A young girl, maybe in her early teens, sat in a plastic chair across from us. Her demeanor was relaxed and unbothered as teenagers tend to be, but she held her hands up in front of her like a barrier, fidgeting, cracking her knuckles, picking her fingernails, tugging on the neckline of her black blouse, touching her hair.
It was a hot and humid day but air moved freely through the shelter home, all windows open and fans purring loudly. White tile and blue paint made the space feel clean and bright; outside, grass glowed in the sunlight and the lane was quiet except for the occasional rickshaw passing by.
There were three of us from the United States visiting this shelter in South Asia, armed with cameras and recording equipment to gather stories, mesmerized by this young girl before us.
With her permission, we asked her a few questions and listened as she shared her story in her own language with the help of the manager and shelter mother. We couldn’t understand what was said but sat there recording patiently anyway, wondering what had happened to this beautiful, young life. (Pictured: an artistically altered image of Sabina)
We knew that she was a potential victim our monitors intercepted to prevent her from being trafficked, but it would be many months before the audio was finally translated and we learned what had happened to her.
“What would happen if we believed that every life was worth fighting for?
That instead of seeing statistics or numbers we would see heartbeats and voices
and laughter and people with breath in their lungs just like everyone else
Would we stop in our tracks, would we do our best to listen and respond
Instead of walking numb to the world around us?”
Sabina* was the only child of a poor and uncaring family. Her parents were alcoholics and had a bad habit of taking out their frustrations on her. She was 13 years old.
One day, Sabina was on her way to a dance lesson about a half hour away when a friend persuaded her to make a detour. The friend’s brother had recently married, and he wanted her to come with him to wish them well. She agreed, thinking it would be a brief stop; she had no way of knowing that this detour would alter the entire course of her life.
She never made it to the dance lesson.
“What if we finally took a moment to look at our world,
See the pain and the suffering and instead of turning away,
we did something about it
We made ourselves vessels of change
and opportunity for lives that don’t look the way ours look…”
Sabina went with her friend to his brother’s house and congratulated the newlywed couple. They invited her to join them for dinner. She was afraid to offend them by refusing, so she stayed. Everyone was in a celebratory mood, and the evening stretched later and later.
Around 10 p.m., she started worrying about getting home. It was long past dark, and her friend did not seem inclined to help her get home safely. She also knew with certainty that her parents would be aggravated by her late arrival, and a beating surely awaited her.
“Oh, it’s so late already; just stay the night! Then you can get home safely tomorrow in the daylight,” the newlyweds urged her. Not knowing what else to do, she agreed.
The next day she was delayed again.
“You must stay for breakfast!”
“Come on a walk with us first; then you can go home.”
“You really must stay for lunch; don’t leave hungry.”
“It’s raining hard now; traveling in this will be miserable. Just wait for it to stop and then go.”
Yet again, the delays stretched into late evening, and Sabina felt she had no other choice but to stay the night a second time.
The third day, the newlywed couple planned to go visit the bride’s home village.
“Come with us, Sabina. We know your parents beat you. We can take care of you, and you can go to school there.”
Sabina didn’t really want to go, but she felt so pressured. The couple countered every objection she made until she finally gave in.
The couple gave Sabina a set of new clothes and some fake glasses so that no one would recognize her. They told her that if anyone asked, she must say that the groom was her brother or else she would go to jail for 10 years. Did this seem strange to the 13-year-old? Perhaps, but growing up in an abusive home had taught her to keep quiet.
“We could bring home women who have been taken from their surroundings
to make a living off
of the price tag on their own bodies
We could love people well and fight for the justice
of remembering that everyone has a story,
has a dream, has a desire to be something more
than their circumstances allow them to be…”
After one bus ride, they waited at a station to change buses. She saw some police officers and thought about approaching them for help. She wanted to go home. But the couple hurried her on to a different bus, and she didn’t have time to work up the courage to do it.
After boarding the next bus, the couple told her they were no longer going to the bride’s village, but instead to the border. They said they knew people in the border town and wanted to make a quick visit.
The movement of the bus made Sabina sleepy, and she leaned against the window and closed her eyes. Half asleep but still aware of her surroundings, she overheard the couple talking about her.
“How much do you think we will get if we sell her?” the bride asked.
“Quite a bit since she’s pretty and fresh,” the groom responded.
Sabina was definitely scared now. The groom proceeded to FaceTime a friend on the phone.
“I’ve got a girl who is a good item,” he said to the person on the phone. Sabina opened her eyes just a crack.
He was pointing the phone directly at her.
“What if we lived in a world where we remembered that everyone has value and
Not always one you can add a number sign in front of
But a deep seeded inherent value that makes simply their existence significant?”
Near the border, the little group of three got off the bus amid crowds of travelers. It didn’t take much for Sabina to figure out that they were not visiting anyone in this border town, but making a beeline directly to the border crossing.
Before they could make it across, a young man stopped them and asked a few questions. The couple gave brief answers—some that were clearly lies—impatient to move on. The man turned to Sabina. “What is your relation to this couple?” he asked.
“I’m not—” Sabina was going to tell the man that she was not related to them and wanted to go home, but the bride kicked her hard. “This is my brother and his new wife,” Sabina lied, not wanting to go to jail.
“No one deserves to be trapped in a box they cannot retrieve themselves from
A box that takes away their significance, strips them of their dignity
and tries to convince them that they are not life given and loved beyond measure…”
The young man, a monitor for Love Justice, separated the girls from the man and questioned them further, but the bride kept answering for Sabina without letting her speak.
The monitor began noticing holes in the stories between the three individuals and grew more suspicious of what was going on. He brought the interviewees back to the booth, then to the police station, and finally to a shelter to sort out the truth.
At the shelter, Sabina finally gained courage to open up and tell the truth.
(Pictured: the station manager and shelter mother)
“When a woman is trafficked
When a child is trafficked
When a person is trafficked
We are all affected
It is a threat to our society as we know it
And a deficit to growth, to change, to freedom…”
A case was filed against the bride and groom for attempting to exploit Sabina. They are both in jail now.
Because her home situation was deemed unsafe, Sabina remained at the shelter for several weeks—during which time we had the opportunity to meet her before she was transferred to a long-term shelter where she could attend school.
“Every person is valuable
Every person worth loving
Worth keeping safe from a fate no one was meant to face
What would happen if we believed that every life was worth fighting for?” *
It’s remarkable to me now to look back on that hot day visiting the shelter and meeting Sabina, not knowing all that she had been through. How calmly she carried herself despite the way her life had been uprooted! I can’t imagine the terror of overhearing people plotting against you, perhaps the fear that there is no one to help you, no one who will miss you when you are gone.
Maybe her parents didn’t value her or care for her in the way that she needed; maybe they didn’t have the capacity to do so—but where others cast people aside, we step in and fight for justice. We work with a sense of urgency because we do not want any of these young girls to be coerced into slavery without anyone to advocate for them.
Every life is beautiful and worth fighting for. This is what we believe, and this is why we do this work. Will you join us?
*Italicized poem by Arielle Estoria *All data and statistics current at the date and time of publishing. Names changed, and some specific locations excluded for privacy and security purposes.
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