I was new to Freedom Firm, on my second raid, and, and the only aftercare staff present. A complete novice in social work, I need hardly explain how scared I was. When we rescued the targeted girl, she could barely stand. She had had too many customers and too many STDs. She was also deaf and mute. How would I communicate with her and learn what had happened? How to make her understand that she could trust me?
I quickly realised that communication is much more than just the ability to converse in the same language. Through her gestures and movements I figured out her story. Through my smiles and body language, I was able to reassure her that I was there to help and not harm.
If only it were so easy every time. But restoration is not a one-size-fits-all strategy. Each girl’s story is different and so also each girl’s road to restoration. Discouragement is part of the job as girls adamantly (and frequently!) tell us that our counselling and support are not wanted. Perseverance is key in the hopes that even if it takes weeks, months or years, our efforts will eventually prove fruitful as we see victims reclaim their lives and become empowered young women.
When we rescued Mina*, she repeatedly asked us to take her back to the red-light area. Yet for nearly two months she remained silent about her life despite our varied attempts to get more information from her.
By this time into the job, I was aware that that no matter what you say to gain their trust, it takes time for most girls to open up. But after spending about two and a half hours with her on a follow up visit, I had hoped that there would be some breakthrough. It was clear however that this was going nowhere and I was fed up and exasperated.
I told her that if she didn’t want us to help her, there was nothing more we could do for her until she asked for our help. As I got up to leave and hug her goodbye, she started to cry. Gripped with the fear that her only hope of freedom was leaving, she must have decided to take a risk and tell me the truth.
Her brothel keeper had warned her of what would become of her during a rescue. The organisations that ‘rescued’ her were actually funded by foreigners and would sell her abroad after they took her from the brothel. Once abroad, she would never be able to return home.
It didn’t help that Evan, a blond haired, blue eyed American director, was part of the interventions team that rescued her. When she saw him, Mina immediately remembered her brothel keeper’s words. She had seen police in the red-light area pocketing money in exchange for their silence so the possibility that NGOs may secretly be running a trafficking business seemed entirely plausible.
If I’m not careful, the lack of immediate results, the troubling stories that remain etched in my memory even after returning home, the million thoughts that flash through my mind on how to juggle providing aftercare support to victims and Ruhamah Designs employees, going on raids, travelling 10-15 days a month, and the mismatched expectations of colleagues and supervisors, can threaten to overwhelm me.
So what keeps me going? The fact that I have the privilege of standing for justice with rescued girls, of sharing experiences and offering support. Besides, not all our interactions are serious and emotionally charged. Many of our counselling sessions are on the lighter side and I have found that despite the scars, many are still able to laugh and be cheerful. Laughter is truly the best medicine for weariness and these happy times spent together rejuvenate me.
And stories like Mina’s encourage me to press on. During her time at the shelter home, Mina participated in several vocational courses and built her skills and confidence. She was recently selected as a hotel management trainee and after her training she will be placed in a 4 or 5 star hotel. She told me "whatever I wanted, the kind of environment I wanted to work in, that's exactly what I got. I am very happy and can't wait for my job to begin!"
Does it get any better than that?
*Name changed to protect identity