Writer: Ashlee Johnson, Rapha International
I sat on a metal bench in the cafeteria across from her. The cold cement on my bare feet was a welcomed relief from the Southeast Asia humidity engulfing us both. Lawan was 16 years old, but the weight on her small shoulders as she hung her head indicated a weariness far beyond her years.
Her eyes locked briefly with mine as she whispered, “Can we talk outside?”
“Of course we can!”
We walked over to her favorite spot - under one of the many large trees that guarded Rapha’s Aftercare Campus.
We sat shoulder-to-shoulder as the minutes ticked by in silence. I knew Lawan’s pain was so great that mere words would not constitute healing. Her heart housed a brokenness so deep that all I could do was pray for her.
Help her to know that she is loved.
Help her to know that she is not alone.
Lawan’s story was so complex, so traumatizing for her to tell, that she could only share it in small pieces. Each week I was slowly putting together the big picture of the incredible suffering this young survivor had endured before she came to Rapha.
“Where I used to live, my family and neighbors called me trash. They believed that because I was abused, I was worthless to the community. My value was conditional and because people had taken advantage of me physically already, I no longer was of use to my family. I am nothing.”
The word, “trash”, Lawan used to describe herself is the lowest word for garbage in her language. It’s what you throw away after you’ve sorted through the trash and what’s left is worthless to family, neighbors and even to feed the animals. In her culture it’s the kind of trash you don’t even bother to bag up; it belongs in the community dump.
Lawan believed that after sexual exploitation her life was not worthy enough to even be thrown out with garbage. She was useless to any person in the community and “empty of value” since her virginity had been taken.
“I understand what you do with trash…” were her next words. She held no one responsible for the shaming ramifications after her rape because she agreed with their judgment of her worthlessness.
Lawan was at a crossroads. What she believed about her value would dictate the choices she made for her future. Rape trespassed over her identity and clouded her vision so she couldn’t see her permanent worth. If this lie is so deeply ingrained that she can state it unflinchingly, then we know it may take 5, 10, or 15 years of daily speaking truth to Lawan until she believes in her own value.
My heart burned with regret that Lawan had to experience these traumas at all. Lawan is only 16. She should be learning how to drive, spending time with her friends, studying in school. Instead, she is participating in counseling sessions and living at an aftercare campus where she works through horrific trauma every day.
Rapha staff will do whatever Lawan needs and will walk with her every step throughout the journey of healing. But our commitment to her healing and thriving does not undermine the craving for justice we have for her lost childhood. It is not right what happened to Lawan. This is not how it should be. Exploitation is not what God wants.
5 weeks later I traveled five hours from our aftercare campus to the second branch of Rapha International’s ministry - Kids Club.
I was immediately greeted by fifteen smiling children who ran toward me giggling so hard they couldn’t speak. Their smiles were contagious. Their eyes were full of hope. They chased each other around the playground with a carefreeness that refreshed my soul instantaneously.
That week I learned how Kids Club social workers identify children in the community who had risk factors that increased their vulnerability for exploitation and trafficking. These children are matched with a sponsor for only $40 a month which enables them to attend school, receive regular food support for their entire family, medical care, and even a social worker who is specifically assigned to check on their safety. There was even a weekly program that gives the entire community the opportunity to hear about God and sing worship songs together.
Rapha’s aftercare campus is essential in providing freedom, hope, and healing to survivors after their exploitation. Kids Club intervenes by protecting children before trauma even happens in the first place.
I would do anything to give Lawan a childhood without exploitation. Trauma prevention for children is priceless. Becoming a sponsor today will save a childhood before it is forever altered.