In Quito, Ecuador, ER partner Dunamis seeks to restore the rights of young women and adolescents victimized by human trafficking. Here volunteer Rebekah Byrnes shares the story of how Dunamis touched the life of one of those young ladies – and how her own life was touched as well.
The first day is always a little awkward. You don’t know quite what to say, or what to do. And the girls aren’t sure about you yet – not sure if you speak Spanish, not sure if they can trust you. So you just watch.
But Paola made my first day at Dunamis just a bit more comfortable. During a jewelry workshop, she invited me to sit and work with her. Right from the start, knowing Paola has been a blessing to me.
Paola, 15 at the time, had dark, shoulder-length hair and a thick accent common to Ecuador’s coastal region. She had a baby, Naty, who was not quite a year old. I noticed she spent a lot of time in the baby room with Naty. She clearly loved her child, but it was also evident that often she would wake the baby up simply because she didn’t want to be a part of an activity the rest of the girls were doing.
As I observed these frequent “escapes,” I learned more of Paola’s story from the staff members, and her behavior began to make sense. When she was young, her mother had sold her to an old man who lived nearby, and he abused her sexually. Later, she sold Paola to some of the man’s friends as well, and then to a brothel, where the police eventually rescued her.
Paola’s baby was a result of the abuse she suffered. Another consequence was that she became schizophrenic, a disorder characterized by an inability to recognize what is real, reduced social engagement and emotional expression, and auditory hallucinations.
We also discovered another reason she didn’t want to participate in group activities: She didn’t know how to read. She would always disappear during book club times. Our book club teacher, Lena Dietz, bought some children’s books for her one day. When it was suggested that Paola and I read together in private, she jumped up enthusiastically, giggling and happy. She was really excited to have me read to her.
The first few weeks, I read aloud to her. Then I started working with her on the alphabet. We went through the alphabet and talked about what sounds each letter made, then wrote down some words and how to spell them. She was good at spelling her name, so she would proudly write that in every session. We played some literacy games; between games, I would read to her, making her sound out a few words on each page. By the end of our time together, she had read an entire page of that children’s book on her own.
Unfortunately, due to the way the shelter system in Ecuador works, Dunamis is not always able to keep the girls for extended periods, and the time came for Paola to move on. It was decided that she would go back to live with her mother again, this time under the watchful eye of her aunt.
When the day came for her to leave, I told Paola that God is always with her and she began to cry. I had never seen her cry until then; in fact, showing any sort of emotion was rare, though she smiled or laughed often enough. She shed only a few tears, but I could see real emotion and I believe that she loved Dunamis more than she could express.
Sexual abuse dehumanizes a woman and destroys her sense of worth. In Paola’s case, it even destroyed her sense of reality. But we know that broken people can be healed and made new. I believe Dunamis was exactly where Paola needed to be during that time in her life, and that she was able to see that she truly is loved. We made a difference for her, and she made a difference in my life, too.