I was sixteen years old when I decided to dedicate my life to fighting sex trafficking. This crystal-clear goal propelled me to university, then to earn my Master’s degree, then to law school. I’m sure I confused my professors by making every paper I could about sex trafficking, but I was thirsty for knowledge and determined to understand this tragedy inside and out.

This thirst was enhanced by the very fact that my research revealed how well-meaning people and organizations keep approaching the situation all wrong. Their lack of understanding means their best efforts end up hurting rather than helping. I silently resolved to do everything I could not to make the same mistakes.

At one point, I found an anti-trafficking organization that offered programs for teenage girls survivors of sex trafficking. None of my research prepared me for what it was like to walk into that building to meet the girls for the first time.

A start of the day with Survivors of sex trafficking

My heart pounded and my mind raced with doubts. In the past, I have struggled to manage my own emotions when I encounter the pain of others. What if I again struggled to prioritize their feelings and their perspectives over my own?

Today, my job was to supervise the girls while they did schoolwork. I found them in a tiny classroom, each sitting at a personalized desk. Introductions were exchanged. I managed (I think) to not sound like a robot.

The girls gave me only cursory glances and nods before turning back to their work. I couldn’t tell if that meant I’d passed the first test, or failed, or if they simply wanted to keep working. I plopped down on a beanbag, just off-center from the middle of the classroom, and tried to keep an eye on all of them at once.

Shortly before the scheduled break, the girls decided to stop on their own. They leaned back in their chairs, teasing each other and trading inside jokes. I smiled whenever something struck me as funny, and focused on observing. (Although technically my role was to refocus them, there were only a few minutes left before the break, and my overarching instruction was to avoid rigid nitpicks about rules.) Eventually, I threw out a few comments of my own. I kept my comments sarcastic (a standard method of communication among teenagers) but made sure anything that could be remotely construed as negative was aimed at myself.

They didn’t seem to expect my self-deprecation. I received surprised smiles in response — from all but one, whom I’ll call Jade (not her real name). Jade had long since slid off her chair to sit on the floor. She didn’t smile at me; she only raised her eyebrows.

An unxepcted encounter

The conversation became more fluid and natural until the girls got up and wandered elsewhere in the building for their break.

Except for Jade.

Remaining at her spot on the floor, she turned to me. “Want to see what I’ve been drawing?”

Although I sensed something under the surface, I didn’t hesitate. “Of course!”

I couldn’t read her expression as she stretched up and pulled a piece of paper out of a folder on her desk. She placed the paper on the floor in front of her.

Not wanting to waste this moment, I joined her on the carpet and leaned closer to see the picture.

My heart shriveled and dropped into my stomach.

The drawing was stunning and vivid. Abstract symbols swirled in a galaxy of horrors, all coalescing to strangle the life out of a young girl.

To this day, when I close my eyes, I can still see that picture. In that image, Jade had captured some of the unspeakable experiences of her short life. This was how she saw her past, if not always how she saw her present.

I wanted to cry. I wanted to curse every person who’d betrayed her so spectacularly.

But I knew she was watching my face, and I knew that everything I was feeling would be unwelcome from a stranger. I also recalled a piece of insight from my research: survivors of trafficking expect to be misunderstood, judged, and ultimately rejected by those of us on the outside. So they will sometimes deliberately push you into giving them the reaction they expect.

Mindful of this, I forced myself to look closer at the picture. “Wow,” I breathed. “This is absolutely beautiful.” Not a lie: she was an incredible artist, and the picture she’d created was as beautiful as it was haunting.

She didn’t say anything.

Tilting my head in interest, I pointed to a specific part of the picture. “Can you describe that? What’s going on here?”

She explained flatly how the image depicted the moment when she lost hope that her future would ever get better, lost hope in life itself.

“You, uh…really captured that well,” I stammered. Still not a lie; authenticity saturated her art.

She gave me a weird look. “Thanks.”

I asked about other parts of the drawing. She answered each question. After about ten minutes, we were sitting close together while she explained every detail of her drawing. Her voice wasn’t so flat anymore; there was a hint of softness there, of grief for what had happened. But when I complimented the beauty of her renderings, she offered a small smile.

This moment felt outside of time. A sacred bubble of trust as two people from two different worlds found a single thread of connection.

Then another volunteer walked in. An older, grandmotherly woman (whom I’ll call Mary). She saw the picture on the floor and immediately gasped. “Did you draw this? Oh, you poor thing! I’m so sorry!”

At that instant, Jade’s expression shuttered. She snatched up the picture and left the room without a word.

Do you get it?

I felt a flash of anger, but I knew better than to try to follow Jade. Instead, I deliberately, albeit awkwardly, struck up a conversation with Mary — who seemed to have no awareness of the impact of her words. My main goal at this point was to keep her engaged in conversation to give Jade time to escape.

Then, for the next hour or so, I noted how all the girls studiously avoided Mary. Finally, I found them clustered together in a smaller room. I asked if I could join, and was granted entrance.

One of them looked me straight in the eyes. “We’re glad you’re here.”

“Oh.” I was surprised. “I’m glad, too. But, um…why?”

“You’re not Mary,” one of the other girls said simply. “We hate her.”

I didn’t want to throw my fellow volunteer under the bus, nor did I want to destabilize this new camaraderie between the girls and me. “…Yeah,” I managed. “She seems…difficult.”

“She thinks she’s better than us,” Jade said simply. “But she doesn’t get it.”

I nodded. I still believed Mary meant well, but Jade was right: she didn’t get it.

Of course, neither did I. All the study in the world can’t bring you to a place of actually understanding what these girls have gone through.

But at least I knew I didn’t get it. So I didn’t try to act as I did. Instead, I asked questions and listened, and invited them to share whatever parts of their stories they felt comfortable sharing. And I accepted their story for what it was to them. If they didn’t act like it was something tragic and shocking, neither did I.

Later, Jade found me in the kitchen. “I shot at someone when I was twelve years old,” she informed me, utterly unprompted. Her eyes narrowed as she watched for my reaction.

I stared at her with no idea how to respond. All I knew was that she was, once again, pushing me to judge and reject her. I needed to say something, but I couldn’t think of a response that couldn’t possibly be interpreted as accusative, and time was running out because standing there in silence might send the same message. I finally, desperately, ran with an idea that I knew might easily backfire.

“Do you still like shooting?” I asked.

She stared back for a second

Do you still like shooting?” I asked.

She stared back for a second like I was crazy. Then she laughed loudly. “Yeah, actually. I like shooting.”

I let out a silent breath of relief. “Cool. I used to go shooting with my dad.”

“Cool,” she echoed and wandered past me into the kitchen for a snack.

After that, I steered the conversation into less fraught waters (I think I complimented her shirt or her hair and asked about her schoolwork). She responded casually, and every once in a while treated me to another rare smile. She seemed, at that moment, like any other teenage girl.

At the end of the day, she said she was glad to have met me.

Tears of Joy?

As I drove home, I felt a swirl of emotions like I have never experienced before rising up inside me. And finally, now that the girls were not around to see, I allowed myself to actually act on those emotions. Pulled up outside my apartment, I sat in my car and cried.

Some were tears of grief and sorrow over what these girls had endured. Some were tears of anger at their abusers. Others were tears of admiration: these girls are so much stronger than I could ever hope to be. Other tears I cried because I simply felt so small, too small to ever make a difference in the face of something like this.

But there were also tears of thankfulness. I thanked God that, to put it frankly, I hadn’t screwed this up. I thanked God for the chance to see a hint of the beauty of Jade’s spirit.

Moving forward, I resolved to always manage my own emotions. These girls do not need to feel the weight of my shock and sadness — in fact, all that will do is alienate them. After all, their experiences are all they’ve known. To them, it’s normal. Even as they come to recognize that it was harmful, that doesn’t mean they see it as shocking.

How would you feel if a stranger took one glimpse of your life and recoiled in horror? Would you trust that person? Or would you slam the door in their face?

Instead, I had found a way to knock politely, and Jade had responded by opening the door ever so slightly.

I will never forget her smile.

opening the door ever so slightly.

I will never forget her smile.

Note.

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