Last August, my wife Susie and I received an email from our niece Shahmin, in which she announced that she had joined a group of volunteers that would be traveling to Bulgaria and Greece in the fall to help support the staff of A21, a world-wide organization dedicated to combating forced labor and sex trafficking. Shortly after her return, we received another email from Shahmin in which she described some of her experiences and impressions from her trip. Even while reading it, I knew that I wanted to share it with readers of this blog.
Shahmin’s letter needs no further introduction, but if, after reading it, you would like to know more about A21 and their mission to equip young people with strategies to avoid becoming victims of trafficking, you can visit their website by clicking here.
I hope this letter finds you well! I just wanted to send word and some photos to you about my experience during my recent trip to Bulgaria, and what it meant to me.
When I first conceived of taking this trip, I was unsure how or why I was going. I know that for a lot of my friends it was out of the blue. I had felt a strong desire that I just needed to go, even though for me it was out of my comfort zone and very different than anything I have ever done before in my life. I also had heard some stories and statistics of how real and growing this problem of sex/human trafficking is. Things like 27 million are being trafficked today – a fact that slavery is bigger than it has ever been!
I am so grateful that I was able to go. Things became so real to me about this growing epidemic. One of the stories that really stood out to me happened one day in the A21 Office (the organization we supported and for which we raised funds). I was looking around and noticing the pictures of different Roma kids (the kids that are targeted for trafficking purposes in Bulgaria). I was about to take a picture of this one particular photo because I thought the baby in it was so adorable with absolutely beautiful eyes!
The photographer who had taken this photo came up to me and asked if I would like the story behind it. He then went on to tell how the prior year he had volunteered and been in this Roma village when he took this photo. He made a comment to the father about how beautiful his baby was. The father then said, “50 euros?” putting his kid up for sale. I had heard this story before the trip and it was one of the triggers to prod me to go. It became all the more real when I was drawn to this baby’s picture and met the photographer who took it. JoAnne, who led this trip, told of how extreme poverty breeds desperation. Suddenly my problems and my worries seemed insignificant after seeing the condition of those who are truly suffering.
A21 SHELTER DAY
One of my favorite days was when we went to clean the shelter for the girls who had been rescued from sex trafficking. We did not get to meet them and we were not told how many even lived there (it is a very guarded location for their safety, and is often changed to keep the Mafia from targeting them). All we knew was that two of them had babies. We were able to leave some items for them and to buy scarves and jewelry that the girls had made in order to support themselves. It is these small little gestures that were so huge to them – to see that the things they made were actually sold and gone when they came back. It was awesome for me to demonstrate through a small gesture of cleaning their home that there are people out there who care very much about them. I was able to drop off the letters that many of you wrote at my dessert fundraiser and I know how encouraging that must be for them.
We left the girls with a small bag of beauty products that had been donated by my employer, as well as other samples that had been donated by other girls on my team. We wrote on each bag “You are beautiful” in Bulgarian. I heard later that the girls were so excited and felt so touched that we came and did this. It was amazing to me that these little efforts meant so much to them.
Later on that afternoon we were able to go to one of the Roma villages that was targeted for trafficking. We played with the kids and gave them games, toys and crafts. It was cool to hear that just a year before the kids would not even step out or were hesitant to do so, and now they ran up to the vans in anticipation of their friends. We brought winter coats for the children but I had been working in the craft room and had missed them giving out these coats. When later I went out, I saw a little girl walking around in one of the coats I had brought. I asked to get a picture of this! It was quite a thrill to see how I could help meet someone’s needs and wants. A $25 coat from Ross can help a little girl keep warm for the winter. I felt honored to see this and see the joy of that little girl wearing that new pink coat.
The rest of the events involved learning about A21’s efforts and being part of larger demonstration events. Our first demonstration was in Bulgaria near the A21 office and the local university. We handed out fliers that had stories of girls who had been trafficked while looking for summer jobs. We wore duct tape and had our hands chained while handing these fliers out. One of the girls after the event said that two guys circled around the block and back and asked her, “How much?”
Our other event was in Thessaloniki, Greece, a heavily trafficked area due to its being a major port city. We handed out simple black and white fliers that looked like alerts, in the same block where 3 girls had been trafficked just a month prior. Most of the Greek people were alarmed by the information and we heard after the event that many did call our A21 hotline that night to report suspicious behavior. On this same walk the Greek leader in our group actually came across a job posting that was clearly a scam asking for “models”. We continued down the block ripping down these posters.
One of the last stories I’ll leave you with was about one girl who I got to meet who came from a Roma village and had come from difficult circumstances. Some years ago she had come to a meeting that JoAnne held and had asked for help finding work and a place to sleep. Upon leaving, JoAnne said, “I will be praying for a place to sleep for you.” The girl replied, “I can’t sleep in your prayers.” JoAnne made it to her car, but turned back and invited her to accompany her home. She has now become such a significant part of A21 and JoAnne’s family. It was truly touching to see how her life changed. It was something else to see her hold JoAnne’s new grandson and how she loved the Roma kids when I was told that previously she didn’t care for kids. Now she is the connection between the A21 team and her own village.
These are just some of the stories and circumstances that happened. Personally, it became apparent to me how important “relationship” is. I loved the host families we stayed with. They were so supportive and loving. I loved Bubba (grandma) Rosa, who always had such a smile on her face and was happy to cook for us and feed us! I was feeling so ugly and down before the trip and how beautiful and very loved she made me feel. She would say how beautiful I was in Bulgarian about my ugly passport photo! She even gave me her homemade jam to take back with me to the U.S. She reminded me so much of my Pakistani Grandma, so welcoming and loving. Although Bubba couldn’t communicate with me in English, I still read her loud and clear. Bubba Rosa’s daughter Julia, and Julia’s husband Emil, were an amazing host family. Only Julia could speak English. They told of how they had been in this same one bedroom/one bathroom flat for over 30 some years. Julia and her mom Rosa had to share the living room where Rosa now sleeps while the Communist government put two strangers in the main bedroom. Julia and Emil got married and still shared the living room with Bubba until the old couple in the bedroom died. My roommate and I slept in their main bedroom while they slept in their kitchen. How encouraging this family was. We laughed so much and I looked forward to dinners just sitting and enjoying them – they, by far, were my favorite part of the trip, and for the opportunity to meet these people I am forever grateful.
I think that is what I came to realize coming home, just how important our relationships are and showing people that you can be interrupted from your schedule/life to talk and laugh and be there, just sitting, no TV, no deadlines, just enjoying their stories and sharing yours. You all were so supportive in my efforts to raise funds, donate toys, beauty supplies – anything you could, that I realized how blessed I am. How lucky and grateful I am to have you all in my life, so many compassionate and loving people. How small gestures turn some peoples’ lives around or give them renewed hope and love. How building those relationships with those kids might help them have someone to turn to that they can trust so they can avoid the traps laid out for them.
Thank you all so much for giving me this once in a lifetime experience. I greatly value your friendships and support and I realize what truly amazing people I have in my life. Your efforts helped those who have nothing, to realize how much people whom they have never met, care about what happens to them. You helped me to see the truth in the saying, “Compassion is not compassion until you’re willing to be interrupted.” Thank you for letting your lives be interrupted for this trip.