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I was on the verge of quitting everything. I was burned out at my job and burned out in my personal life. I actually "tried" to quit, but the understaffed tech start-up company I worked for convinced me to stay onboard with the catch that I could work remotely. So I moved all my things into a storage unit and left New York City to abroad in Spain.
Maria was an undocumented immigrant from Africa who was smuggled into Europe through an intricate network of traffickers. She was promised a job cleaning houses in Europe but when she finally got there, the smugglers kept her passport and documents for ransom. They pressured her into working in their prostitution ring in order to pay off her "debts" and maybe somehow get her documents and life back.
I met Maria through mutual friends that helped her out financially from time to time to make sure she was off the streets, at least for a night or two.
Time to relax, not really
I landed in Spain with hopes to kick my Spanish skills into high gear, to relax, and to sip some vino, of course. But those plans shifted once I noticed how many people were out on the streets.
In New York City, like it or not, dealing with homelessness is an everyday occurrence. I worked closely with them as a volunteer for a while, but this was something I've never seen before. Indeed, there were many "sin techos" (Spanish for homeless), and also something else: gypsies (yes they're real), and a heck of a lot of prostitutes.
As it turns out prostitution itself isn't necessarily illegal in Spain and is somewhat accepted or plain ignored by most people.
There's even a neighborhood where you can see women working their posts directly in front of the police station.
Giving Maria money from time to time helped her out for that day, but what she really needed was a way to get out of that situation completely. She was essentially trapped. She couldn't apply for a real job without legal status, and she couldn't leave the country without her passport documents. And it was up to her traffickers to give them back to her.
Periodically we'd meet with her, to get her some food and pray with her before her evening began. One night after we prayed, Maria leaned in towards me and told me that she's never met a white man who was religious and who didn't want something from her. I was doubly shocked! Firstly because that was a very sad thing to hear about her state of affairs, and secondly because I found out that I was white! In her eyes, that's how she saw me, although I don't consider myself a white person by any stretch of the imagination.
After some serious research and phone calls to some friends, I found a way to get copies of her paperwork from her home country. She still wouldn't be able to work legally in Europe, but at least she could safely leave the country. I was so excited to tell her the news. We found a way for her to get home!
there's always a way out - see the forest for the trees
Later that evening we met again for the usual food and prayers. I broke the news to her. "We can get you a ticket back home.", I said with my eyes full of anticipation, waiting for her's too to light up with a glimmer of renewed hope but they didn't. Instead, they looked down with an emotionless glare staring at the sticky dinner floor. Her face was still for a few seconds, although it felt like minutes. Then Maria lifted her eyes and as they met mine she said that she didn't want to go back to her home country.
How could that be? She's living in a foreign country without legal status, with no support, and without a grasp of the language. By all accounts, she's a victim of sex trafficking with no way out. Even with the money and the means laid at her feet, her answer is to stay in the reality of what she has come to know.
What do you do when someone doesn't want you to help them? What do you do when you've found a way out for them but they choose the comfortable known rather than face the darkness of the unknown?
What do you do in that situation? You know, it was something I've never experienced before. They're just not ready. There are a lot of people who are just not ready.
I moved back to the U.S. shortly afterward. My friends quit supporting Maria once they realized they were enabling her. Now, looking back at that moment, it served as a stark reminder that we're truly only limited by the choices we make.
I don't know what happened to Maria after that. I wish she'd taken the lifeline and gotten out of sex slavery. Maybe she eventually did get out. I planted a seed, and someone else comes by and waters it. Then another shines a light and it grows. Unfortunately, there are thousands of Marias out there in similar situations. I won't be around to see the harvest in Maria's life but regardless of that, I've learned to speak hope, speak life, and to strive for what I believe in no matter outcome.
Disclaimer: The names and specific details of individuals involved have been changed and/or omitted.
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