To make a long story short, permission was granted, plans were made, and today I'm in Romania in the city of Pitești (70 miles northwest of Bucharest). I will be here six days and plan to write an overview at the end of each day. I don't know exactly what to expect, but I desire to extend hope, love, and grace.
The 6 am alarm came early. Quick completion of packing (primarily consisting of shampoos, hair things, pink photo albums, ribbons, and other girly things that Heather had given me to bring for gift packets :) ). One apple for breakfast, but not enough time to make a coffee. Ugh.
Tram ride from Riazanska to Novy Most and then caught the bus that goes straight to the Vienna airport. Smooth sailing unlike my last trip where I got on the plane 5 minutes before departure (that story will have to wait for another time).
Arrived in Bucharest around noon where I met up with Heather (an American missionary in Slovakia that has helped out at the shelter numerous times), Iana (founder of the shelter), and Iana's son (whose name sounds like "Shtef", but I'll figure out how to spell it later). The first stop was a traditional Romanian restaurant. The food was too good. So much flavor (Interesting observation: the salt and pepper had no tops, so people reach right in to get a pinch of it with their fingers.)
The drive to Pitești was an experience. Lots of swearing and swerving took place by the driver. Ha, but we made it safe and sound. The shelter has a gate and a fairly long, narrow driveway up to the home. Immediately after arrival, girls flowed out, overjoyed to see Heather again. I was greeted warmly as well and welcomed into the home.
At this point, I don't know how much liberty I have to share names or photos, so I'll avoid specifics. However, there are well over ten girls (ranging from 15ish to 25ish) and a couple guys (neither of whom were at the shelter the last time Heather was here). Each of them were rescued from sexual slavery in numerous countries and returned to Romania to Iana's shelter. I don't know a lot of specific stories at this point.
As I looked at these girls and guys, I could put a face to the statistics for the first time in my life. They had a joyful spirit. Some laughed loudly. Others smiled shyly. It was beautiful. They're a big family. I don't know if they've blocked out the memories of their past or skillfully mask it. Maybe it haunts them each moment, and they have learned to deal with it.
Many in that room have attempted and/or succeeded in running away from the shelter. Where to? Right back to their pimp. Why? Because he made them feel "loved" or gave them drugs are a couple of the reasons.
Many gathered around me, insisting that I looked like a singer that recently had a popular song on the radio. I laughed with them and joked about being his brother. One girl came and sat between Heather and I and proudly showed us an art project she had completed. A group laughed loudly as they recalled a guy pretending to be electrocuted. One of the two guys, very reserved, couldn't help but smile as he told us of his plans to return to Italy one day to get a job.
Life is happening at this shelter. There are healthy meals. There is fellowship. There is education. There are friendships. There is routine. None of this would be happening without their rescue.
After a couple hours, we got situated at a small hotel close to the shelter, had some dinner, walked around a little bit, and prayed for God to use us however He sees fit in our short time here.
I personally have nothing to offer these victims of horrendous abuse. I don't have answers for the disgusting crimes committed against them. But I do know of a God that formed them, knows them, and loves them passionately.
I'm not sure how to put everything from today into one concise blog post, but I will try. The fact that it's late and I'm craving sleep hopefully won't suck the life out of this post. I'll start from this morning.
After breakfast, we hung out with Ramona (the receptionist) while we waited on "Shtef" (no progress on the spelling) to pick us up. Ramona was incredibly friendly and remembered Heather from her previous trips to Romania.
Our first stop was Iana's house, where she was meeting with a couple from Vancouver, Canada, that helped represent the shelter. They also used to live in Romania. During the two hours at the house, I began to get a deeper understanding of trafficking. Her two dogs provided comic relief amidst the seriousness of the issues at hand.
Here is one of the stories I heard today. A young man (still not sure if they really want us writing their names), currently at the shelter, had his drink spiked with a drug that knocked him out. When he woke up, he was beaten and raped and sold to various men. At some point during his slavery, a cardiologist told him that he had something very wrong with his heart and that he would die if it wasn't treated. This wasn't true, but the cardiologist said he would only give him the medical attention he needed if he provided sexual favors for him and all his friends.
After being rescued and taken in by Iana, one of the key groups that sponsored the shelter dropped their support since they only wanted to focus on trafficked girls.
I also heard about how traffickers were making 60,000 Euros/month on about thirty Romanian children in Italy. They got them to beg, even maimed some to gain more sympathy, and kept all of the money. If I understood correctly, those children were rescued and are in the process of being returned to Romania.
After this time, we headed to the shelter for lunch. The Canadian couple ordered pizza for everyone from an awesome local pizzeria. Following lunch, I pulled out my American football to throw around with one of the guys. He caught on quickly, getting some nice spirals, and before long, we had about eight people or so playing American football for the first time in their lives on the crowded driveway.
The afternoon flew by as we played football, threw the frisbee, watched music videos, made bracelets, and tried to communicate in a variety of languages.
I had an awesome talk with one of the two guys at the shelter. He had been trafficked in Italy and was there so long that he basically speaks Italian as well as his native language, Romanian. Somehow we managed to have a great conversation, him speaking Italian and me speaking Portuguese. I just prayed God would give me words he understood.
I learned that he loves music (everything from AC/DC to Lil Wayne to Jimmy Eat World). He told me that he doesn't believe in God at all but then added that he at least doesn't have much faith in Him. As I looked at him and saw the amount of scars on his hands and face and couldn't begin to fathom the things he's been through, I imagined that he might feel abandoned by God. Would I think any differently if I were in his place?
Things aren't immediately easy after arriving in the shelter and the circumstances differ for each one. One girl I met today had tried to kill her social worker. After stabbing her a number of times with a knife she had found in the kitchen, another one of the girls was able to stop her, getting stabbed in the process as well. Today, she is a different person. Another one of the girls used to severely cut herself. Today, she proudly showed Heather that all the bandages were gone and no longer necessary. Another girl had become a Christian and even shared at a conference for women about the grace of God in her life. Weeks later, she ran away and was found at the border with a forged ID, back with her pimp. She's fifteen years old.
If you're still reading this, I'm guessing you're feeling sick to your stomach. It's beyond horrific what these kids have gone through, but I don't want to paint the picture that they're gloomy and sad all the time. That's just not true. I'd like to share some insight I've heard from the leaders of the shelter, some things I hadn't really considered before. However, that will have to wait for another day. I'm so tired.
It's eleven pm. It feels good to be in bed after a long day. A bunch of guys are still playing soccer on a field right outside my hotel window. My "Hot Off the Press" iTunes playlist is generating Showbread, The Glorious Unseen, and For Today. Let's do this.
After getting back from the shelter today, I saw that this blog post had begun to create a bit of a buzz (at least for my blog's standards). Almost 200 views in two days. It goes to show that this topic creates a passionate response: deep love and sympathy for the victims and intense anger towards those victimizing them.
All I hope to do is share things from my perspective, someone who has had just minimal knowledge of trafficking before this week. For those of you who would love to have this opportunity, let's pray together about how we can play a role in helping the trafficked and bringing the traffickers to justice. Those working effortlessly to rescue these kids and create a better life for them are true heroes.
We arrived at the shelter slightly before eleven. I joined a number of them in the smoke-filled kitchen for strong, extremely sweet black coffee. Almost everyone at the shelter smokes. The one guy (I wish I could share their names! I'll call him "C".) I spoke to began smoking at age eight. While we enjoyed our coffee (them especially since they don't get it all the time), I introduced a few of them to Underoath and Paper Route. They loved "singing" along with the lyrics displayed on the iPhone.
For the remainder of the morning, one of the guys ("R") proudly showed me hundreds of pictures from his baptismal service at an Orthodox church and a number of other activities. He speaks Romanian and Spanish. Since his English was about as good as my Spanish (my Spanish is Portuguese with an attempted Spanish accent added to the words), communication was limited. Ha, half of the time he was yelling for one of the girls in another room to translate stuff for us.
Lunch was bread, soup, and chicken stew. Since there are too many people to all fit around the dining table at once, they eat meals in two shifts. The girls and the social workers take turns making the food. There is an undeniable family atmosphere, which is beautiful to see. Arguments happen of course, but they are very supportive of one another and extremely gracious. Keep in mind that the ages of the young women vary by a decade.
After lunch, I made the "mistake" of playing a card game with "M" and "Ra". The game was simple, but if you lost, you had to do whatever the other people told you to do. The first time I lost was easy enough--ten pushups. However, the second time I had to do some sort of traditional Romanian dance in front of everyone. Ha! Everyone had plenty to laugh at as I failed with each and every movement. On the upside, "M" had to loudly cluck like a chicken and snort like a pig when she lost!
Amidst all the commotion, I noticed "C" (the one rescued from trafficking in Italy and doesn't believe in God) remaining disconnected from the rest of the group. He's shy and introverted, and I've hoped to be very intentional about spending time with him. He went outside to smoke a cigarette alone, so I grabbed my football and went outside to join him. "B" followed me outside, wanting to join in. "C" went back inside. I was bummed on missing out on a one-on-one opportunity with him, but began talking to "B". She was the one who boldly spoke about God's grace in her life at a conference and then soon after ran away and was caught at the Hungary/Romania border with her pimp.
I asked her directly about the situation since Heather had made me aware that you can speak to them openly about most things. She told me of her high times with God, but now how she feels low and that God has left her and doesn't speak to her anymore. She used to want to be a missionary to the pimps that were in prison. Now she doesn't anymore. The Christian life is too difficult. She knows God loves her, but she's not interested in pursuing Him right now. I didn't know exactly what to say, but I know people from every background deals with this. I encouraged her to not focus on her feelings and to just seek Jesus. I also encouraged her to be open and honest with God, since He knew right where she was at and would never abandon her. We talked for twenty minutes or so. I know Heather has been encouraging her as well, so you can pray "B" retains the passion she once had. I think she may believe she has lost her salvation.
Talking with "B". Notice the football about a split second from hitting me in the head. Ha!
After our conversation was interrupted by a bunch of people coming outside, I went to a small room and prayed that God would give me a chance to hang out with "C" one-on-one, which seemed impossible with fifteen people or so in tight quarters. When I came out, all the girls were intently focused on some art project Heather had just started with them. "C" sat at one end of the couch working on a bracelet (he's made three really nice ones for me already!). I sat next to him. For the next hour or two, we played games and drew pictures together, and he taught me a bunch of Italian. Heather said every time she looked over, his eyes were lit up and he had a huge smile on his face. Praise God!
This blog is already too long, so I'll save more thoughts for tomorrow. Please pray for Heather and I as we hope to bring joy and hope to these awesome kids. I really wish I could show pictures of them, but we were asked to not show their faces in photos we post publicly. Their smiles are beautiful and contagious!
So, this has become a trend. Step 1: Have a long, eventful day. Step 2: Attempt to write a blog while half asleep. Today, we were at the shelter for thirteen hours (on five hours of sleep...). It was a good day though! A lot happened. I didn't even realize all the significant conversations and interactions that occurred until Heather and I reviewed the whole day once back at the hotel.
Ștef (I figured the spelling out!) dropped us off at the shelter early since he had to take Iana to the airport. We were barely awake when we arrived. Knowing that we were tired and had a strong desire for coffee and that there was none left at the shelter, "L" got her own coffee from her room that she had purchased and made some for Heather and I. So thoughtful.
We then commenced to make American-style pancakes. There were about seven girls trying to help prepare them as I barked out instructions. Ha! It was a chaotic scene that resulted in delicious pancakes, maple syrup and all! Everyone loved them. It was cool to see their family-oriented, unselfish thinking as they made sure everyone got a pancake before anyone got seconds. They also saved some for the people that were only coming later in the afternoon or evening. They didn't want anyone to miss out on the pancakes! Your recipe has made it all the way to Romania, Mom. :)
Activities of the day included playing card games, attempting to remain only an observer to the spontaneous dance party in the kitchen, learning some basic Romanian phrases, throwing the football around, singing songs together, drawing, and discussing life. "L" caught on immediately with throwing the football. She was throwing near perfect spirals. It was incredible. She kept wanting people to back up, so she could throw it further. I'll definitely be leaving the football here for her as a gift!
I'm going to cut this blog short for today since I need the sleep, but the key stories will all be included in subsequent posts. Also, at the end, I plan to include the best photos from the trip. Thanks for taking the time to read this blog!
You know those days you'll remember for a very long time, if not forever? Today was one of those days. Everything clicked. Everything flowed. There were big smiles and genuine tears. We gave gifts and received them in return in abundance.
It was our last day at the shelter, and we wanted to make the most of it. Before going to the shelter, we walked to a big store to get ingredients to make my grandma's famous meatballs. From its origins in Hope, Kansas, this recipe has gone all over the world. Regardless of location, the reaction is always the same: unabashed joy.
Similar to the pancake making, the small kitchen became a frenzied scene of seven or so bodies eager to help. Ha, it was so awesome. Somehow it all got completed to perfection. They thought it looked like dog food, but couldn't believe how good it tasted. Thanks, Grandma!
Today was my parents fortieth wedding anniversary. While I considered how blessed I am today, i thought of the stark contrast of my present location. Most of these kids don't know if their parents are even alive. I didn't deserve to be born into a home with loving parents any more than these kids did. While I received love and support during my childhood, some of these kids were sold into slavery by their own parents! One girl was sold for some cigarettes.
Tomorrow I will put the finishing touches on this blog post, including a more detailed recap of the touching final day at the shelter. How I wish I could show you the faces of all the guys and girls!
I'm back home in Bratislava after a wild drive (going nearly triple the posted speed limit) from one of Europe's largest dams to the Bucharest airport, a quick one hour flight to Vienna, a bus to the main bus station in town, and then the city bus to my flat. Upon arriving, I found out that I don't need to go into work until 1 pm since there won't be electricity on our street during repairs. Good timing! Without further ado, here is my final entry for this blog post. I have included photos at the end of the blog that provide a feel for our time at the shelter without showing faces.
I feel so grateful to have had the opportunity to visit the shelter. Wow. It was brief, but powerful. To see the faces and smiles. To know the names of these precious image bearers of God. To be given gift after gift (further indication that many times those with the least are the most generous). To be begged to come back to see them again. I don't think they realized how much they impacted me.
"M" gave me a big hug and got "A" to translate for her that she'd be praying I find a nice wife and bring her back to visit them. I had been talking with "M" and "B" earlier, and they were talking about wanting boyfriends. "B" is still in love with her pimp. I told them to be patient since they're so young and to wait for someone that honors, respects, and lovingly cares for them.
"B" had told me on the second day at the shelter that she had lost interest in God. She informed me that she hadn't opened her Bible in nearly two months. That streak came to an end yesterday! Before we left, she told Heather that she is reading her Bible again and she wrote me a note with verses from Psalm 91 on it. Awesome!
Earlier in the day, I had some time to interact with "C". I found out today that he had been forced to pickpocket people while in Italy. He is the guy who loves music. When I found out he didn't have an mp3 player, I decided to give him an iPod Shuffle I had brought with me. His eyes lit up. He couldn't believe it. I let him pick music from my iTunes to fill it up (Sorry if that's considered illegal sharing, record labels. I'm not losing any sleep over it in this particular case. Ha.). He was so excited. While he was slightly disappointed I didn't have any Lil Wayne, I hooked him up with much better music--at least lyrically if nothing else.
Speaking of music, "A" is a fan of old-school punk and heavy metal music. She was first introduced to Christian music when her favorite band Korn had a guitarist (Brian "Head" Welch) become a believer and form a new band. I showed her some heavier music that I had with me, and she loved it! She told me that she doesn't like to hear people always talking about God and church, but thinks it's cool that Christians make good music and say what they believe. I may have shared some more music. Whoops.
We had a photo session that got crazy. "R" got his face painted to look like a zombie, some wanted to show off their newly painted nails, and others wanted a shot of them playing the guitar. I can't publicize or share them, but maybe I can show them to you one day. I left all the pics on the shelter's computer for them to keep.
"R", whose nightmare began after having his drink spiked, wants to help other boys that have gone through what he experienced. He shared with me that he wants to open a home to house up to six boys at first. Later, after getting more established, he would want to add more. He asked me to find him a job in the U.S. or Slovakia since he recently quit his job at a restaurant after going long periods of time without getting paid.
Right before leaving, we gathered everyone together in the living room to give presents. Heather had prepared awesome gift packets, and I gave them all a bunch of jewelry from my parents' tribe in Brazil. They were so excited and kept thanking us again and again.
These are wonderful kids with big hearts and big dreams. Iana made a great point. She shared that we steal their dignity when we simply pity them for their past. We rob them by remaining overly focused on their past when they are in the present with all their talents and goals and have huge potential for the future!
Ștef also emphasized additional negative results of only feeling bad for the ones trafficked. It leaves all of the attention off of the traffickers. Who will focus on them? How will they be brought to justice?
I was thinking about how disgusting and depraved these traffickers are and wondering how they could justify in their own minds what they're doing, and then it hit me. You may not agree with me, but I believe that all people are born with a corrupt, flawed nature. Which means, we all have the same nature in us as those traffickers. Clearly, we haven't completely rejected our conscience and morality to the degree they have, but we all have tendencies towards selfishly wanting power, wealth, gratification, and control.
Even if these traffickers get convicted, they go to jail for a few months or a couple years at the most. In Romania and probably many other places as well, you spend more time in prison for selling drugs than for selling people! These traffickers (and the rest of us) need more than additional laws and harsher sentences. We need to die to this old life. We need a new nature. We need grace.
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
Ephesians 2:1-9 (ESV)
We all need Jesus, and Jesus gave Himself to everyone. Pray for those being trafficked, for those doing the trafficking, and for those bringing freedom and justice. Maybe you can even get involved firsthand. It is very likely that you could visit this same shelter for yourself or others like it. These shelters need a lot of financial assistance as well since the government does not assist them and actually taxes them heavily! I don't know what our roles in this issue will be, but we have the capacity to bring hope to the abused.
Thank you for following this blog post and praying for me during this time. God bless!