DR. PAT SPENCER - BITTERSWEET
As the youngest of five children, my early years were filled with the special treatment of being the baby girl. My name Amira means princess. When Mother cooked bal mithal, I thought I was her favorite. She always popped the first sugar ball into my little mouth before my brothers and sisters came home from school. Our little secret.
When my siblings complained that Mother favored me, I crawled into Father’s lap and cried. He scolded them for their selfishness and banned them to their rooms.
Late one night shortly after I turned ten, Father woke me. He said he wanted to show me a game so special that he would only play it with me, his little princess. I promised not to tell the others because he said they would be jealous. He claimed my sisters would steal the handmade scarves he bought me at the bazaar, and my brothers would never take me to the video arcade with them again.
I hurt at the thought of my brothers and sisters treating me this way. But it was what he said Mother would do that broke my heart, that she would no longer treat me to the first of the sweet bal mithal. So, I promised to keep our secret.
Then he taught me the game.
Later, as I played, my older sisters whispered about the monster inside our father. Ashamed, I did not tell them I had seen it too.
But when the ugliness inside my gut grew too large to hold inside, I broke my promise to my father and told my sisters. They admitted knowing the abuse had shifted to me, but explained nothing they could say or do would make a difference. Eager to escape, my sisters occupied themselves with their wedding preparations.
When they failed to intervene, I begged my older brothers to save me. But they respected Father above all else, placed him even higher than God. So, I pleaded directly to Allah, implored him to command my brothers to stop my father. My prayers went unanswered.
When I revealed to my mother what Father was doing, she slapped me, said never to speak of it again. I didn’t yet understand that if Mother had reported him, he would not be punished. The men protect each other, and the laws protect the men over all others. Father might kill my mother if she defied him. Yet, selfishly, I prayed she would.
Unlike in America, divorce is difficult in Pakistan. Mother would only be eligible if Father deserted her or withheld financial support for four or more years. Or did not have intimate relations with her for at least three. These are crimes he did not commit.
In ways, I still consider myself under the watchful eye of Allah. In school, teacher told us that Pakistan is the third most dangerous country for women. She said, “Seventy percent of young girls are psychologically or physically abused, thousands disfigured and maimed.”
My best friend’s parents required that she endure genital cutting at age nine. We made eye contact but quickly looked away. Neither of us wanted our teacher or classmates to guess the secrets we shared.
When Teacher said, “The government passed a new law to safeguard girls and women,” there was no collective sigh of relief. We were old enough to understand that customs are difficult to change.
Father beat Mother at the smallest provocation. She had no place to go. Few shelters existed. He moved the family to another city, isolated Mother from friends and family or anyone who might offer aid. If she spoke of what he was doing, he might have banned her from our home and prohibited her from seeing her children ever again.
It is painful to confess, but I turned to evil. I asked Allah to compel my mother to poison Father. I thought if she loved me, she would slip arsenic in his meal.
I realized I had to help myself. I planned to escape, to flee to a land where I could be free. At fifteen, I enrolled in an international studies program. Confident that as an educated woman I could live alone and support myself, I dreamed of attending college in America.
One year later I sold the jewelry I inherited from my great grandmother, then paid the money to an underground immigration agent. He pretended to assist but did not. He drugged me, put a mask over my face, and pushed me into the backseat of a car.
Men locked me inside a cinderblock cell, cold and damp, a mole hole in the ground. I heard other girls crying but was afraid to call out.
The drugs muddled my mind. Sometimes I was unconscious for a few hours. Other times, much longer. In the constant dark, I could not tell day from night, but I think I was imprisoned for over twenty days. In the beginning, I fought to break free. The more I fought the more the men beat and drugged me. I did not want to die.
Then the men said they were taking me to an airport but would not drug me if I obeyed. Afraid, I did what they asked. One man thrust me toward the back of the plane. Curled up in my seat, I listened to the men. They laughed and congratulated themselves for the money they made selling girls over and over again, much more than from dealing in only opioids.
The men flew to Turkey and enslaved me at a place called Sugar House. I felt alone. But as other stolen women befriended me, they told me we shared one horrible experience. We were all first violated by a parent, brother, relative, family friend, or other trusted person. Now after a year of therapy, I understand molestation is the act that leaves a child most vulnerable to traffickers.
But learning there were others did not make me feel less dishonored. I longed to kill myself rather than let the men at Sugar House do as they wanted. Several girls committed suicide. A way out. If not for my friends, the other stolen girls, I would have taken my life. Still, with the weight of a boulder, sorrow sits in my heart because I did not give Lin Su’s little sister the strength to endure.
My friend, Amira, is a great source of courage to all held captive at Sugar House. But my guilt is hard to bear. The only things that keep me alive are the need to share what little courage I have left and my ability to withdraw into childhood memories.
I am Lin Su. My little sister and I were happy children living in Guiyang, the capital city of Guizhou, China. Our father earned a living as a manufacturer of alloy wheels. The only picture I possess is one our mother snapped long ago. Father is holding hands with Sister and me as we walk along a path lined with cherry trees in full blossom.
We loved to dress up in Mother’s clothes. Wobbling in high-heeled shoes, Sister giggled, “I am the big girl now.”
We enjoyed school and our friends. I played the piano, Sister the violin.
Sadly, our mother was never strong. The winter I turned fourteen, Mother complained of a sharp pain cutting through her chest. Throughout the day and night, she coughed up bloody mucus.
Exhausted, Mother ate only broth made from angelica root. With every bite, I dipped the spoon in a pot of honey. She always had Sister and me swallow this sugary syrup when we coughed, so I was sure its sweetness would heal her as well. Yet, she rarely left her bed. The veins on her hands, darkened to a greenish purple, rose and pushed against her skin, now as white and transparent as a tissue flower.
Even though raised as an atheist, I draped Mother’s blue-green silk scarf over the small circular table in her room. On top I arranged seven pieces of her favorite jade jewelry. I prayed for their strength to leave the stones and settle in my mother’s weakened body.
After Mother passed, Sister and I performed concerts to cheer Father. I can still sense the warmth of his pride. But his attention shifted when he married a woman from a rich and powerful family. Father forgot to tickle my sister and me at play and kiss us good night. Never again did his eyes sparkle or his lips spread into a smile when we entered the room.
When he fell ill and died, his second wife banned Sister and me from our home. No other relative dared defy this cruel woman and take us in.
We slept in a doorway, summer and winter. I knocked on doors, asked to sweep and clean for food, but we were always hungry. I was fifteen, Sister only thirteen, when a storekeeper caught me stealing fruit. A man saw the scuffle and offered the opportunity to get off the streets. He promised we would live together in a large home and share a bedroom, eat fresh food, wear nice clothes, and work as housekeepers. I had no hint of the dark nature of this man.
Sister trusted my decision to go with this man. I was responsible for her. Named Chunhua because she was born during the spring bloom, a single flower now brings tears to my eyes.
When this man sold us to Sugar House, he said they must call my sister Candy to make her more appealing. The drugs stole her warmth. Crushed in shame, shoulders slumped, she no longer looked anyone in the eyes.
Six months later, Chunhua took her life, three days before her fourteenth birthday. I should have gone with my precious sister to her death.
Lin Su is my best friend, but I did not support her as I should. Now we grieve together, a bond we should not share. My Afghani name means fresh grass. My father claimed he named me Palwasha for the sweet fragrance of the grasses that flourished on our farm.
The men at Sugar House call me Alexa. They say my name must be sexy.
My family was not poor before the war. We were farm people, but my father sold fruit, vegetables, goats, and lambs.
My father said I was so smart that I could be the one to take over the farm. I did not want to let him down so I studied diligently until the Taliban bombed Rodat and destroyed our schools and many businesses and homes.
I was out in the field, herding goats, when terrorists sped up the path. My family perished in the attack. The blast propelled me into a ravine, burned my arm, and sprained my foot. The goats ran away. Our two-story farmhouse, home to my crippled grandmother, father, mother and brother, crumbled. The bedrooms on the second floor fell into the kitchen. Flames shot toward the sky. I hauled water from the well, but the pain made me slow.
Our cats, sheep, cows, horses, and both border collies…all died. The fire blackened the fig trees that protected us from the summer heat. Fields of onion that once provided a good income were reduced to rows of soot.
A few canned goods survived the bombing by being thrown twenty yards into our scorched garden. A blessing, but they did not last. My pain was great. I could hardly move. Begging is common in Afghanistan, yet I never dreamed I might have the need. Several days after I ate what little food I had, I tried to walk to town.
I limped toward the road, then stopped to rest my swollen foot. I heard the sound of a car. When it stopped, a man and woman got out. They claimed to be going into town to deliver Red Cross supplies but left a small box of food and water.
The woman said, “We will be back tomorrow with medical supplies for your burns and foot.”
Four days passed. When they came back, the man said he had no more boxes but gave me a bottle of water and a few military rations. The woman used half the water to remove dirt from my burns then wrapped them in large bandages. I was grateful. Again, she told me they would return but did not.
My lips split and became infected. I lost so much weight that my skirt slipped from my waist to ride on my hips. I had nothing, no home, no family, not even a blanket. But the swelling diminished, so once more, I prepared to walk to town.
I recited from the Quran as I dug through the rubble in search of the walking stick my father had carved. I had not found it, but I believed my prayers had been answered when the man and woman returned.
The woman put her arm around my waist. “I am sorry. We have no more food or water but will take you to the Red Cross waystation.”
Father warned my brothers of the bacha baz, wealthy men using harems of young boys for sexual entertainment. In private, my mother said, “Beautiful little girls such as yourself are kidnapped and forced to labor in brick kilns and carpet factories, or worse, sold to men for sex.” My parent’s warnings filled me with fear, but I hoped that with Red Cross assistance I might get to my aunt and uncle in Kabul, one hundred and eighty kilometers away.
I cursed my stupidity as the man left the roadway and sped into the desert.
My voice quivered. “Please let me out. I can walk.”
The man ignored me and drove rapidly over the sandy path. I wanted to open the door, but the handle was gone. I put my weight against it, hoping the door would open, but it did not.
When the sky darkened, the man stopped in an isolated spot and ripped me from the car. The woman only sat there.
“Please help,” I begged.
She looked away. My mother taught ways to recognize a man with the heart of a beast, a man with no soul. She never told me a woman could also be the same.
Three men stepped from a jeep. I hadn’t noticed it at first. Lights off, it was invisible in the starless night. I kicked and screamed. The larger man seized me and the other blew something in my face. I remember nothing else until awakening at Sugar House.
My earliest childhood memory comes from when I was five. Golden-headed pelicans swoop overhead. My mother and father each hold me by one hand. They swing me forward, singing Christina, you can fly. Up, up and away. I squeal and kick sand with my toes. Seagulls squawk and head out to sea.
We lived in a one-bedroom apartment while my father waited for base housing. Looking back, we didn’t have much. I only knew the pride that puffed my little chest when he wore his blue uniform and returned the salutes of other men without letting go of my hand.
The Saturday after each payday, my father treated us to a movie. Other weekends, we built sandcastles on the beach, then searched the shallow waves for seashells and sand dollars. We were always together. As a Private First Class at Camp Pendleton, my father was unable to afford a babysitter so he and mom could go on a date.
His friend said, “I miss my girls stationed this far from home. I’ll stay with Christina while you go out.”
My sister, older by four years, played video games in another room. Father’s friend sat me on his lap. He flipped through a magazine he had brought, showed me the women. He said to be beautiful and loved, I needed to look and act like them.
I never saw my father’s friend again. The Marine Corps saved me by transferring him to another base. But the standard he set stuck in my psyche. Still today, I worry about the others this demon will fool with his alternate face.
I first played soccer at age eight. I loved kicking the ball and running faster than the girls on other teams. In high school, I enjoyed traveling to matches with my teammates. Serious about the game, I hoped to be awarded a scholarship.
Even when promoted my father didn’t have money for extras. So my mother took a job as a lab tech. Twice a week, her shift made her thirty minutes late to pick me up after soccer practice.
A handsome older man of twenty-four stood at the edge of the field and watched me wait alone for my mother. He seized this opportunity to woo me.
I told my mother she didn’t need to rush. I lied, said a classmate invited me to her house to study and stay for dinner. Her parents would bring me home.
My handsome man bought me jewelry. He told me that a woman like me should wear beautiful things. I believed him when he said, “I love you more than anyone else ever can.”
He claimed to want to show me off. I had my first drinks at that party. And my first intercourse. I remember little, but he declared I was the love of his life.
He drove me to the mall, purchased a silky dress. I thought I looked the same as my older sister when she went out Saturday nights.
At the next party, we shared a joint. Lots of kids toke. I thought it was cool. He handed me pills and a shot of tequila. My head spun.
I said, “I don’t feel well.”
He said, “Come with me.”
We entered a darkened room. Two men were there. I stepped back. The man who promised to love me gripped my shoulder.
“After everything I have done for you, you must do something for me.”
As a child, I didn’t tell my father what his friend had done. Now at sixteen, guilt blocked me from telling my parents what I had done. I ran away and rode the coaster to downtown San Diego. I prayed my parents would come find me but didn’t call to tell them where I was. Shivering and hungry, afraid and ashamed, I roamed the streets the entire night.
A man with a kind face approached me. “Hi. My name is Daniel. Looks like you could use some help. Let me buy you breakfast at the corner coffee shop.”
When I finished the eggs and toast, he said, “Come meet my wife. She has a soft spot for girls like you.”
I struggled to clear the fog from my head but fell asleep in his SUV. When he stopped, I was too groggy to notice where we were. He held out his hand and helped me out of the car. I was standing in a warehouse before I realized this was nobody’s home. Three men with gang tattoos eyed me up and down. When I spun toward the door, the thug with a shaved head grabbed me. I sobbed and slid to the cold cement floor.
Days passed in a haze of drugs and truck stops. When the narcotics wore off, I found myself in a filthy cargo van with six other girls. We didn’t speak, barely glanced at each other, though we faced the same fate. The only relief we had from our body’s stink and huddling on the floor was quick stops at the sides of deserted roads.
I can’t remember how long I took to realize I was in New York. On my birthday, a customer punched me, then pushed me from his Mercedes Benz. I crawled to a park bench. My swollen eyes crusted shut. I cringed when a woman touched my shoulder.
“Can I help you?”
I put up my hand to push her away.
“Please, will you let me help you?”
I nodded. Pain shot up my neck.
She helped me stand, supported me as we moved toward two other women. I felt as warm and safe as a baby chick in their hands. I didn’t know then that growing inside me was a baby of my own. These women gave me clean clothes, food, and a place to stay. Each day they gave me more.
Now I am a survivor. Clean and sober, I work twenty hours a week at a fast-food restaurant and take classes at the local community college. My boss says I am a good worker. If I earn a GED, he will give me more hours.
To pay forward the support I received, I volunteer to connect with women still in the streets. I want to help others the way those women helped me.
I’ve learned that many trafficked victims commit suicide. I must be stronger than that. Soon I will have a baby daughter. She needs my love and care.
When American soldiers rescued the women held at Sugar House, the same organization that reached out to me took them in as well. After three months of group living, Amira, Lin Su, Palwasha, and I accepted the offer of a small home to live in as roommates. This wasn’t easy. With our different religions, languages, and customs, we had to work hard not to remain strangers.
In the first few months, we were most comfortable when cooking and sharing our country’s traditional foods. As our trust in each other grew, we revealed details from our experiences and held each other when the tears flowed.
Today we are as close as sisters though the way we came to this is bittersweet. Through our sharing, I learned that my story of being a victim differs from each of theirs. However, this one thing we share. We are among the two to four million people trafficked every year.
My mind may never rest. I question how and why these people continue to get away with ruining young lives. To find out who are these traffickers, selling children and young women, I spend hours online, reading everything I can find.
The answers hurt me all over again. Many traffickers are known to the victims. They are family members, friends and neighbors. Others encroach as strangers in the form of gangs and other organized crime groups, pedophiles, pimps, madams, adult entertainment industry providers, or owners of small businesses such as massage parlors. Most child victims are sold online, allowing those who destroy human existence to remain anonymous and escape prosecution.
What happened to the man who sold me many times a day? Even if I went to the police, he kept me drugged. I’d never find my way back to him or the decrepit building where he held me and the other young woman. So, he’s still out there.
And the john who broke my jaw, then left me at the side of the road? I don’t even know his real name. New York boasts stringent sexual exploitation penalties and laws, but before I became brave enough to report him, my wounds healed. So, if the police located him, which is unlikely, it would be his word against mine.
And the San Diego man who said he loved me the way nobody else ever could. Him, I can identify and lead police to his front door. In California, a judge might fine him, but what would he care? He sells his girls many times every day. The possibility of prison exists. But if I testify, he and his friends might learn where I am.
So, what do I do? The same thing thousands of other victims do. More than just survive, I build a future.
Last week I was brave enough to call my mother’s cellphone. Through the tears, I felt her love. I begged for forgiveness. She said there was nothing to forgive.
My parents and sister are eager to meet Amira, Lin Su, and Palwasha. In two days, they fly in for my daughter’s birth. Now a family of eight, we are eight who will ensure this baby never experiences the cruelty we survived.