September 4, 2020

I Don't Know Her Story

She walks out into the sala, living room, with her housemates and greets me with a smile. “Hi, Ate, I missed you…” she says softly. (Ate is the Tagalog word for “older sister”, a term of respect.) Out of respect to her healing, I don’t offer my arms for a hug. She doesn’t have to hug me if she doesn’t want to. She was forced to have too much physical contact before. I’m just grateful for her smile and that she even remembers my name as I only get to visit once to a few times a year. Oh, I cherish her so deeply. I’ve seen her grow from a high-school girl to a college freshman. She’s become a leader in our safe homes, learning how to play guitar and to lift her voice in worship. She still loves K-pop boy bands as posters of them are plastered over her bed. She wiggles her eyebrows as she asks if I have a boyfriend. I giggle and throw the question right back at her.  

She grabs my hand and asks if we want to walk to get a Coke. We head down the street to the sari-sari (a street vendor). The hot, humid wind blows through the palm trees and our hair. I ask her about her courses, if she likes her teachers, what her classmates are like. Do you have any tests soon? What is your favorite class? How is your family? How is your daughter in the province? She’s five now?! Wow, she’s so big! Oh I hope that you get to go visit her soon. You are an amazing mama. You are so matatag, so strong. I am so proud of you. 

I ask her many questions. But the one question I do not dare to ask is... 

What is your story? 

I’ve known her for a few years now. My mind has contemplated her background. How can such a joyous girl have endured trafficking, especially at a young age? What in the world could have happened to her? As curious as I am, it is not my privilege to know her story. I don’t know how she was trafficked. It’s okay that I might never know. 

I can't expect for a girl who’s been rescued from sex trafficking to volunteer her story to every person who walks through the door, nonetheless a white American girl like myself. I’ve cheered on many girls who graduate from college, from Wipe Every Tear, without ever knowing what bar she was exploited in, for how long, or how she was trafficked. That’s not what's important. What's important is that she heals from trauma without having to constantly relive it by sharing her story out of obligation or desire to please visitors who flew around the world to see how Jesus is moving in our ministry. I share the story of how Jesus has redeemed the darkest places of my life with discretion. I’m quite proud of the women in our care for doing the same. Of course, our Filipina social worker on staff carefully intakes each woman and listens to what she’s able to share of her story at the time. The rest unfolds as she’s healing and willing to share.

A handful of girls have opened up to me, after years of building trust. It takes much longer for me to cultivate relationships with the women in our care since I work for Wipe Every Tear in the USA. And that’s okay. I’d much rather hear about how God is moving in her life right now than how men used to abuse her. She’s a new creation in Christ and has been set free. 

Many people email or call into Wipe Every Tear curious about how women are set free from sex trafficking in the Philippines. I can share the general narrative and a few specific stories that I’ve been given permission to share, but for the most part I say, “Each woman’s story is different. It’s up to her to share her story.” This is why. If she was forced to share her story, in a way, wouldn’t that be exploiting her again?

-Lauren Smith

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