The world is a broken place, and can often feel overwhelming and terrifying. Wars, disease, and human rights violations fill our televisions. It’s sometimes easier to pretend it’s not happening. We pin, we post, we play photographer. We create worlds of bright and shiny. It’s understandable, and necessary. We cannot forget the beautiful even in days filled with evil.
But sometimes we think of those fighting the evil are just masses of humanity, not individuals struggling, surviving. Some of them are refugees, targets of terrorist groups. Some of them are waging their own private wars against rape or abuse. These are the voiceless ones, the ones who cannot speak in the heat of the battle, who have no way to tell us what it is to be in this life.
And so we can’t forget to talk about these things. We need to listen for their voices, quiet as they may be. We need to magnify that spark and speak when they cannot. We need to put aside our own comfort and meet them where they are, join them in their fight.
One of the reasons that I write is because there are things that matter. Maybe my thoughts on these things don’t matter much to anyone but me, but they are still important to say. Maybe no one is listening, but they still have value and remind me to keep paying attention. And maybe, just maybe, it is in the speaking that life can get a little bit better, a little bit brighter. For me. For others.
Maybe sometimes words can motivate us to make a difference.
Today, I want to share a piece that one of my students wrote a few years ago about a terrible wrong happening in the world: human trafficking. Sarah was a tenth grader in my online writing class, and we were discussing how to give a voice to those that are voiceless. She felt compelled to speak these words.
Nothing More Than a Problem
By Sarah Calvetti
“Hello, my dearest darling,” my mother murmured in a soft, mellow voice when I walked through the door of our small house. She pulled me to her in a gentle embrace and made me sit down beside her on our stained Salvation Army couch. She put an arm around my waist and looked at me, her fingers resting for a moment on my cheek like a butterfly on a leaf and then lightly gliding over to my long braids.
“You have such lovely hair.” Her voice glided smoothly through the air. “Let me brush it for you.”
Never in my fourteen years of existence had I ever heard her express even the remotest interest in my hair, but I allowed her to untie the shabby ribbons and comb through my thick hair. I heard her sigh in pride.
“Oh darling,” she added, “let me work with it and make it pretty!”
So I did. Not because I cared if I looked pretty or not. No. It was because such attention from my mother did not occur often; she was normally more concerned about alcohol or drugs (if she could get them.) The feeling of her fingers gliding through my tangled hair was so wonderful that I hoped it would never end. That’s how amazing it felt to have her attention and love.
When she was done with me, I had Heidi braids wrapped around my head. We didn’t have a mirror in the house, so I strained to see my reflection in the one window we had. I felt so beautiful. And loved. I looked at my mother in sheepish happiness, expecting to see it bounce back at me full-force. But instead she glanced down at the couch and traced one of the larger stains with her finger, a look of guilt on her face. A second later it disappeared, and a smile spread across her lips.
“You look beautiful.” Her eyes sparkled as she talked — whether from excitement or tears I’ll never know. “I have a special, special surprise waiting for you in the bedroom.”
I squealed and eagerly skipped to the one bedroom we had in the house. I’m pretty sure I had never felt happier in my life than I did just then. But it only lasted a moment. I opened the door to find a man sitting on the bed a foot away from me. He looked up at me and although no man had ever “sized me up” before, I knew that that was exactly what he was doing. It was as if he had x-ray vision and could see right through my clothes.
A sense of uneasiness swept through me and I looked at my mother.
Her eyes had become colder than ice, and her lips were tightly pressed together as if glued. “You’re not my problem anymore.” She shoved me toward him: a harsh, emotionless push that seemed impossible after the gentleness with which she had brushed my hair only a few minutes before.
The man grabbed me and pinned me to the bed.
“Mommy!” I shrieked.
She had already closed the door on her “problem.” The lock clicked loudly and echoed in the small room. I struggled against the man — tried to pry off his arms with my fingernails and teeth — but he merely slapped me in the face and almost greedily began to rip my clothes off. He was too strong for me, and in a few moments, my innocence was gone.
It was very late in the night when the man dragged me from my house and shoved me into his shiny red car. I tried to scream for help, but a strong kick and a punch in my eye from him put a quick end to that.
“Now look here.” The man’s voice was smooth and almost gentle, but his eyes had an unnatural, menacing glint. “I ain’t gonna tolerate this fightin’ stuff. If you scream or kick one more time, I’ll send a bullet through your ear that’ll blow your brains out.” He pulled out a shiny silver revolver and turned it over in his hands. “And the same goes for runnin’ away. If you try to escape, you can be sure that I will track you down and kill you.”
I nodded in understanding. I didn’t want to die.
“I paid a lotta cash for you,” he added, looking me over again. “So you’re gonna have to work hard so I can get it all back.”
I tried to swallow the rising lump in my throat. “What kind of work?”
He let out an obnoxious laugh. “Haven’t you guessed, little girl? You’re goin’ make a lotta men happy.”
My body was bruised and bleeding, but the inexpressible terror and despair that suddenly filled my heart hurt more than anything else. My mother had sold me to a pimp and I was to be his prostitute. She had probably made a huge amount of money — enough to pay the rent or (more likely) a lot of drugs. So that’s what I was to her: a possession to sell for drugs. She didn’t even care what happened to me. Because in her eyes, I was only a problem. No, check that. A former problem.
The sky was just beginning to brighten to a hazy gray color when we reached the brothel. The alley behind it was dark and lit by only one flickering street light, but I could still see the piles of trash everywhere. And the stench. I gagged when the reek of human refuse, garbage, and rotting food hit my face. The pimp shoved me toward a graffiti-covered door, but I lost my balance and fell into a puddle. I heard him curse and a moment later, pain was exploding in my body. He had taken off his belt and was beating me with it. I tried to crawl away, but I was too crippled by the pain to move.
I must have blacked out after a few minutes, because I opened my eyes later and found myself crumpled on the floor of a very cold and empty room. I stood up and tried to open the door, but it was locked from the outside. A part of me wanted to scream for help, but I dreaded the idea of another beating and remained silent. I turned from the door and looked around the room. There was a solitary bed in one corner with a naked mattress covered in brownish stains of various sizes. The sight filled me with fear and nausea, and the food that I had kept down for so long reappeared — onto the floor. Never before had I felt so utterly alone and scared. I pulled my knees up to my face, tucked my chin, and began to cry. An hour crawled by before I saw another human being. The woman who entered was definitely a prostitute. I could tell because of her practically nonexistent dress, dangerously tall heels, and dark eye makeup.
“He said somethin’ about you needin’ help with your appearance, but I didn’t dream you’d look this bad,” she muttered sardonically.
I was too afraid to speak, so I stayed quiet.
“There’s no use in mopin’ about bein’ here, girly,” she added softly after a few minutes. “This ain’t the only racket in town, but you’re gonna wanna stay here cuz I hear lotsa girls have it a whole lot worse.”
It took around three hours to “beautify” me. By the end of it, I felt like a different person. My long hair was straight, my eyelashes covered in thick mascara, and I stood a full six inches taller because of my stiletto pumps. My appearance solidified the pimp’s words and all of my horrifying fears — I was now a prostitute.
And that wasn’t the worst of it. No. That came later when my owner took me and a few other young girls to a nightclub. I hadn’t seen any of the girls before, but it was obvious that they were prostitutes just like me.
The pimp looked at us with narrowed eyes. “Get in there and get down to business. Talk to the men and when they’re ready, take them to the back room. I’m sure you’ll know what to do then.”
I looked around at the other girls; a few seemed as terrified as me, but most appeared placid — accepting of the fact that they were stuck. I found out later that a few of them were prostitutes by their own choice. Would I be the same way in a few months? … I hoped not … but there was always a chance …
The pimp’s voice and fist cruelly jerked me back into reality. “When I’m talkin’, you gotta listen to me! Understand?”
I nodded quickly and blinked away hot tears.
“You gotta charge $30 each half an hour,” he continued. “Everything has a price, you know. I expect $500 from each of you tomorrow morning.” He looked around at each of us and added, “Good luck.”
When I was a kid, I liked waving at police officers because I knew they’d wave back at me. I always felt safe when a policeman was around. That’s why when I was five, I wanted to be a police officer.
Well. I’ve been raped by at least five policemen “customers” in two months, and I can’t help but feel betrayed because I trusted them when I was a child. I thought they looked out for children and made sure no one hurt them. But now I see that I was wrong. They could tell from the weals on my face that others had beat me, but they didn’t even raise a finger. In fact, they often added several more bruises to my body.
I’ve called the brothel “home” for four months now and met hundreds of other child prostitutes. Some of the girls are runaways who sell themselves to stay alive; others, just like me, were sold by a parent or family member; but most of the girls were abducted from foreign countries like India or China. In the end though, it doesn’t really matter where we lived or who were before we came to the brothel. We’re all stuck with no chance of getting away.
We went to different bars and nightclubs every night. I’ve slept with men in every social position: school teachers, church leaders, politicians, business men…
And now I was pregnant by one of those types of men. I had no idea who the father was but I can tell you this much: I was terrified. The pimp owned me — my mother had sold me to him — and I knew he’d force me to have an abortion if he found out. Even if I wanted my baby. Which I did.
I didn’t at first. When I realized I was pregnant, I was angry. I shook my fist in the air and demanded that God — if there was a God — give me the reason behind it. Why was I pregnant when I was obviously not in the position to have the problem of raising a child? If God was as kind and good as the TV pastors claimed, why had He let my mother sell me into slavery? Where had He been when I needed Him most? I didn’t get an answer, but then again, I didn’t really expect one. I was discouraged and decided to keep it a secret — just in case. I lied to the head prostitute, saying I had the flu and felt like I was getting fat. I hoped this ruse would explain my morning sickness and weight gain and make everybody else less suspicious.
But I knew it would eventually become obvious and I wouldn’t be able to hide it anymore. I can’t be bothered by a child! I repeated those words to myself ten times over before another phrase pushed its way into my head. “You’re not my problem anymore,” she had said. My mother’s words had brought heartbreak and despair; they had ruined my life! And I had said the same thing to my child not once but ten times. A wave of guilt and sadness swept over me as I sunk to the bathroom floor, sobbing uncontrollably. “I’m so sorry,” I whispered in between tears.
In reply, I felt a small pain on my right side — a kick from a small foot inside me! It instantly brought on a fresh wave of sobs. It was then that I truly realized this baby was real and more importantly, mine. And by that, I do not mean that I owned it like the pimp owned me. I only mean that I finally had something to love and cherish as my own.
Every waking minute was filled with fear for my child. I wanted it now — more than I had ever wanted to leave the brothel! I was afraid, though, because I knew I couldn’t hide my pregnancy forever. What would I do when the pimp found out? I knew he would make me get an abortion, and I also knew that I couldn’t allow my baby to be cruelly murdered. But if the pimp did let me keep the child (which he wouldn’t), what would I do with it? I couldn’t raise it here in the brothel. The idea of running away flitted across my mind for a moment, but then I heard the pimp’s words from the first night — “If you try to escape, you can be sure that I will track you down and kill you.” I would die if I didn’t succeed, and my baby would die if I didn’t at least try. It was the only way I could save my child.
I tried to make my escape early one morning. It was raining heavily, but I told myself it was now or never. I had just snuck out of the club after my last “customer” of the night when I was grabbed from behind.
“So,” the pimp whispered quietly, “you’ve decided to leave us. Well guess what!” His voice had quickly risen to a shout. “You’re never leavin’ this place because you — belong — to me!” He threw me to the cold pavement and began to kick my stomach. I turned over in hopes of protecting my child, but the pimp yanked me back to my original position and continued to land kick after kick on me.
“No! Please stop! Please don’t do this to me!” I screamed, closing my eyes in hopes of shutting out the pain. By now, my clothes were soaked from the rain and blood. My shirt clung to my body and even though the light from the streetlight was faint, my bump was clearly visible. I could tell that the pimp had seen it — his kicks ceased momentarily and I heard a string of foul words stream from his mouth. I also heard a rustle of fabric and opened my eyes to see the pimp pulling his revolver out of his suit jacket.
“Tryin’ to protect a child, huh? You ain’t nothin’ but a child yourself.” He spat on my face. “I told you what I’d do if you tried to run.”
I could hear his gun click as he loaded it.
“I don’t like to go back on my word. Gotta keep up a reputation, you know.” His voice had dropped to a menacing whisper. “Somebody’s gotta die. But it ain’t gonna be you.” The pimp grabbed my bloodied face and jerked it toward his. “It’s gonna be that little child that you tried so hard to protect.” With that, he thrust his revolver back in his pocket and dragged me to the back of a black van. I knew where we were going and I could feel my adrenaline gushing through my body, but my mind had become numb. The next hour was a blur, but I distinctly remember being laid on a cold bed in the clinic.
“Please don’t do this! Please don’t kill my baby!” I screamed and thrashed around, but nobody listened to me. I felt a cold jab as a shiny needle penetrated my skin. The drug took effect almost instantly and I fell, headfirst and screaming, into a black fog.
When I awoke, I was stretched out on a bed in a recovery room. I heard a knock on the door just before a nurse hurried in.
“All done!” She smiled at me through perfectly straight, white teeth.
The news sunk in immediately, but try as I might, I couldn’t seem to get my head around it. My eyes filled with tears. The only remaining thing I loved had been taken away. My baby was gone.
“You don’t have to worry about that problem anymore. It’s gone forever!” the nurse added cheerfully.
In the face of such pain, we can feel lost. But we don’t have to.
We can listen.
We can speak.
And we can act.
Currently, there are 27 million people being trafficked worldwide. It’s a massive problem, funded by us, by our habits. The pornography industry thrives on human trafficking and we consume it; we continue to prosecute the prostitutes and not the people exploiting them; we turn our eyes away and decide it’s someone else’s problem.
One way I have chosen to help is by giving some of those most vulnerable to trafficking hope and education and connection. One reason I host through New Horizons for Children is so that I can reach out to orphans most easily targeted by traffickers. I want them to know that they are not alone, and that there are people listening. People who care. I want them to know the lies that traffickers tell and how to avoid them.
If you are interested in helping this way, please contact me, or go here to view the list of available children for hosting. I am personally advocating for one specific teen girl at high risk of this sort of abuse, and would love to find her a family to pour hope and love into her life.
But there are other ways to help, too. Organizations like End It need your support. There are homes for girls both here and abroad sponsored by organizations like Stella’s Voice, Love 146 with practical needs. There are organizations working to stop human trafficking all around the world, and are looking for help.
No matter what we do, we cannot remain silent.
Special thanks to Sarah Calvetti for permission to reprint her story here. She won a regional silver key in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards in 2011 for her work. Sarah currently resides in Pittsburgh, PA. You can follow her on Instagram at imsarahbee.