Archive for December, 2010

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After four months of Christmas carols, malls decked out in boughs of holly, and every kid in our neighborhood ringing our doorbell and “caroling” (the trick-or-treating of Christmas, where kids ask for presents or money), you’d think we’d be more than ready for the big day.  But you’d be wrong.

Perhaps it’s just our wintry, northern childhoods that conditioned us to associate Christmas with pine trees, mittens, and of course snow.  No matter that the night Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the weather was likely much more like Manila than Minneapolis or Boston. It wasn’t until this week at the Samaritana staff retreat that the Christmas spirit swept me up.

On that note, I thought I’d share some of my favorite Christmas moments here in the Philippines–some humorous, some poignant–leading right up to this week, when I was finally ready to let it snow . . . or something:

  • I’m walking through the grocery store, buying mangoes and powdered milk, when I hear Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.”  We hear her almost daily (I recently had a whole night of dreams where “Bad Romance” was the soundtrack–not fair).  But this time something remarkable happened.  The song morphed, ever so casually, into a techno-version of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”  Clever, I thought.  But then the song switched into K$sha’s “Tick Tock,” and then into “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and then–just when I was sure there was nowhere else to go–Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl.”  Naturally.  No one around me seemed to think anything of the Sexy Pop/Christmas medley.
  • One evening we stopped off at the University of the Philippines for the annual lantern parade.  When I recall the days and weeks leading up to Christmas in college, all I can remember is the stress of impending finals and being incredibly anxious to go home for winter break.  The U.P. campus put my faded memories to shame.  Each department on campus created an elaborate, ingenious float, often from nothing more than plastic cups and empty soda bottles, all of them lit up by portable generators.  The result was magical: jellyfish, sharks, dragons, and mermaids, each one more impressive and intricate than the last.
  • Last week about fifteen of the Samaritana women came to our apartment and caroled.  As they crowded into our little living/dining room, we fed them spaghetti and Filipino sweets.  They came all the way from Samaritana (about a 30-40-minute jeepney ride each way) just to sing for us.  We’re hoping to return the favor on the 26th, when we’ll host for dinner all of the women who couldn’t get home to their families in the provinces and had to spend Christmas alone.
  • Last Friday Samaritana hosted its annual Christmas party. Some of the women we’ve met at the bars also came, including a few bar owners and pimps (over time the Samaritana staff have realized that these women are the gatekeepers to the women Samaritana helps, and often need help themselves.  They also see Samaritana as a place where they can send the women when they are “used up” or too old). It was a 2 p.m. party, there were no alcoholic beverages, and the ages of the women ranged from 20 to 40-something–but Filipinos know how to party.  There was singing, dancing, food, and the best game of musical chairs I’ve ever seen (it ended in a tie because the last two women standing wrestled each other for their seat).  Samaritana gave out raffle items, and every woman went home with a basket full of groceries and a ham.  Ham is the meat of choice on Christmas here, and many of the women, teary-eyed, said that it was their first ham ever.
  • This past Sunday night, Samaritana partnered with World Vision and some local churches to host a Christmas party for the prostituted women in one of our outreach areas. (In recent years, it’s been a sad irony that the World Vision parking lot has been a frequent hangout for prostitutes, so we’re very excited about this new partnership with World Vision.) It’s been a tough area for Samaritana to reach, and for 18 years, Samaritana has been praying that local churches and NGOs would partner with them.  One of Samaritana’s  leaders told her story, how fourteen years ago she was just like them, working in the bars and not believing that there was any hope for another life.  She was in and out of Samaritana for years, but thanks to Samaritana’s persistence, she eventually stayed and became a leader.  Many of the women cried and said that no one had ever made them feel valued or thrown them a party.  Two woman pimps came to the event, and one of them said through tears that she wondered if God could ever forgive her for what she’s doing.  Each of the women, including several 14 and 15-year old girls, left with a lovely basket of gift-wrapped groceries.  One of the women said to a Samaritana leader, “is Samaritana a church?  How can I attend?”  These outcast, hungry for fellowship, were blown away that anyone would think they deserved a party.
As for our own Christmas (which included–Filipino style–midnight mass, dinner with a Filipino friend’s family until 2 a.m., 5 hours of sleep, and two more Christmas dinners today!) comes to a close, we are thinking a lot about all of you back home.  We miss you most this time of year.  Thank you for supporting the work we’re doing here, for vicariously loving these amazing women through us, and for encouraging us every step of the way.

Maligayang Pasko, at Manigong Bagong Taon! (Merry Christmas and a Prosperous New Year!)

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If this isn’t your first visit to Free Is a Verb, you probably know by now that human trafficking victims, like a flesh-and-bone version of the Matrix, are a secret hidden all around us: on big farms, in small restaurants, high-class escort services, low-rent massage parlors, and lots more. These victims may have been moved within a country, or–to trap them further behind a language barrier–across a regional or national border. They may be men, women, or children, Asian, American, or European, but one thing most of them have in common is this: they’re poor–and not just poor in money, but poor in education, opportunity, and hope, which is why they grasp in desperation at the bait traffickers dangle, of jobs and better lives elsewhere. But where do these folks come from? We’ve read the books and articles; we’ve watched documentaries; we’ve heard presentations from NGO’s. But it was time to see for ourselves.

In the Philippines, many trafficking victims come from Samar, a poor island both geographically and mentally on the nation’s fringe. So when we say poor, how poor are we talking? Well, the Philippines as a whole is in the bottom third economically of countries worldwide, then Samar’s three provinces are in the botton fifth in the Philippines. What this means in practical terms is that a family of six in Samar limps along on the $1,600-1,800 a year or so that a rice farmer or fisherman makes, many people cook over wood fires because they can’t afford gas, and almost half the teenagers there drop out of high school because they have to work. So when we ask ourselves why any responsible parent would risk their child being trafficked, the answer isn’t that they’re stupid or uncaring–it’s that they aren’t offered a better choice.

Before we went to Samar, we secretly wondered if all of the stories we’d encountered in our research over the past few years were just the worst-case scenario.  Only in Samar did we realize that these stories were not exceptions, but rather the norm.

The stories we heard were sadly familiar: a friend-of-a-friend or visitor to the village tells a girl about a job in the big city.  She can make good money as a katulong (Tagalog for “helper”, i.e. maid), a waitress, or a nanny.  She and a few of her girlfriends take the bait, often with the blessing of their parents, and before they know it they are on a bus or boat to Manila, Cebu, Angeles City, Malaysia, or beyond.  When they arrive, their cell phones are confiscated and they are delivered to a bar or house that exists to provide prostitution to the local clientele.  They are told that they must work as prostitutes to pay off their transportation fee, but are never paid a peso or told how much of their debt remains.  Unless they are rescued by concerned parents, NGOs, or the police (who are sometimes among their customers), their dreary existence stretches before them until they get sick from STDs or simply get too old to be useful to their owners.

During our one-week visit (graciously hosted by the IJM Samar office staff), we interviewed trafficking victims, their relatives, NGO workers, a human rights lawyer, and a few government workers who worked in the department of social welfare and development (DSWD).  We recorded a number of stories, all of them confirming what we’ve read before.  We came back to Manila with a new love for this forgotten province and its people, and a deep desire to see things improve for them.

Thanks largely to International Justice Mission’s tireless work, every one of the girls we interviewed was a success story.  While all of the girls had been trafficked, and many of them had spent at least a week as prisoners in bars, all of them were rescued before they were raped or forced to work as prostitutes.

One of the girls shared with us a story of how she was finally forced by the mamasan, or pimp, to go out with a customer.  She was only fifteen years old and was terrified.  The customer took her to a hotel, but when she cried and told him that she and her little sister had been tricked into coming to Manila and had no idea they’d be working as prostitutes, he had compassion on her and didn’t force her to have sex with him.  He even offered to help her escape, but she refused since her sister was still back at the house where the girls were kept.

At the same time, the girls’ mother had contacted both IJM and the DSWD as soon as she realized her daughters were gone.  Even though she’d received a phone call from them saying that they were in Manila and that everything was okay, she suspected they were in danger because someone immediately took the phone away from her daughters before they could finish the conversation.  After a 30-hour bus+ferry ride to Manila, she helped identify the house based on her daughter’s description, accompanied the police and IJM staff on the raid, and the girls were set free.

It was inspiring to meet these girls who were so brave, and so grateful to have been rescued from what might have been.  Thanks to organizations like IJM and various aftercare partners, they are receiving an education and counseling, and some of them are even attending college.

But for every girl we talked to who had a happy ending, we heard about many whose fate was not so fortunate. Our work in metro Manila reminds us daily of how important appropriate aftercare is for women who have suffered the trauma of prostitution; our visit to Samar taught us just how essential it is to work to prevent trafficking in the first place.

* * * * *

So what can you do to help?  A few relatively simple things:

1. If you’re in the Philippines,  write a quick note or make a phone call to the political or economic sections of the U.S. Embassy here. Send an email to the director of the Philippine National Bureau of Investigation thanking them for the work they’ve done fighting trafficking and closing bars employing minors for prostitution.

2. If you’re in the U.S., call or email the chairs of the following government committees responsible for U.S. foreign aid:

House subcommittee on state, foreign aid, and related programs

Senate state, foreign operations & related programs subcommittee.

3. If you’re on the internet, become a fan of the Manila U.S. Embassy on facebook or follow them on Twitter, and comment thanking Ambassador Thomas for the time he’s spent supporting IJM’s work in Samar and other anti-trafficking efforts.

-Nate & Laura

Tumakbo Tayo!

Posted: December 3, 2010 in Life in the Philippines
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Ask anyone who has been to the Philippines what the best thing is about this country, and the answer will always be the same: the people.  Yes, outside of Manila you’ll find the full array of tropical beauty: stunning beaches, lush jungles, green mountains, aquamarine waters, and picturesque volcanoes, but Filipino generosity, hospitality, and good humor outshine even the best scenery, as we were reminded during our recent work trip to the backwoods Samar region.

While the humidity and heat generally make running a rather miserable pastime here, in Samar running occasioned priceless memories.  We got the sense that in many of the hamlets we visited, we were likely the first white people they’d seen in person.  We were a general spectacle just walking down the street, but running, we were full-scale entertainment. Kids especially were entranced;  girls giggled, and boys called out, “hey, Joe,” (a holdover from the U.S. military days), plus cheerful attempts at American accents with “hi!” and the usual questions of “What’s your name?” “Where are you going?” “Where did you come from?” We responded in halting Tagalog, cause for endless, delighted laughter.  They pushed our names around their tongues, trying out the new syllables.  (Nate has become “Nathan,” because “Nate” is tough for Filipinos.  Most of the kids thought my name was “Dora” instead of Laura.)

On one particular run through a tiny fishing village on the island of Daram, we quickly came to the end of the town’s one road, and kept jogging down a crumbling paved path through the darkening jungle.  As we passed nipa huts and cinderblock shacks with corrugated metal rooftops, some of the kids started to run with us even though they were only wearing flip flops. “Tumakbo tayo! Let’s run!” we encouraged them, and the kids, who had now doubled in number, made no attempt to suppress their amazed laughter.

The pink light of twilight finally fading, we passed dozens of staring, amused faces.  Two men chuckled while sharing a cigarette leaning against the wall; a mother hung out the window of her tiny sari-sari store, waving as we ran by with a cloud of thirty or so children floating behind us; two little girls held hands, barely visible through the haze of smoke from chicken and fish and pork being roasted over cookfires everywhere.  Startled roosters crossed our path, and frantically squawked out of the way.  Somewhere below us, the town church rang its bell.

At the end of our run, we circled back to the small park at the town’s center.  I was lagging behind, learning the names of a dozen girls who were surrounding me, holding my arm affectionately and giggling whenever I spoke. When I arrived at the park, I desperately wished for a camera: there was my husband doing a hamstring stretch, leaning over one leg propped up on a cement platform, with 30+ little boys copying the stretch beside him.  While the night quickly took over the ocean sky above us, we taught at least fifty little kids half a dozen stretches.  Only when the sky opened up and the rain came did the kids leave us and scamper home.

On another run, on the Southeastern tip of Samar, we were met with a similar reaction from the local kids, who eagerly joined us as we ran through their town.  A charming, ten-year-old girl, Maryelle, quickly decided that I was her friend.  When I asked her where she lived, she pointed to a ramshackle group of huts just across the street, and then grabbed my arm to take us there.  Surrounded by kids, we passed through a tiny alleyway, and on the other end saw mothers and sisters and aunts, most of them smiling at us. “You all live here?” I asked, and the kids eagerly nodded and said they did.

There was a tiny sari-sari store where an older sister worked, and Nate asked if she sold water.  She disappeared for a moment, and when she came back, she was carrying two chilled, plastic bags of water.  There was no sign of bottled water or a filtration system anywhere, and yet we both knew that turning our noses up at this gift was something we couldn’t do.  As the kids showed us how to bite a hole in the corner of the bag and suck on it, we prayed that God would protect our stomachs and not let us get sick.  Then we drank the cold water, stopping only when I accidentally squirted water all over my face, which the kids, of course, thought was hilarious.  So far we’re still okay, so God seems to have answered our prayer.

“You want to run?” I asked the kids in Tagalog when it was time to go. They ran with us back through the town, across a bridge, to the place where the paved road turned to dirt, and Maryelle asked me if we were all going to our house together.  I didn’t know how to answer her; our hotel was far enough away that it would mean a lot more running, and what would we do with all of these kids once we got there?  She asked if we were coming back later, and since we were leaving Samar the next morning, I told her I didn’t know.  When at last we reached the edge of town, with aching hearts, we told the kids we had to go.  Maryelle looked at me mournfully, but at last smiled her beautiful smile and waved goodbye.