Independence

 

betterpalace
Parliament Palace, Bucharest, Romania Second Largest Public Building in the World – Second only to the Pentagon

The long, low rumble of an approaching storm awakened me at 3am. Flashes of light sliced the white wooden slats of the shutters that cover my bedroom windows. A thunderclap shook the room. Going back to sleep was not an option.

I began to think. First, about what day it is, July 4, 2016, Independence Day here in the United States, then about what independence means to me.

I believe independence is knowing your own mind. It is choosing for yourself and not permitting your mind to play tricks on you about the choices that you make. Independence is not isolation. Independence is acknowledging the validity of your own judgement while accepting the limitations of that judgement. It is, in fact, the freedom to choose interdependence over isolation.

grouphug
Group Hug for my Birthday in Brasov, Romania

I recently returned from Romania where even after almost three decades since the fall of Communism, the older generation is still acutely distrustful. Partnerships are approached with cautious optimism, and for good reason; public trust is still routinely dealt a death blow at local and federal levels. This is something that is equally familiar to Americans.

IMG_1571.JPG
Bureaucracy from the Balcony

The future, which requires engaged dialogue about poverty, violence, and corruption, seems tied inextricably to the past. By engaged dialogue I mean more than merely shouting opinions at one another. The ebb and flow of independence and interdependence over time calls for leaders to respect the balance of power, to take responsibility for their own poor judgement, and above all else, to never underestimate people who desire to assert their independence.

As the storm rages on and the power continues to flicker, the dawn’s early light reveals what I know in my heart to be true; the land of the free and the home of the brave can be wherever we choose it to be. That is the beauty of independence.

parliment

revolutionsq

 

 

 

We’ll Always Have Bucharest

lavender2

My traveling companions, all sixteen of them, and I have taken thousands of steps this past week. We traversed the city so that we could better understand its history and perhaps glimpse its future. Along the way, we have witnessed poverty and experienced sadness, anger, and disbelief. We have also encountered loving kindness, joy, and hope as we stood in the midst of everyday heroes. Not heroes to the world, but to their neighbors and to one another. The kind of heroes we all need from time to time, ones who will help us when we lose our way and rejoice when we find it.pic

Stories of life and death engulfed us and made us fully appreciate the commitment our hosts have made to their mission of preventing children from being trafficked. This happens in several different ways, one is called “loverboy grooming.” This is a long game in which traffickers build trust and create a psychological dependence through promises of a better life. Traffickers can then manipulate their victims effortlessly into domestic servitude with sexual exploitation as the traffickers’ end game.

loverboy

slides (2)
Once trapped, there is little support from society to help women who have been trafficked.

We came here to learn about Romania’s response to human trafficking. It is quite possible we knew more about how to appropriately respond than we realized, because in addition to participating in games and crafts with the children, we developed and delivered lessons on the importance of respect for ourselves and others. Recognizing the dignity of others helps us to show compassion. As a result, respect becomes an exchange.

betterpalace
Parliament Palace

Days of community outreach are emotionally intense. For that reason some sightseeing was built into our schedule. This gave us an opportunity to process what we learned about human trafficking and our interactions with the children and young women we have met.

 

dinner

Tomorrow we travel by bus to a new city. Three hours to prepare our hearts and minds for what’s next. Tonight, there’s dinner on the patio. And gelato!

gelato

IMG_1752.JPGIMG_1683.JPG

From Romania With Love

We touched down in Bucharest on a sunny afternoon. The group was travel weary, but the bus ride to the apartment building where we are staying gave us an opportunity to bond over being tightly packed into our seats, literally chin dip in luggage. Our young Romanian hosts are composed; their confident demeanor is reassuring.  We trust we are in good hands each day as we traverse narrow streets with the occasional car whizzing past. Someone from behind shouts “Car!” Those of us who are trying to make our way around the cars parked halfway on the sidewalk dart out of harm’s way.

We’ve seen the beautiful faces of locals who have greeted us with generous hospitality. A street festival where artisans plied their trade was our first taste of what Bucharest has to offer. Weavers and blacksmiths, glass blowers and print makers along with many others engaged us in friendly conversation and forgave our inability to speak their language. How great is it that Europeans teach their children multiple languages, including English!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We’ve also seen remnants of Communism above and below ground. Subway, tram, bus, and foot, these are our vehicles on land, but imagination is the vehicle that takes us where we really want to go, to a world where people are not bought and sold into slavery.

Today was our first debrief after visiting with children and young women who have been rescued from human trafficking. We played games and made crafts. We shared lunch and laughter. Today the children could just be children. We took with us sidewalk chalk, bubble wands, frisbees, soccer balls, and craft supplies, but what we took away from the experience was beyond measure. Our hearts were overflowing as we reflected on the day.

What we witnessed today was compassion, true, genuine compassion. Our hosts could choose to go about their lives with the knowledge that bad things are happening in the world, too overwhelmed by the enormity of transnational human trafficking to bother with trying to make even a dent in the problem. Instead they have dedicated their lives to helping victims become survivors.

The stories of how these children and young women have been sexually exploited are heart-wrenching. No person should ever be forced to endure what they have endured. They are gentle and courageous. They are worthy of protection from ever being violated again. This is the continuous challenge. Many are at risk, and there are few resources, none from the government, to assist with transitioning survivors into a permanent safe environment where they can heal and live fully independent lives.

Our group is diverse. Each of us, brave in our own way, is privileged to be here together (whether we realize it or not). Each of us brings something unique to the table. Our takeaways will be unique as well, but we are shaping each other’s perspective (whether we realize it or not). For me, this study abroad began with many difficult questions. Three weeks out of a lifetime surely won’t be enough to find all the answers. But it’s a start.IMG_1287

 

And Here We Go

Study abroad is a fantastic way to spend a summer. I highly recommend it. Although, my class just began today and I haven’t actually started the “abroad” part yet. So, I am speaking hypothetically, of course. I hope I can make the same claim a month from now.

Yes, I graduated. Yes, we had a big party. Yes, I received gifts and praise from my friends and family. Yes, I could be conducting a job search. But two semesters ago I made up my mind that I really, really wanted to participate in the anti-human trafficking study abroad program before making any career decisions. Here is the reason why:

Human trafficking is a form of modern slavery — a multi-billion dollar criminal industry that denies freedom to 20.9 million people around the world. And no matter where you live, chances are it’s happening nearby. From the girl forced into prostitution at a truck stop, to the man discovered in a restaurant kitchen, stripped of his passport and held against his will. All trafficking victims share one essential experience: the loss of freedom. – PolarisProject.org

During that semester, I read Kevin Bales’ book, “Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy” and Louise Shelley’s book, “Human Trafficking, A Global Perspective,” and frankly I was completely overwhelmed and depressed. That is until I realized that I did not have to figure out how to do all of the jobs for international counter-trafficking response. I only had to choose an area that made the most sense for my skills and tolerance level for dealing with the scum who buy and sell humans for sex and forced labor. Yes, the people who pay to have sex with children are scum. They don’t care if I call them scum. They know they are scum, and they don’t care. Yes, the people who, through fraud and coercion, enslave human beings are scum. They don’t care if I call them scum. They know they are scum, and they don’t care. As you may be able to tell, my tolerance level for scum prevents me from pursuing some jobs.

The U.S. Department of State publishes a Trafficking In Persons Report for those interested in reading more about the subject. To say that studying human trafficking is a challenge is an understatement. Students participating in this program will no doubt look poverty and violence square in the face. At times it may seem overwhelming, but each student in this class knows the value of meeting a challenge. We know there is value in helping others. We know what we bring to the table is valued by our professor as well as the organizations with which we will be working. It is a privilege for me to participate in this program. I only hope that I can live up to my own expectations. I will keep you posted.

 

 

 

Thinking Outside The Binary

 

2016Decisions

Experience a moment. Now experience another one. Could you tell the difference between the two? My guess is that unless we are in motion, say, plummeting, careening, or catapulting from one stage of life to another, moments are indistinguishable. Even when we are in motion, moment to moment, the differences can be imperceptible, and we find ourselves needing to qualify moments to help us make sense of them. For instance, moments agonize, empower, frustrate, overwhelm, and energize, often simultaneously.

Said another way, we categorize moments as one thing or another in order to form a response to what is happening in the world around us. Sometimes the response is appropriate, e.g. raining outside, take an umbrella. Sometimes the response is inappropriate, e.g. miserable inside, take it out on everyone with whom you come into contact. Moments which we decide must never be forgotten have the power to change the future. At some point, it doesn’t matter what we could have done, only what we do next.

People, those we know and those we don’t, also get categorized. People are vulgar or silent, friendly or hostile, jerks or doormats. They make us angry or happy. They cause harm or give comfort. We are victor or victim, slayer or survivor, discoverer or destroyer, often sequentially, but we are also creators and stewards.

Places, too, are categorized as peaceful or volatile, wealthy or impoverished, harsh or welcoming. Cardinal directions lay it out for us – North or South, East or West – so that we don’t always realize when we’ve crossed the imaginary boundaries created to distinguish where we are from where we are going.

Moments, people, and places can be perceived as good or bad, but the good and the bad also have the power to inspire, cultivate, challenge, and enrich us beyond measure. We only have to decide that life is not an either or proposition. Cliché? Perhaps. But what if it is something more?