There are those moments in time that truly define who you are. Moments that reflect and reveal your true purpose and significance for living. Sometimes those moments are filled with awe and wonder, yet other times, you find yourself standing in utter disbelief at how preposterously unjust this world can be - and maybe, just maybe, you were sent here to do something about it.
I rarely visit the slums or brothels of our local community. My staff agreed long ago that it was better for the safety of the organization (Jasper House Haiti) and myself if a "blan" (a term used by Haitians to describe foreigners, particularly white people) was seen waltzing into these precarious places offering help.
But, about a week ago, Darline, our incredible assistant director decided it was time that I go and see some of these places for myself.
It was a sunny, Wednesday afternoon, and Darline and I had just left a meeting organized by local Haitian organizations for the purpose of "Kore Timoun Asire Demen," which translates to the gathering for the assurance of children's tomorrow. We heard from various foundations as they explained their plans and procedures for how to ensure that Haiti's children would have a better future than that of their parents.
As we were leaving, Darline pointed out a man who was a member of one of the children's foundations. She explained to me that he was the owner of the brothel (referred to as "cafe" by Haitians) she went to visit back in December, when she shared with the women about our program and gave them all the opportunity to call her and begin to come and participate in our classes. I was, sadly, not surprised to hear this. The sickening truth is that so many of the people who are supposed to be helping marginalized women and children are the very same ones exploiting them.
On our way back to Jasper House, Darline asked me if I wanted to stop at this particular cafe and visit the girl who had once been so eager to leave her life of sexual oppression and find new hope within the walls of our home.
We walked in and immediately I the presence of darkness engulfed me. It was so palpable it was if it was going to take human form. The atmosphere was thick and heavy as the daylight revealed the remnants of the nightly debauchery.
We were approached by a man with bleached hair, scrappy tattoos and cigarette hanging from his mouth. In a coarse and brutish fashion he asked who we were and what we wanted. Darline, being the beautiful and confident woman she is, had no hesitation to explain that we had come to talk with "M," the girl who had once shown so much interest in joining our program. Surprisingly, the man adhered to Darline's request and went to call for the girl.
Several minutes later, a girl wearing a tattered blue mini skirt, a top probably designed for a young boy, and hot pink flip-flops came out from behind a makeshift wall. Confused at first, her eyes revealed a tender softness once she realized it was Darline, and not a client, who had come to see her.
She sat down alongside of us to reveal tattoos, scars and eyes that unmasked years of hurt and shame. Darline showed her nothing but love as she asked her about her son, and how life had been in the past few months since she last saw her. I could tell the response was rehearsed and insincere, "Mwen tres byen, gras a Dye," - "I am very well, thanks to God." But behind the smile there was a fear, a very real fear, as the man with bleached hair watched our every interaction.
We asked M why we hadn't heard from her when she had shown so much hope and promise. She sheepishly replied, without making eye contact that she had lost her phone and only recently had gotten a new one, but had since misplaced Darline's number. This immediately seemed like an excuse, especially considering her eyes showed nothing but joy in the fact that she had been remembered, and she was wanted.
It was apparent - this woman lived a life that was not her own.
A life oppressed.
A life controlled.
A life of slavery.
I left with my heart so heavy and helpless. The weight bore down on my soul as I carried that knowledge that only blocks from our beautiful home of freedom, there was this cafe where night after night, M and women just like her are used and abused as though they are disposable bits of trash.
And yet, that is only one part of the bigger picture of the darkness we continue to fight and face...
A few weeks earlier, one of the young women in our education programs came to Darline crying. She asked her if she knew any orphanages that would take her three children and her 14-year-old brother who is legally deaf. She explained that since the father of her children had walked out on them, life had only become increasingly difficult. There were days that she and her children didn't eat, and there was no way for her to put them in school. She felt as though she had no choice but to relinquish them to an orphanage and set off to the Dominican Republic in search of work.
Not only is it completely out of our philosophy to allow a loving mother to place her children in an orphanage, but when an uneducated, undocumented Haitian woman goes to the Dominican Republic in search of work, there's only one profession that awaits her...
I couldn't help but be overcome by emotion when I heard this heartbreaking story that was the reality for this precious woman.
Something had to be done.
With all the darkness that surrounds us each day - I was determined to declare that light would shine into this situation.
But first, I had to go into the darkness to fully understand it.
I asked Darline if we could go and see where this woman had be living. She took me to an area most people adamantly avoid. I have been forbidden by all of my Haitian friends to ever visit this place alone.
On the outskirts of town sits a slum. The slum is compromised of makeshift homes put together by pieces of discarded, eroding wood, galvanized tin and faded USAID tarps.
The downstream of the river, which washes up accumulated trash and feces creates an odor so incredibly atrocious, only further emphasizes the horribly inhumane conditions even animals shouldn't have to live in.
And yet, an entire community calls this place their home.
In addition to the grossly inadequate conditions this community finds themselves in, they are notorious for being aggressive.
Many of the women in our program have come from this area, and almost all of them have been victim to sexual and domestic violence.
The men are forced to find their masculinity and strength in dominating women due to lack of opportunity, education, and profession.
And thus, this is where we find our precious woman, who loves her children dearly, but finds herself living in sheer desperation.
As we bobbed and weaved through the dirt paths that led us through the maze of such a dark, broken, and hurting community, my heart began to feel a weight and burden unlike ever before.
After living in Haiti for nearly four years, not much makes me emotional. I've developed somewhat of a thick skin in order to survive here, which allows me to accept that certain things here may always stay the same. Poverty surrounds my reality and that isn't something one person can change.
But there are those days, like the day with M in the "cafe", and this particular afternoon walking through a community that carries a heaviness and stench so great it penetrates every fiber of your being, it's those days, those moments that leave you wrecked and moved to do so much more than just cry and pray.
Action must be taken.
Our precious woman's story doesn't end in sadness and tears. Her story doesn't end with separation from her children, and her life falling into the clutches of sexual slavery.
Her life has not befallen to the darkness.
No, this time, light has shone into the impenetrable places and brought forth a new beginning.
However, there is so much work left to do.
My heart continues to remain heavy for M, and the other women who find themselves trapped in horrific nightmares. My thoughts are consumed by the images of the slum that so many of our women call home.
Sometimes you have to go into the very depths of the darkness, not for it to consume you, or to be overcome by grief and anguish. Sometimes you have to go into the very pits of the darkest parts of hell and declare - LET THERE BE LIGHT.
And that is what I'm doing.
In the dark rooms of the cafes where women are used and abused each night...
Let there be light.
In the shacks that line the riverbed of desolation...
Let there be light.
In the homes where women are beaten and abused in front of their children...
Let there be light.