Cared For: In which tiny kids out me, emotionally

*This post was written while on assignment with World Next Door: a digital social justice travel magazine. Check out our website (www.worldnextdoor.org) for more information and download our most recent issue! All of the Nepal content can be found here.

___

It was about halfway through our time with Tiny Hands in Nepal that I discovered a sweet spot tucked away their ministry. I was so dazzled by the anti-trafficking work detailed in the previous article—the border stations and interceptions, maps, analytics and all things undercover—that I sort of forgot about everything else, like how the ministry started in the first place: children’s homes.

Before we were scheduled to visit one of the homes, I flipped through a stack of old newsletters and magazines produced by Tiny Hands throughout the years and read that the founder, John, had originally established Tiny Hands as an organization caring for orphaned and abandoned street children. He launched the ministry after he noticed a stark contrast between street kids in Kathmandu and the smiling, laughing, singing, dancing kids of a local organization’s family-style children’s home. He determined to find those who need help the most—vulnerable orphaned or abandoned kids on the streets—and use the best strategies, the most qualified people, and with a “do much with little” philosophy.

Tiny Hands opened their first children’s home in 2003 as a family, not an orphanage, which I thought was interesting. My image of a children’s home had always been a gaggle of stray kids collected together and organized by age and sheltered until they were either adopted or turned 18. But kids in Tiny Hands’ homes were not waiting for adoption or shoring up dreams of a future family—the home in itself was a family. They had two parents who were called to serve them attentively and individually, a quality education in both Nepali and English at a nearby school, spiritual nurturing, health care, protection, solid nutrition, games, laughter, fun and on-target development.

So that was the plan. Tiny Hands opened that first home, and then grew a handful of additional homes in Kathmandu,  Pokhara and Chitwan caring for Nepal’s orphaned and abandoned kids.

It was only through the work with vulnerable kids, however, that John became aware of a more desperate injustice: sex-trafficking. Girls and kids were harvested from villages and streets all around him and taken across the Nepal/India borders for the purpose of sexual slavery. Quickly, victims of trafficking moved to the top of the list as “those who need help most” in addition to orphaned or abandoned street kids (who are themselves at risk of being sucked into the feeder system of the sex trade simply by being vulnerable) and the organization began specific anti-trafficking initiatives.

Ultimately, I understood, it wasn’t about the specific issue. The entire vision of Tiny Hands follows a few commands of Christ: love your neighbor as yourself, and whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me. If you found yourself alone on the street or without parents, would you be desperate for someone to help? Then Tiny Hands would be desperate to help. If you were kidnapped and raped, would you be desperate for someone to find the courage and conviction to save you? Then Tiny Hands would be desperate to find the girls and save them.

Tiny Hands is living this philosophy out, in addition to their sex-trafficking programs, within their ten children’s homes serving a total of 138 kids.

How could we have overlooked this?!

But I imagine it happens all the time. There are no blockbuster movies starring Liam Neeson about children’s homes. The injustice and responses aren’t as dramatic as trafficking. It’s not so glamorous, raising 14 kids that aren’t your own for life. And what would the title be called? Cared For.

This movie would feature early morning wake-ups, preparing a ton of breakfast, wetting down rogue hairs on an eight-year-old, morning prayers, packing book bags, socks and uniforms and bow ties and ponytails and braids and shoe-tying, walking several kids to several different schools, laundry, parent conferences, more food, homework, lots of math and spelling help, playtime, singing time, devotions, dinner, teeth-brushing, hair-undoing, night time prayers, uniform ironing, sock pairing, shoe-lining and several deep breaths.

Riveting.

The thing is, it was riveting when I saw it in action. And the tiny little faces that welcomed me into Tiny Hands’ Bethany Home are just as valuable, precious and deserving of attention as their counterparts at the borders with equally as desperate circumstances. All these vulnerable kids are just trying to make it in Nepal, and Tiny Hands is doing everything they can to ensure they more than make it, that they are loved, cared for, protected, educated, healthy and successful in the process—belonging to two parents and a handful of siblings for their entire lives.

Bethany Home kids posing in the play room on our first evening
Bethany Home kids posing in the play room on our first evening

BETHANY HOME

We—Jeff and I, along with a Tiny Hands staff—arrived at Bethany Home one evening during play time, and noticed about a dozen kids ranging in age from three to 12 playing on a colorfully carpeted floor in front of an entire wall of toys and games. The room was painted purple and green, decorated with construction paper handprints, photographs and crafts from each of the kids.

We were pummeled with hugs and kisses and laughter and tickling and displays of ABCs and number counting, and we were eventually serenaded with several songs that included coordinated dance moves and hand motions. They also waited expectantly as Jeff and I struggled to come up with an equally as impressive impromptu song with coordinated dance moves—Father Abraham was brilliant we thought, until they all joined in. Old news, Father Abraham.

Singing and dancing
Singing and dancing

We met the youngest kids, three-year-old Samuel and Sudin, who are not brothers, but were inseparable and off-the-wall silly, inciting monkey noises and matchbox car races and wresting moves from Jeff and the other staff.

Samuel and Sudin
Samuel and Sudin

Samuel and Sudin were typical three-year-old boys in every way possible—rambunctious, playful and full of energy. I looked at the house mom, who was acting as base for several other young kids who would run back and forth from her lap to the toys, and shook my head. How does she do it? And why? She and her husband have two healthy biological kids in the mix somewhere in the room and could surely be making more money for an easier life. But she smiled back and wrapped one of the boys in a bear hug, patiently redirecting the other who was break-dancing on top of another kid’s puzzle.

We wanted to hear their stories—the kids and the parents—but we’d have to come back. Being an attentive mom to 14 kids under 12 doesn’t really allow for efficient side conversation, so we enjoyed the tea served by one of the older kids and jumped into the playtime scene around us.

BRK_9159

Because it’s a law in Nepal that foreigners can’t spend the night in children’s homes, we made arrangements to sneak in the next morning for breakfast just to see what a typical morning is like in the home. We also hoped to visit the kids’ schools and spend some quality time getting to know the house parents.

We arrived early the next morning to sleepy faces and hot breakfast! The kids lined up at the table, prayed together and gobbled up their steamy platefuls of lentils and rice. We had such fun watching the little and big girls do each other’s hair, the older kids fix the uniform neckties of the younger kids, and little feet everywhere pulling socks on and off as they found the right sizes and matches. You would never believe the effort it takes to find and fit 14 little feet into shoes, but they did it, and the entire family gathered for dad’s morning prayer before leaving for school. I was in awe. Throughout the entire getting-ready-for-school process, I never felt tense or overwhelmed. The house parents emulate a feeling of peace and patience throughout the house, and it’s impossible not to just soak it up. When was the last time you spent a few hours with 14 kids under 12 during those hectic morning hours and walked away feeling peaceful?!

Girls getting ready before school
Girls getting ready before school
The girls all lined up and ready
The girls all lined up and ready
A little prayer over the kids before school
A little prayer over the kids before school
14 kids finding their school shoes at the same time :)
14 kids finding their school shoes at the same time :)

We walked with the family hand-in-hand to three different schools, including the two youngest—Samuel and Sudin—who attend a Montessori playgroup. Montessori playgroup. Such opportunities afforded to these two little guys! I wondered if a Montessori playgroup would even have been a possibility in their other lives prior to Bethany Home. Where had they come from? Why were they here?

Questions were piling up as we walked with the parents back to the house, and I patiently sat, sipping my tea and visiting, until the conversation lulled and they asked if we had any questions about the kids or the house. Finally!

“Tell me everything,” I said. “Beginning to end, front to back, yourselves, the kids, the entire story!”

I’d heard from Tiny Hands staff that Bethany Home was a special place, that the parents have a unique story, and that some of their youngest kids had the greatest margin of growth despite desperate beginnings. I wanted it all.  So we sat cross-legged on the floor of the colorful playroom over Nepali tea for several hours, and the Gurungs shared their own story, and the stories of how several kids had become their own.

[Read the rest of this story and how it relates to our own journey of unparerenting here…]

*This and other stories like this are be featured in the December issue of World Next Door Magazine, featuring Tiny Hands Nepal. Download it for freeeeee!

Advertisements

The backstory, which is kind of THE story, and the Borders

Throughout our time with Tiny Hands, I have been super inspired by a piece of the organization’s history. Beyond just ordinary growing pains, a few years ago they thought they’d actually failed the vision.  Because of their response, though, this “failure” became the turning point for the ministry and lead to unbelievable growth in Tiny Hands’ effectiveness at the borders. The story essentially reflects our own human limits despite our best intentions, and God’s expansive, restorative power.  When we just can’t, He can.

Early on, after evaluating failed operations at five different border stations, the small team of U.S. and Nepali Tiny Hands staff became frustrated with the apparent ineffectiveness of the organization’s approach. They were intercepting only a handful of girls each year, some months none at all, and felt like they were throwing money down the drain that could be put to more efficient use. They were failing the injustice despite all their best efforts and gallant vision.  What more could they do?

I thought it might have been easiest to throw their hands up and say, “Well, we did our best and it didn’t work!” They could have moved on with a clean conscious, having given it their best effort. But, as I’d read in Terrify No More, they would have been saying, effectively, to the girls being trafficked in Nepal: “We’re sorry. There is nothing more we can do. This is the best the best the body of Christ has to offer.”

Instead, staff described how the founder sent out a manifesto calling on the faith of the US and Nepali staff through an organization-wide rally cry of prayer and fasting. Every Wednesday all staff in both countries prayed and fasted for trafficking and for the effectiveness of their work.

Each person we interviewed shared a piece of this story as they continue to be inspired by it. They directed me to the manifesto entitled Project 58, after Isaiah 58:6 calling us to loose the chains of injustice and set the oppressed free, to break every yoke.  Two seconds into the manifesto, I had goose bumps and felt a new level of perseverance even in my small corner of the world.

Here is an excerpt:

Today around 30 Nepali girls were trafficked into India to be forced into the sex industry. Tomorrow, 30 more will be trafficked. By that time, those who were trafficked today will be awaking to the realization of what has happened to them. They will be locked up, beaten, and raped until they give in and accept the hell that will thereafter be their life. Meanwhile, as these girls continue to suffer, more will be added to their number, at the rate of 2-3 girls every waking hour—and this will continue until the small handful of NGOs who are working on this issue figure out a way to make their work more effective.

While you are working on anything relating to this project, and when you sit down to work and you are diverted and distracted by obstacles and cares, remember the faces of the girls that you know are in brothels now, and those whose lives are in danger of being wrecked if we do not stop it. Gary Haugan, the president of International Justice Mission, points out that the owners of brothels, and those who traffic girls are diligent and determined to succeed in their work. They are at it 24 hours a day, thinking about how to make their work more effective, and how to avoid being caught. Unless God’s people can muster up even greater determinedness, this work has little chance of succeeding. So fight, on behalf of your God and His love for these girls, against every instinct in you to give less than your absolute best, against every obstacle that you will encounter (and you will encounter many) and every frustration that comes your way (and many will come), fight. Do not be deterred by anything, do not let anything stop you from succeeding in each part of this work that you take on. Keep before you always the faces of the girls, and Christ in them, and remember His words and promises, and that He will go before you and after you, and help you.

During the time of prayer and fasting, the organization redoubled its efforts through research and literature. They identified the current director of anti-human trafficking—a former church planter translating some things for Tiny Hands at the time—who, inspired by the new initiative, wanted to get involved.  This was the guy now sitting across from me at the restaurant.

Together the team translated and distributed Border Monitoring Standards to all the stations and sent five staff in five different directions covering each section of the border to fill out the surveys, fill in the maps, and interview police, rickshaw drivers and NGOs.  Bhola, the church-planter-translator guy, emerged as a well-connected leader who took the vision of Tiny Hands to Christian churches along the border. Over the next month, he covered the entire border, setting up subcommittees within the local churches that would oversee 11 new locations with several more to follow.

That was almost five years ago.

Today, 26 local churches are staffing 28 border monitoring and transit stations, intercepting an average of 1600 girls per year!

I couldn’t wait to get to the borders.

Equipped with knowledge of the investigation process and the success the organization had experienced through prayer and research, we were excited to visit the border stations ourselves. This was the front-line fruit of all the prayer and fasting, and the physical halting of the rape business in-progress. I envisioned organized lines, checkpoints, police and high-tech monitoring devices.

I have no idea what world I was imagining. Certainly not Nepal’s.

The dusty Birgunj border
The dusty Birgunj border

It had taken over 10 hours to reach the closest border station on rickety mountain roads, I had sweat through all my clothes, was covered in dust, itching from a dust/water rash, and we literally walked across the border to India without a care by anyone. Any pretense I had about the sophistication or glamor of border work flew out the window. I had not even been there for 15 minutes and I was miserable. It was one hundred degrees and smelled like trash. Yet 100 workers hang out in 26 plywood border stations on the Indian border intercepting girls 12-16 hours per day.  Each border station is overseen and staffed by a local Nepali church, subcommittee and chairman, and Tiny Hands provides the training and funding.

One of the border stations- the brown shack in the background
One of the border stations- the brown shack in the background
Pastor and border staff at Birgunj border station
Pastor and border staff at Birgunj border station

We met with the pastor and staff early that morning and met an intercepted girl who was deaf and on day five of trying to locate family. She spoke a different language nobody could understand, but she was taken care of by the pastor’s wife at a temporary safe house tucked away from the border streets. She is one of 750 women intercepted at this station in four years. The sweetest part is what the pastor said later as we were leaving: though the anti-trafficking work is an essential part of his Christian ministry, his overall goal is to bring the people of Nepal to Christ. Each interception exposes a girl to the Gospel.

I went to bed that night thankful, inspired, and itchy.

The next morning, we drove another eight hours to the next border, collecting another eight pounds of dirt, dust, mosquito bites and hives. There, we found ourselves in the middle of an interception. Even more remarkable than seeing the actual interception process was that the particular border worker who intercepted the young girl was intercepted herself three years ago and now works at the station to help other girls like her. Here is a link to her video.

Another border station at a different crossing
Another border station at a different crossing
An interception in progress
An interception in progress

Again, this is the moment it all became real for me. I had never seen the rape business in progress until I saw this girl’s confused face at a dusty border station in hundred-degree heat in traditional clothes from a faraway village trying not to cry. She read the cartoon drawing posters tacked to the plywood wall describing the lies and actual reality of trafficking. The man she had come with was off to the side, hand in his hair, visibly stressed out.

BRK_0535

At the safe house she fought to maintain composure despite emerging tears. The pastor’s wife and staff fed, comforted and prayed for the girl as we stepped out with the pastor. Almost immediately, he received another call from the border staff about another interception, this time with two women who were on their way to the safe house.

So his days go, this station intercepting 40-50 girls per month, several per day.

I left the borders awestruck at the never-ending work of border workers and the local churches despite harsh conditions and constant threats.

This is an excerpt from my feature that will publish in the December issue of World Next Door magazine.

Land of Extremes: Valleys and high places

Due to internet speed, this post will be illustrated with *awesome* iphone pics only. Additional images of Nepal can be found here, though I’m about 3 weeks late in edits and uploads. Sigh.

___

Flying into Kathmandu, I could see the tips of the Himalayan Mountains peeking through the clouds. Fascinated by top-of-the-world snowy peaks, prayer flags and Sherpa communities, I’d dreamt of visiting Nepal for years. I couldn’t imagine what the Himalayas might be like, twice as high as the Colorado Rockies I’d only seen for the first time three years ago. (I am a reformed beach vacationer.)

And Kathmandu? So exotic per all my pretend (now REAL) friends in House Hunters International- tune in Nov 15th  :)

From the sky, the city seemed sleepy and peaceful. I could never imagine the bustling, crowded, loud and fragrant streets, the pounding heat, or the black puffs of exhaust that would infiltrate the valleys below. The dreamy place of my imagination turned out to be worn and vulnerable—a parallel I would eventually make with its youngest and least educated inhabitants. The brick and stone buildings looked equally a million years strong and on the brink of toppling any second. Homes precariously perched on the sides of slopes could just slide right off tomorrow, it appeared.

On only the clearest day, beyond the ten-thousand-foot hills that surround Kathmandu valley, the Himalayas can be seen from the streets below, creating an excitement around town. An audible gasp can be heard on mornings when the fog lifts or a cloud dissipates revealing a massive, sparkly peak—like an unexpected royal breakfast guest. I could never anticipate the stirring I would feel inside, a tiny speck on one of those crowded streets, when the clouds cleared and I looked up to see the peaks in the distance. A glimpse of the high places. Real, I was sure, but from where I stood, unreachable.

Kathmandu Valley

Our royal breakfast guest
Our royal breakfast guest

Nepal is a land of extremes, and as high and bright as the mountains above soared, so deep was the darkness hidden from the high places, lurking in provincial villages and alleys. We had come to Nepal to write about sex trafficking.

I was prepared to hear the story of an individually trafficked girl. I was prepared to write about the micro-oriented work I thought Tiny Hands Nepal, our host ministry, was doing at various border stations. I thought I might conservatively marvel at the double-digits being intercepted on their way to India in the face of ten thousand. These efforts would have been commendable in themselves, for I had read that to succumb to the enormity of the problem is to fail the one. So, I would write about the work on behalf of the one, while at the same time myself succumbing to the enormity of the problem.

But Tiny Hands blew me out of the water. Everything I thought I knew about trafficking was flipped upside down and turned around.

I’d learned during my first week that Nepal, which shares open borders with India, is a source country for trafficking through India to the Arabian Gulf—to the tune of about 10,000 girls per year.  India is both a destination for trafficked Nepali girls and a transit route to the Arabian Gulf, where men from poorer communities have been recruited for cheap labor. Women are necessarily imported to meet their needs

What?!

Women are necessarily imported to meet the sexual needs of cheap laborers.

I could just imagine the business owners working out the whole arrangement:

-But where should we get them, boss?
-Oh, I don’t know. Just find a bunch of desperately poor, naïve, uneducated girls and trick them!

And a business was born. Supply and demand. However the girls are obtained—coercion, physical force, drugs, fake marriages, fake jobs—the overhead is cheap and the $32 billion dollar payoff is massive and renewable. It’s a low-risk/high-reward business.

But sex trafficking has been trending for a good few years. Awareness is growing, there are 5ks in every major American city to end slavery, and #anti-trafficking #hashtags all over twitter. I’d heard the stories of rescued girls and brothel raids; I’d looked into the tiny faces of would-be trafficked girls in Cambodia spared through preventative programming and shook my head in disbelief. I mean, I knew it was true, but it just didn’t seem real.

It got real real fast in Nepal.

I realized two things as I began to weave in and out of the programs at Tiny Hands: One, Because of all the exposure I’ve had to the concept of sex trafficking, my heart had been numbed by the language we use and scope of the problem. “Sex trafficking” is just a fancy name for rape business. When I thought of it in those terms, my heart jumped up and reached around for weapons. It’s a rape business! With kids!

Two, I had never seen the trafficking in-progress. I had never seen the collision of deception and naivety until I looked at the confused face of an intercepted 14-year old at a dusty border station. My perspective expanded to include rape business in-progress.

BRK_0535

As I’d read in Gary Haugen’s book Terrify No More that “The infinite distance between the dignified setting in which we talk about the gross brutalization of people and the places where it actually happens suddenly collapsed when the sights and sound of evil incarnate filled the room.”

Yep. That happened. Sex trafficking went from a concept to a person standing in front of me that day.

I began to understand that my previous knowledge of the trafficking industry was like seeing only the tip of a mountain peeking through the clouds, only the visible part of the trafficking enterprise: the commodity and the byproduct. But an entire mountain and valley, I learned, exists below the cloud line—a robust, unseen network.

Where did the girl come from? Why was she trafficked? By whom? How many more girls are there? Where did the traffickers come from? Which routes did they use? What border did they cross? Who funded it?

These are the questions Tiny Hands is asking.

They are not just waiting at the top of the mountain addressing all the things we can see. They’re not even off the side scooping up girls before they’re pulled in. They’re inside the mountain—the rape business in-progress—blowing the whole thing up!

How could they possibly do this, I wondered as I sat down with my pen and notebook across from Nepali staff on our first full day in country. I had come to the premature conclusion that in small niches of the world handfuls of girls were being spared this awful life by prevention, and another small portion was being methodically rescued; but I was not entirely convinced justice would ever find its way up and out to the bad guys or that any of these operations would put a dent in the industry.

Over the course of two days, hidden away in a corner Momo shop, the Tiny Hands staff pieced together for me the story of an inter-country collaboration of skills, expertise and the love of Christ working together to free those captive, dismantle the network and de-incentivise the business.

One-by-one the staff entered the restaurant hot and sweaty, during a government-sanctioned strike that shut down all transportation country-wide. I interviewed the directors, trainers, law personnel and aftercare workers who serve and train the border staff, and monitor their needs and safety.

Particularly striking about the Nepali staff was each one’s humility and willingness to put his life at risk coordinating border work. One described how he keeps logs of traffickers in jail and works hard to anticipate what harm might befall workers at various stations in retribution. All told of their lives being threatened. They weren’t stuffy white shirt guys with slick hair and gadget pens or big burly guys on motorcycles. They were ordinary Nepali men in ball caps and chinos, none over 5’8”, many with wives and young kids, equipped primarily with research and prayer.

Then we met the research guys. They comprise a covert network of Nepali “Justice Operations” expertise.

One guy, who had been part of the dark underworld of drugs and crime, is providing unparalleled information and access to the criminal network after Christ restored his life nine years ago. Saved by grace, he jumped at the chance to use his “criminal mind” for good, and is now in the business of fighting for justice. He also offered us his taxi contact, showed us a picture of his adorable little boy and offered to teach us how to make Momos.

Another would provide the necessary role of setting things up logistically, serving a liaison between teams in the field, and translating when necessary.

These two and several others work under the direction of the Vice President of Justice Operations—an international expert in the field, who was constantly presented to us by all the different staff and volunteers like this: You have to meet Jeff! He doesn’t live here, but he’s the expert training our research guys. He used to work for International Justice Mission, but he’s in Thailand right now on an operation.

Wow. An “operation.” I made jokes about spy pens, but everyone just nodded their heads sincerely.

Jeff had the vision for the Fusion Center, into which all the Justice Operations intelligence is funneled, and where an impassioned twenty-something Johns Hopkins grad makes sense of it. This grad is in charge of research and analysis, and he is self-funded, along with all the other Tiny Hands International staff.

During our sunset interview on his day off, he described how he creates maps showing points of origin for both the trafficker and the victim, the average path lengths and transit routes, funding sources, and final destinations. This, the team believes, will help them understand the methods of recruitment, and more strategically fight sex trafficking on a structural level.

IMG_4645

So, they are at the borders intercepting individual girls on a daily basis, but through the interception, they’re able to gather information for prosecution and de-incentivise the trade. Every successful intervention costs the traffickers money. Every successful prosecution costs them time, commodity, and resources. Every criminal sentenced to jail makes trafficking a higher risk/lower profit enterprise in that community.

A little more comprehensive than I had initially thought.

Here is the body of Christ, I marveled, with its different skills, purposes and nationalities working together toward a common goal of intercepting as many girls as possible, building tight cases for prosecution, and convicting the traffickers.

People constantly ask how God could let this happen. Couldn’t he just rescue the girls? Doesn’t he care?

Uh. Yeah. It was never God’s fault.

God has heard the cries of these girls. God is in the brothel with them. God is at the border with them. God is at the source, God is in the transit routes and God is at the destination. He has given us everything we need to pick these girls up—specks on the dirty, dusty streets looking at high places that don’t quite seem real. He has given us the ability to set them on the high places. Like the ancient-looking brick and stone buildings on the brink of toppling, so the sex trafficking industry would be in Nepal — thanks to the work of Tiny Hands.

This is an excerpt from my feature that will publish in the December issue of World Next Door magazine.  Again, muchas gracias to Beth and mom who helped with edits.

Undercover: A night out with the guys… and girls.

*STOP! Before you read any further, make sure you have read the previous post about the morality of these types of operations. Below are Jeff’s observations and reflections after having gone out several times undercover with the Freedom Operations team.  The info is both sensitive and mature, so, you know, not for the kids.

The following was written by Jeff Hartman (my husband):

BRK_0289

THE CLUBS

I stood on a street corner in Thamel—the touristy area—at about 8p waiting for a call from the Freedom Operations team, who I would be joining for the night. Undercover.

I watched the physical change take place along the streets from a tourist hub to a seedy nightlife in a span of 30 minutes.  Crowds became younger and much more male-oriented, the music became louder as the store fronts were closing up for the day, and I got butterflies. I got the call. Jeff, the VP of Freedom Operations would meet me in 10 minutes with the rest of the team at Fire and Ice, a local pizza joint.

I walked over through endless “smoke and hashish” guys, Turkish salesmen, street girls, cab drivers, and the policemen. I’m not sure if I even saw one female tourist the entire way.

The Freedom Operations team arrived and I was immediately comfortable.  We talked about trafficking, their theories, dreams, and the challenges of the work. We also talked about the psyche with regards to trafficking and law of many countries around the world. It was exciting, inspiring, depressing, and fun all at the same time.

We briefly discussed what we were to do that evening and the DOs and DONTs of the clubs. Basically be cool, follow their cues and just watch and learn. They were also getting mic’d up with cameras and recorders, bringing DNA swabs in case they came across some used condoms, glasses, or got consent from the women to collect samples. We were posing as “researchers” in case anyone asked.  I was a bit nervous, but I felt in good hands with all the experience around the table. We said a prayer then made a plan of attack.

We headed out with the intention of hitting three or four clubs. My adrenaline was pumping as we walked down the streets of Thamel and Jeff B. pointed out the prostitutes, drug dealers and addicts. He was cool, intense, smart, and played the part well.

We arrived at our first club, passed through security, and went down to the basement. Immediately it seemed shady with a girl dancing on stage, several others hanging around scantily dressed, and a few Nepali men. We were the only white men there.

Three women escorted us to the back corner of the club, where light was scarce. We sat down in a torn up booth and the women immediately started flirting. I had no clue what I should/shouldn’t do, what I could/couldn’t do, so I sat there for a minute like a deer in headlights. I admit I was looking around the club looking for the pimps, customers, rooms, etc… trying to get a feel for the place and trying to take cues from the other guys without giving anything away.  They explained that the women are smart, and they can pinpoint within a very short period of time what kind of customer you are and why you’re there. This scared me a bit, so I really tried to blend in the best I could.

I looked over and noticed the other guys arms’ hanging loosely around a couple of women.  Should I be doing that too?! I began to mimic him with regards to how to act.

Two girls sat on either side of me, it was so loud we you had to crowd together to communicate. Needless to say the environment was set up for comfort and intimacy.

The girls began asking for drinks, and I was a little confused but then realized their jobs were to please the customer and generate income for the establishment. They were doing a good job.

The place was not only loud but it was very hot despite a fan blowing directly on us from above. The women were dressed in lingerie or skimpy outfits, and I was in jeans and a Packers shirt.

The women got more friendly as the night wore on, and conversation turned more intimate with comments about my “beautiful” skin, my muscles, my eyes, etc…

We talked about families, but never about marriage. All of this was done through broken English, broken Nepali, gestures, touching, and a lot of laughing and flirting. Fortunately it was initially a lot like a fraternity party, of which I was familiar, but the flirting became more intense, with requests for kisses and touching, and that was a frontier I was not used to.

The first two girls I was with eventually went up to dance on stage and were replaced by new girls—one with tears in her eyes. The other girl told me she was sad, but the girl denied it even as tears continued to pool. I tried to lift her spirits, which resulted in her holding my arm and leg. Whoops. Rewind.

She didn’t say much more, but just kept her arm around me as I thought, How did I get here?! I was undercover with experts in the field of anti-sex trafficking, sitting inside a Kathmandu nightclub with a sad girl’s arm around me.  So weird.

More tourists and Nepali men arrived and the music got louder. The energy was picking up and the girls were starting to work harder by asking for kisses on the cheek. At one point I leaned over to one of the other guys told him half-joking that it was a pleasure meeting him and how ironic it was we were meeting like this! He laughed and said how crazy that we have wives that trust us enough to let us be here. I agreed and thought about Brooke at home. We were both so lucky.

I honestly wanted to tell all these girls in the club that there is help, and that I was harmless, and that I really wanted to give them a sincere hug. I pictured some of the dirty kids in the rural villages and on the streets of Kathmandu and wondered if this was their fate. Never did I expect the emotions I was experiencing. Fear, yes. Excitement, yes. Sadness, yes. But deep sadness and anger stirred inside me that I hadn’t expected.

I wondered how many had gotten here, and Jeff explained they had either been tricked into coming and were now not free to leave, or their families were so desperate for income they were pressured into staying. Whatever the case, he made it clear that NO ONE chose to be here, and that each girl had a story that would break your heart.

The team eventually recorded the information they needed and collected DNA samples from some willing girls.  I remember standing up to walk out and feeling every girl in the club escorting me out with her eyes. Perhaps it was just me, but it seemed like a mix of stares, the I don’t want to be here stare fighting the I need business to survive stare, and both were sad.

These were the girls. These were the ones I had read and watched documentaries about. These are the girls they’ve been working to free. These are the girls so many people are either fighting for or turning a blind eye to. They are real. I had looked them in the eye. I had laughed with them. I could have done a lot more, and many would after we left. It really tugged at my heart.

Thamel appeared darker when I walked outside. The crowd was rough and girls were working the streets—very different from the tourist hub I’d shopped around just hours earlier.

On the way home I thought WOW, how privileged was I to get to experience this and witness the workings of an organization that is on the cutting edge of doing something about the abuse of women?

I have to admit, before this experience my heart was saddened by the idea of sex trafficking and prostitution, but now my heart was totally broken.

I got home and Brooke was awake to hear the stories. I was still going on adrenaline as I paced back and forth in our room sharing the night with her. As I slowed down, fatigue set in and I got ready for bed. My wife’s eyes were shut and I leaned over to give her a kiss as she fell asleep. I felt so lucky to have an amazing women like her who trusted me so much. I felt blessed to be raised the way I did and to come from affluence like so many in the States. I thought, Who knows how I would have ended up if I grew up on the streets of Kathmandu?

I rolled back over and felt the fan from above blowing on me. I flashed back to the club when the fan was blowing on me and women were all around. I was sure glad to have a different fan above and only one women next to me—one I loved and cared so much for. I was saddened to think that most of the women I met tonight longed for this but were in a very different situation with little hope of change.

It wasn’t fair, but all I could do was thank the Lord and think about what I was doing to help them through my work.

___

THE CABIN RESTAURANTS

So there I was, again, sitting up in the third floor of an old hotel in Pokhara with the Freedom Operations team planning out our day. Hidden cameras in key fobs, sunglasses, shirt buttons, watches were donned and assignments were given. I was about to go out at 3p to learn more about the sex trafficking work in Nepal. This would be another physically and emotionally draining day like the others, the difference being it would be during the middle of the day, not the during the night when most people think the trouble is happening.

One group was heading out to “purchase” a girl for a few hours. She had been identified the day before as potentially trafficked. The other group was to find a good restaurant to bring her to, one that was empty with good lighting and minimal background noises, since we were going to be using five cameras during the interview.

The team headed out on motorcycles with me on the back, and I literally felt like I was in the middle of a James Bond movie. We turned the corner to face a giant mountain peak to the north and a cloud of dust from the motorcade in front of us. I just smiled and hung on for the ride, which would be the theme for me the rest of the day.

The team split up looking for restaurants around town that met our needs. We found one at which we could sit on the third floor in solitude. It was relatively quiet, had good lighting, and we hoped to capture evidence if the girl happened to admit to being trafficked or described who the perpetrator was. We prayed she’d provide key information we could use for litigation purposes.

We got the call that Jeff was approaching with the girl, so we set up a camera in our key fob and positioned ourselves to hear the conversation from a nearby table and get a good view while not raising suspicion.

Jeff arrived, followed by the interpreter, and then the girl. My heart sunk because she looked so young, innocent and vulnerable—not like a prostitute I might have seen in the movies, although technically she wasn’t a prostitute; she was a slave. She was wearing a simple shirt and jeans with high, pointy heels. She looked awkward, like a 16 year-old might if she were eating lunch with two 40-somethings, and especially if she were just bough as a 3-hour rental for $30.

She could have been my nephew’s junior prom date. I was saddened at the thought that this girl could not go to prom, could not live a normal teenage life, and has none of the fun a kid her age should. She doesn’t get to run to the park with her friends or go on a with other boys her age. She an enslaved sex worker, and she has no choices in her life. It was hard to see the type of girl that I had been reading about walk by me and sit down at a table next to me.

Initially her body language was passive. She slumped in her chair and didn’t look anyone in the eye.

She later described to Jeff that was married at the age of 14, and her husband left her five months later. The community rejected her on the grounds she was no longer pure. On top of that, she had a medical emergency that cost around 60,000 rupees ($600) with no way of paying it back.  She borrowed the money for emergency surgery—she had to pay in advance or they would not do the surgery—from her ex-husband’s sister’s husband, who offered to help. To pay the money back, she came to work at a cabin restaurant owned by the family, which was a brothel in disguise.

The girl described how she wants out desperately, but she currently owes 45,000 rupees ($450). She is not allowed to leave the establishment unless someone purchases her. She sleeps in a room with the other girls and can be rented out at any time. She cannot refuse business and is truly enslaved to sex-work until her debt is paid.

When their meals were finished, Jeff asked the girl where she wanted to go.  He wanted to get more information, but more importantly wanted to give her a couple hours of peace and enjoyment before going back to the hell she lived in.

She asked to drive up to one of the most beautiful Himalayan observation areas in Pokhara. And she just wanted to sit, so Jeff obliged. They sat without talking for a little while before Jeff had to take her back. She asked if they were going to the hotel now to have sex. Jeff told her he wasn’t interested in sex. She gave him a huge hug.

While this was going on, the rest of us went to several other cabin restaurants to collect “data”.  Again, it felt like a scene from Indiana Jones. We zipped though town, down side streets dodging dogs, cows and people. I was holding my breath. I had no clue where I was, but I knew we weren’t in the regular tourist part of town.

When we stopped, kids were outside playing, families were hanging out, and stores were open for business. While it wasn’t a place I’d hang out it without a purpose, I didn’t feel overly scared and I sure as heck wouldn’t have guessed there were brothels in the area. One of the team members then walked around the corner and motioned us to come. As we turned the corner, the street suddenly became eerie. He told us there were probably 500 women for sale in this area and that I needed to stick close to him.  He became more serious, and I became his shadow.

My insecure side emerged and I wondered what people thought of me. It was obvious that when a couple of white men are in the area, it’s probably not for any other reason than sex. I wanted to wear a sign saying I am trying to help! I am not purchasing sex! But, of course, I had to play the part. I said a prayer and reminded myself that God was with me, and that I was there for a reason.

The cabin restaurant was dark, musty, and warm and the quarters were tight. I looked to the right and saw the community bedroom for the girls. The next door was closed. There were an additional three or four rooms for sex, and only one small cubicle for dinner. It just didn’t feel right and I was so nervous!

Three young ladies greeted us, all smiles. A couple of them remembered the team from the previous day, when they had been in to scope things out. We had returned to the restaurant because now the team knew exactly where the trashcans were, and they would attempt to collect DNA evidence through condoms and other used items.

The girls escorted us back to the cubby, and one kissed my shoulder three times. The six of us crammed into the small cubicle and ordered chips and drinks.  The girls that surrounded us were more like girls than sex workers. They dressed like teenagers, giggled, and had silly personalities, but every once in a while they’d do something atypical for a teenager like massage our hands, feed us little chips one by one, or blow on our necks to keep us cool.

As we left, it was getting dark and scary in the neighborhood. The girls started coming out of all the cabin restaurants, and it became obvious this was the red light district of Pokhara. I saw many young girls just sitting like young teens would outside their home, but the difference was they were doing it against their will and were simply being advertised.

My heart broke for them, and as we rode by on our bike, I wished I could swoop them all onto a giant truck and take them away to a place where they could be free and happy, with hopes and dreams of a future.

The team met back at the hotel and debriefed. We were exhausted and just needed a break for a while. Despite our limited success, everyone was pleased with the day and so was I.

I couldn’t believe what I had witnessed. I’m not sure if it was a blessing or a burden to have experienced this and now I have faces and names to assign to this injustice. It’s no longer ten thousand. It’s one girl and another girl and another girl.

The question I’m now pondering is what I’ll do about it.

Fist pumping alone in my pajamas wearing a headlamp.

Sometimes when your husband goes out to cabin restaurants* and dance clubs for a few nights in a row undercover with a team of international investigators, and you’re stuck at home reading a bunch of graphic anti-trafficking literature, the spirit and power and might of God pours out from the ceiling and drowns you.  This is an excerpt from one of my feature articles that will publish in December about that experience.

*Cabin restaurants are brothels in disguise. And not even very good disguise- sometimes if you order food at the “restaurants” they have to go down the street buy it to bring it back ;)

___

There was one last person to meet in our interviews with Tiny Hands staff: Jeff B, the Vice President of Freedom Operations and basically the driving force behind Tiny Hands’ field research. This was the guy everyone kept telling us we had to meet.  He was flying in that morning from Thailand.

I was a tiny bit intimidated. I couldn’t imagine what this guy would be like. Jet setter? James Bond? Leather jacket? Motorcycle?

One of those four was correct—he did drive a motorcycle.  But he was completely unassuming, I suppose the way an undercover investigator should be, sat down and described his approach in ways I could understand.

As mentioned in my last post, if you wanted to shut down Wal-Mart, Jeff explained, you wouldn’t just clear the shelves.  This would be simply rescuing individual girls. If you did that, Wal-Mart would just restock tomorrow morning. This could potentially draw more girls into the sex trade than there were today in order to restock the shelves.  You would not even shut down the individual store. This would be busting a local brothel. Wal-Mart would just open another store next door tomorrow.  A new brothel pops up down the street every time one is busted. Instead, you would follow the distribution chain to the ones in charge: the management and owners. To shut down the entire operation, you would attack the supply chain and dismantle the traffickers.

It made sense, I agreed. But how in the world would they do this? Undercover cameras? Spy gadgets? Double Agents? Would he talk to the girls directly? Get them to disclose the horror on camera? Would he have to pay for the time? And wouldn’t that be scary?

In short, yes, yep, yep, yah, yep, yes, and duh—my words, not his.

He collects evidence through undercover agents, technology and surveillance. This approach does not require a victim for intervention, though sometimes victims are intercepted, and builds evidence that supports conviction outside of victim testimony. A strong case built over time is less prone to corruption, targets higher-level criminals, and is collected within the laws and evidentiary requirements of that particular country.

In other words, they enter the dark places and document the darkness for the purpose of eradicating it entirely. Doing this, though, would require locating the distribution chain and getting into the cabin restaurants, talking to the owners and girls face-to-face, capturing it all on camera, and collecting any additional evidence that could be used in prosecution.

Fascinating. But here was the real question: Would we put our money where our mouth was and join Jeff B. and the local guys in the undercover places?

We would.

(By we, I mean my husband, Jeff.)

Lots of questions burst into the tiny section of my mind that keeps tracks of things like what my grandma would say about the morality of entering a brothel or cabin restaurant and paying for time with one of the girls for the purpose of gathering intelligence. It would involve money and time and drinks and face time with victims and criminals. They’d have to do it, and they’d have to pretend to like it.

So while my polite, Midwestern-raised husband set out for the dark places with the undercover team, I searched for answers on my own: in Gary Haugen’s book, in God in a Brothel by Daniel Walker, and in the movie The Day My God Died—all staff-endorsed literature used during their prayer and fasting period. And I searched in the Bible.

Ultimately I concluded the following things based on what I knew to be true:

The group had prayed before beginning the operations. In doing so, they drew upon the resources of a God who was already present in that place. God was in the cabin restaurant, brothel, or dance club before this group had ever arrived. He’d been suffering with the girls inside, and He would remain there long after this group left. The people and places they’d encounter were as much a part of God’s creation as any others, and God had not surrendered them to anyone, not even to the traffickers.

I knew that He who is in us—in Jeff H, the investigators—is greater than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4). If our faith was worth anything at all, then it had to be stronger than whatever darkness it might encounter along the way. We couldn’t remain afraid, indifferent or inactive in the face of human slavery. We were to go boldly in His name to such dark places to rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan and plead for the widow (God in a Brothel).

At this point, I was fist-pumping alone in my pajamas with a headlamp on and simultaneously checking my phone, refraining from texting Jeff things like: Where are you? What’s it like? Are you ok? Is everything cool? Did you see a girl yet? Don’t get hurt!

I knew that if one girl was to be freed due to the investigative work of these men, it was because the people with the power and influence she lacked would also be people of goodwill and courage (Terrify No More).

More fist pumping. Tiny Hands and my husband were people of goodwill and courage!

So, to recap: Gary Haugen, Daniel Walker, Jesus and I were all in agreement that night and the two that followed. God is there, we are not afraid, and it is our job as Christians to go into the darkness and lead everyone out!

I understood during those times of waiting for Jeff to return that this was never God’s fault. God cares about the women, and He has equipped the human race with everything we need— time, education, resources, cash, skills, manpower and brain capacity—to end this injustice. It is we who have not responded.

But Tiny Hands is responding. During the course of three operations involving five hidden cameras and microphones, Jeff and his team, with our Jeff in tow, collected intelligence from seven places in two cities. Take that, trafficking.

Jeff’s reflections? Next post.

BRK_0280

**Thanks to Beth and mom for helping me reel this one in, edit-wise ;)

A Little About the Business of For-Profit Rape…

I’ve formulated two decisive thoughts about sex-trafficking since being in Nepal.

First, I am convinced after my time with Tiny Hands, reading the “digging deeper” books listed below, and seeing the injustice with my own eyes, that sex trafficking—or rape for profit—is the absolute worst social injustice in the world, incorporating several other injustices in its operation.  I argued with myself that maybe genocide was at the top—we’ve seen the heartbreaking results of this a lot recently—but in the end, I realized that from the beginning of time until now and far into the future, sex-trafficking will end up crushing more lives than any of the worldwide genocides.

(Also, I’m wondering how I found myself in a coffee shop on the other side of the world weighing out worst-ness of sex-trafficking and genocide. People have asked if my year with World Next Door has been life-changing. I always say, No, not in the dramatic day-do-day or emotional functioning sense, but in subtle ways. This is a classic example.)

Second, is the language we all use. Simply put, another name for sex-trafficking—described by International Justice Mission as the collision of the man-made disasters of slavery, illegal detention, and sexual violence—is the lucrative business of rape for profit.

Don’t blow past that one: Sex-trafficking is really just a for-profit rape business.

There are owners, managers, distributors, supply chains and operation centers. The business owners function in the same cost/benefit models as all other businesses, and right now, in many places, sex-trafficking is a low-risk, high-reward business.  It’s not just a few outlying mean guys. It’s an organized criminal business enterprise.

Although I stand awed and stumped and paralyzed as I follow the organizational chart from one trafficked girl all the way to the top of command, many organizations—despite the enormity of the problem—are shaking themselves of fear and paralysis and are attacking different links in the sex-trafficking using their own niche of skills and expertise.

Organizations like Center for Global Impact (as described in our last two issues of World Next Door) are working tirelessly to reduce economic and social vulnerability in communities where sex-trafficking is rampant by providing alternative skills and incomes.   They are addressing poverty as a form of prevention, and understand that when the standard of living is raised and poverty is reduced, risk levels for trafficking decline.  In this case, community development and prevention efforts at the source are effectively combating one piece of the injustice.

International Justice Mission is all about the rescuing of the one. “While there are millions of girls and women victimized every day, our work will always be about the one. The one girl deceived. The one girl kidnapped. The one girl raped. The one girl infected with AIDS. The one girl needing a rescuer. To succumb to the enormity of the problem is to fail the one. And more is required of us.”  While they fulfill their intent to rescue the one, they are also highly focused on justice and prosecution using intelligence-led investigations (as opposed to reactive-led investigations). They are combating a different piece of the injustice—rescue and conviction.

The organization we are embedded with now, Tiny Hands, is using the same model of intelligence-led undercover operations, working in the field with local informants and collecting evidence (with hidden spy gadgets!) to both attack the supply chain and make sex-trafficking a high risk, low-reward industry.

All the intelligence they gather is funneling into a fusion center that will map out the entire network, source to destination—including points of origin for both the trafficker and the victim, transit routes, relationships, opportunistic trafficking vs. sophisticated systems, and destinations.  They are at the borders intercepting individual girls on a daily basis, which has been awe-inspiring to see in itself, but through the interception, they’re able to gather information about the trafficker and manage the trafficked girl’s case for prosecution.  Ultimately, they purpose to free those captive, arrest and convict the traffickers, and de-incentivise the trafficking business so it’s no longer profitable.

“Every successful intervention costs the criminals involved in trafficking a huge amount of money. Every successful prosecution costs them even more time and valuable resources. Every criminal sentenced to jail changes a community’s and a culture’s understanding of what is and is not acceptable.” (God in a Brothel by Daniel Walker)

More? No? Sorry, it’s coming anyway.

Jeff (not Jeff Hartman, Jeff the Director of Freedom Operations at Tiny Hands) described it to me like this:

If you wanted to shut down Wal-mart, you wouldn’t just clear the shelves.
(This would be simply rescuing individual girls)

If you did that, Wal-mart would just restock tomorrow morning.
(This could potentially draw more girls into the sex trade than there were today in order to restock the shelves)

You would not even shut down the individual store.
(Bust a local brothel)

Wal-mart would just open another store next door tomorrow.
(A new brothel pops-up down the street every time one is busted)

Instead, you would most effectively follow the distribution chain to the ones in charge: the management and owners. To shut down the entire operation, you would dis-empower the source. (The traffickers, not Wal-mart.)

And this is the ginormous approach by which Tiny Hands is attempting to attack Global Sex Trafficking—a pretty massive undertaking.

But, like Gary Haugen said, “Perhaps the greatest challenge in confronting evil is simply getting started.”

Books to read if you want to “dig deeper” into understanding the injustice and its interventions:

  • Terrify No More by Gary Haugen
  • God in a Brothel by Daniel Walker
  • Jeff Blom’s Blog (Jeff is the Director of Freedom Operations at Tiny Hands and former VP of Investigations at International Justice Mission): http://global-sentry.org/blog/