time, our architects got to see all their hard work in action. They were thrilled. Friends from a local convent and pastors from the best church in Guatemala =) all came to join the fun. Best of all, women who were once known as prostitutes and felt there was no way out but have now made beautiful lives came back to celebrate with us.

I know, in situations like this, it’s standard to say we can’t thank you enough.

But we can’t thank you enough.

For every one of you who has paid for this, we thank you. For everyone who has prayed for this, we thank you.

It has taken years, and we still have a long way to go. Guatemalan bureaucracy works at its own pace (!), but we have come so far, and we eagerly await the papers that will allow us to build the next phase of this great place.

The ladies of La Linea LOVE the new building you have provided for them. They are excited about all of the classes, parties, and hangouts that will happen. It is stupidly, ridiculously beautiful. It is big and airy and comfortable. It’s a door to another chance, another life, and a renewed hope.

La Puerta is open for business. We couldn’t be happier.

The One Who Got Away

I love this photo. And yes, I realize that for you it is entirely useless since you can’t see the faces. But I can. I know those faces, and I love them.

Two of them are dead.

Both were murdered in acts of unspeakable brutality, and they represent just a tiny number of those who have died on La Linea in the years that we have been working there. It’s part of the horrifying reality of working in that terrible place.

The third woman in the photo, W, should also be dead; shot in the head or tortured to death like her friends. A few years ago we got word that she and her sister had done something to upset the gang that runs this part of Guatemala City. We don’t know what they did. It would be dangerous to ask. But it was serious enough that they both ran for cover, leaving behind their only means of earning a living.

When W visited us all those years ago, she was as terrified as I have ever seen anyone. Her voice shook as she tried to whisper her fears. Telling us nothing as she tried to tell us something. We told her to leave and never come back. Just shut the door and walk away. We gave the same advice to the other two in the photo. Like many others, they chose to stay on La Linea and they paid a terrible price.

But W did leave. She didn’t leave prostitution, but she tried.

Last year she enrolled in a nursing program. It hasn’t been an easy walk with her. Still isn’t, to be honest. We love her, but she’s a lot of work. Destroyed hearts don’t heal with a hug and a few pithy, encouraging talks.

While we were back in Canada, W went wildly off the rails. She hid from us, refusing to answer Shawn’s texts. We knew there was trouble.

Less than two weeks ago, we sat with her in a coffee shop where she finally confessed what she’d done. She’d blown it spectacularly.

There were tears, excuses, and a lot of pleading. It was a really sad conversation.

She also didn’t have a job. There were lots of excuses and justifications. Fear is a powerful reason to justify staying in the place you know best, and she was letting fear dictate all kinds of passivity. Broken hearts and minds are messy. Really messy.

At the end of our hard conversation, we told her she had to find a job.

And she did. Three short words, but oh so powerful. SHE DID. Not only that, but she found a job in a prestigious hospital in one of the fanciest parts of Guatemala City. Fancy matters because it means really good doctors and really good medical services.

It’s staggering.

This week we took her out for dinner; our first chance to celebrate her graduation from the nursing program.

“So, darling, how does it feel to be a professional? What’s that like?”

“I don’t have words,” she said. “I’ll just cry.”

But she did have words, and she did cry. It was beautiful. Snotty, but very beautiful.

Unless you’ve walked La Linea, or sat in these women’s homes, it’s almost impossible to understand what this means for her. This isn’t just a job. She’s gone from the dirtiest, most depraved and dangerous place, where she was abused and humiliated every day, to putting on a uniform and walking with her beautiful head held so high. It’s like climbing out of a sewer and walking into a palace.

It’s still not an easy path. All of the women who leave have to accept an extreme drop in income. She will struggle to pay her bills. She will fight to provide for her children. But she is so deliciously proud of herself. And we are so proud of her.

And can I just remind you…she should be dead. She should have been just another body, dragged away by the city authorities.

I love the photo. I love these women. Always will. Every so often I pull it up on my phone to remind myself, to see their faces and think about how wonderful they were. This week I pulled it up for W. She stared at it for a while.

She understands.

The Boy Who Doesn’t Exist

Y is about to turn eight years old. He’s never been to school, hasn’t had a single childhood vaccine and would be turned away from any and all public health services here in Guatemala.

Why?

Well, once upon a time, his mother (one of our sweet ladies) heard that she’d earn more by “working” in Mexico. While she was there she got involved with a man she thought was great but turned out to be a monster. It’s a familiar story. Their relationship got violent pretty quickly. It was horrible.

When Y was born, things got worse. Daddy told mama that he was going to kill her and keep the baby. He wasn’t kidding.

So mama did what any mother would do. She grabbed her baby, and she ran for the border and home in Guatemala. Trouble is, in all that escaping imminent death that she was doing, she didn’t have the chance to register baby Y’s birth. He has no birth certificate or legal documentation of any kind.

Officially, he doesn’t exist. And here in Guatemala, that’s a big deal.

It’s been bothering us for a long time that this sweet little guy can’t read, write, or count. He spends his days in a dark apartment with absolutely nothing to do. The area his family lives in is so dangerous ambulances, taxis and buses won’t go there. Smart choice, too. It’s very unsafe. His mother is too afraid to take her kids out of the house. So they stay indoors bored, unstimulated, and frustrated. Darling Y just isn’t developing as he should.

What to do? It’s a challenge, that’s for sure. Mama has a paper she received from the hospital when baby was born. It doesn’t include his name (because he didn’t have one at the time), but it does have some information about him, and his teeny little footprint. But that’s all.

Mama doesn’t have a passport. She has Guatemalan ID but that’s all. People in Central America can travel between other Central American countries with just their government ID, but to enter Mexico they must have a passport. Poor people don’t have passports.

Mama (J) was told she could get a three day permission to enter Mexico with just her ID, but she had to take her little guy with her. She needs to get to a civil registry to get him a birth certificate. Makes sense, but not as simple as you might imagine. Sending them both to Mexico for this trip would just be begging for trouble. We’d have to give her masses of cash which would make her a huge target for robbery and worse. So we figured we needed to take her. A quick trip to Mexico and back. What could go wrong? Get them over the border, get the papers, go home, put Y in school. Perfect.

But no.

We headed out on our Mexican field trip almost as soon as we returned to Guatemala after Christmas. Y was so excited. It’s a five hour drive to the border. Y puked spectacularly during the trip. It was a lot of fun. Puking makes Shawn laugh. Puking makes me puke. Fun times.

We got to the border and the nice uniformed Guatemalans behind the glass looked at us with calm derision. No, of course she couldn’t cross without a passport. There’s no such thing as a three day permission for anyone. We had suspected as much, but there was only one way to find out. We were crushed.

And then we met the human traffickers. They’d take them across for $35 each. What a bargain.

It was a long and totally unsettling experience. I’ll spare you the details, but I will say, that in all my years of living in what is officially one of the most dangerous countries in the world, it was one of the scariest moments I’ve ever experienced.

And I hope you’ll be pleased to hear that we had no intention of getting involved with traffickers. We couldn’t get away from them fast enough. It was horrible. (one more installment tomorrow)

So now what? Y still needs to go to school, and he still has no papers. Shawn tried contacting the Mexican embassy, but they are mostly closed. He tried showing up at the Mexican embassy, but you’re only allowed in…if you’re Mexican. It’s getting tiresome.

But we have had a small victory. With the help of a dear friend here in Guatemala, Shawn visited a private school where we already send another student. After much talking, explaining, negotiating and assessment, they agreed to take Y on a mostly unofficial basis. Yay! If we get his papers by the end of this month, he can be officially enrolled. That’s looking pretty unlikely. If we don’t have papers by the end of this month, they’ve agreed to let him stay in class…he just won’t be on any official paperwork. His year of study won’t count for anything with the ministry of education, but at least he’ll be learning.

So for now, he’s in school. Well, he’s sitting on the other side of the tablet we just got him, but you know what I mean. And he’s beyond thrilled. This sweet little guy is just tickled to finally be learning. He gets himself up early every day, bathes and puts on his uniform, ready to work with his teacher. It’s adorable. He’s delighted. His mama is delighted. We’re delighted. It’s great.

For now.

But this won’t continue if we can’t get his papers. Shawn just heard back from the Mexican embassy, bless em. They need all of the father’s documentation, a marriage certificate, and the mother’s documentation too. Well, that just isn’t going to work. So we’re waiting to hear back and figure out where to go next.