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.

Happiest New Year

J is not her real name =)

She is one of our recent nursing graduates and a force to be reckoned with.  A few days ago she came charging into La Puerta just bursting with excitement.  She’d been offered a job.  Amazing!  Truly!

But, wait…it gets better.  The nursing school was so impressed with her integrity, maturity, and intelligence, that they offered her a job as a nursing instructor!  A for real, teaching job.  This is huge.  She’s now a professional.  She has a job that she won’t lose due to her age (a shockingly common problem here).  She’ll have benefits, a salary, and a title.

Just over a year ago, she didn’t believe she’d find a way out.  But she’d always had a dream to be a nurse.  She wanted to have a job that required a uniform.  Uniforms here are a big deal, and they mean you have a real job.  So J enrolled herself in nursing school.  We didn’t know anything about it until we found her on her little bed, sporting her usual uniform of thong, heels and skimpy bra, and surrounded by books.  She had no idea how she was going to be able to pay for school, she said.  But she was taking a step of faith.

That was a good day for all of us.  Thanks to very generous donors, we’ve been able to send several women to school.  J is one of them.  When COVID restrictions allow, we’ll be sending many, many more.  We can’t wait.  But this past year it has been a joy to watch J become who she really is.  She has worked so hard.  It hasn’t been easy.  And, since she had no other means to support her kids, she worked in prostitution the entire time.

But now she’s out.  This, is just a little of her story…

“The first time I was raped, I was just seven years old.  Another school was invited to do some activities with us that day.  Everyone was away from the school buildings, at the sports field.  But I was in a classroom with some friends because we had work that we needed to finish.

“Suddenly a group of big boys came into the room.  We didn’t understand what was happening.  They blocked the door and told us we couldn’t get out.  We were scared and started screaming, but no one could hear us.

“One of them pulled me onto the floor.  He ripped off my shirt and skirt.  My mother always made sure I wore shorts under my school skirt, but he just pulled them down.  There was nothing I could do.  Another boy was doing the same to one of my friends.  I screamed the whole time but no one could hear.  They were laughing, telling us what they were going to do to us.

“There was a window open in the classroom and one of the girls, she was really small, managed to climb out before they could catch her.  She ran to get help.  When the director got into the classroom, another boy was on top of me.  She pulled him off, but they all managed to run away.

“My mother was called to the school.  She said they weren’t going to get away with it.  So the next day they took me and my friend to the other school.  We had to look at all the boys, and we saw them.  They went to jail for what they did to us, but my heart was broken.

“The next time, I was fifteen.  My mother and I were staying at a hotel close to where she was working.  The owner of the hotel seemed like a nice man.  But one day, my mother went to run some errands and he came to the room, locked the door, and raped me.  He was big and I just couldn’t fight him off.  I was screaming then too, but no one came to help.  His wife was in the building, but no one came.  Again my mother pressed charges and he also went to jail.  She always said we had to fight.

“A while later, my mother needed money for something.  She needed a loan.  A nice lady we knew said that she would lend my mother the money she needed, and she also had a job for me in a restaurant.  We were happy because it would really help us if I had some regular work.  I was thrilled to go with her to the town where she said I’d be working.  But it wasn’t a restaurant.  It was a brothel.  I had to work in the bar and go with the men.  I didn’t want to, so I refused.  She got very angry with me and yelled.  She said that I was hers now, that I had to repay the debt owed by my mother; and it was going to take a long time.

“One day I was able to get away.  I ran to the police and I told them what was happening to me.  I told them I was being held against my will, that I was being forced to have sex with these men.  I explained that I never agreed to do this.  They took me back there to confront the owner.  At least that’s what I thought was happening.  But when we got there, the police laughed.  They told me there was nothing they could do for me because the bar owner didn’t lie to me.  They said that since it was his wife, there was nothing they could do.  They left me there.

“After the debt was paid, I was able to leave that place.  When I was seventeen, I got married.  I thought all of my dreams had come true.  He was so kind to me, so charming.  But as soon as we were married everything changed.  If his food was too hot, he’d beat me.  If his food was too cold, he’d punch me.  He’d give me Q5 (75 cents) to buy all of his food for the day – breakfast, lunch and dinner. And if I couldn’t provide three meals for him with that money, he’d beat me again.  So he beat me all the time because it was impossible to feed one person with so little money.  I cried a lot.  All the time really because I just didn’t understand how anyone could be so cruel.  Some people are really terrible.

“Bad things just kept happening, he raped me whenever he wanted to, but eventually he left.  And I had two small children to support.  I tried to find work, but that’s almost impossible here, especially with only a little education.  So one day I thought, ‘Well, if I’m going to keep getting raped, I may as well get paid for it.’  And that’s how I came to La Linea.  The real me couldn’t have done it.  The real me would have run away.  So that’s why I became J. (All of the women who work on La Linea use a false name.  J was her false name/identity).  J could do what she needed to do.  She could be very strong and just endure everything.  If it was me who showed up, I wouldn’t have lasted a week.  But I became J and she was able to stay here for fifteen years.

“I know she doesn’t exist.  Well, she doesn’t exist anymore.  But without J I would never had survived all these years.  How was I ever going to provide for my children?  How was I going to survive?  It’s too easy for people to think we have other options.  We have no options.  Nowhere to turn.  I know this is a terrible place and bad things happen here all the time.  There’s so much death here.  So many girls have died.  But where else can we go?  It’s just not easy.  Without J I wouldn’t be where I am today because I would not have survived.  Without her, I wouldn’t have had the motivation and the courage to get out of here.  Being J for all these years, gave me a reason to become myself again.  J is the reason I am able to leave.

“And now, look at me!  Who would have thought this would happen?  I could only do this because God has been so good to me. He has always been faithful. Through everything. But he also made me strong, and I know that my strength got me here.  I’m going to be a teacher as well as a nurse!  I am now a woman with a profession, with a real job.  Now I can live a dignified life.  I can close the door of my room and walk away.  J doesn’t have to be here anymore.”  

Our darling J, real name B, started her new job this week.

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