unsuspecting brushes with a darker underworld

Being born and growing up in a third world country has many blessings. More than I can even put words to. There is a gentleness… perhaps something in the air of a country that slows down when compared to places like the USA, a place that takes time to taste their lunches which can last for two hours and can still feel rushed, that will call grown women by a diminutive and it is appreciated and enjoyed, where hugs and kisses on the cheeks are typical and expected greetings.

But there is a dark underbelly in this part of the world. There is the drug trade and then human trafficking to name but just two. My mother had my brother and I share a room until I was 11 because she figured we were at a high enough risk of being kidnapped that if one of us were taken that the other would be there to scream and yell and that it was as good a chance as any at preventing this from happening. Some of our friends had body guards and armed drivers… the country, while gentle and beloved, has a very dark side.

When I was little there was a man I recall as Emil, came from the US somewhere, the north east I assume for some reason. A tiny diminutive man, especially by North American standards. I overheard adults talking about how he was found in a hotel room with his limbs cut off and a part of his anatomy was found in his mouth. I am guessing that he upset someone quite a bit, though that is all I can remember about him. He had a mean streak and the one time I recall meeting him I remember him saying cruel things to my brother and I. I am not even sure how he stopped in our lives and why I would have met him… other than to guess that Americans expatriates would somewhat seek each other out and both my parents were that so he must have sought them out. Little did he know that between them we lived more as a part of the culture than that what would be seen on average.

When I was older and had returned to the city that raised me to attend medical school, I took a side “under the table” kind of job at an internet cafe. It was a good arrangement. I worked there in exchange for time on the VOIP computers to call home and friends and was able to start a small business selling chocolate chip cookies that the homesick American customers would buy. It paid for my entertainment and bus rides. It remains one of my most favorite jobs.

However, it too had brushes with the dark side of human nature. The one thing that one notices is that countries have a season for travel. There will be times when you find you are dealing with more French (oh, those French), or Israelis, Brits, and Germans (which is to say anyone from any country that speaks German, and wears a particular kind of pants). There was a time in my days at the cafe that there was an unusual number of men from what I thought could be Turkey or the middle east… they looked almost Spanish, but not quite and most definitely did not speak the language. They would wait to use the VOIP for phone calls, and we would assist them. Often, they would sit drinking coffee and at a specific time would stand up and demand immediate usage of the internet phones. So, I would set up the account for them and allow them to make their calls. In retrospect, I can say that it seemed like they disappeared overnight… though that was how it usually went.

Months after this, I arrived at work for an early Saturday shift and my boss calls me over to show me a Florida newspaper (I do not recall which one) article about a recent international sting operation regarding human trafficking.  Apparently a multi-agency crack down had occurred that had brought down a group of people that were kidnapping girls and women in North American and was funneling them through Central and South America only to end up in the Middle East (Saudi Arabia was specifically named as I recall). The general time frame in the article matched the time frame we had experienced with those customers and so we assume that they were a part of that operation. We had met those faces of the men tasked with kidnapping and transporting these women far, far away from their homes.

This still makes me sick to recall.

I recall holding that newspaper in my hands. Thankful. Thankful that I am a tall awkward American who would not be picked up for something like this. Thankful for the Interpol office we knew was down the street though how we did since there was no sign was interesting. And then, I was so sad, very deeply sad that these girls and women had been taken so far away and put in to these awful situations. It was a very powerless feeling. How can this be right anywhere in the world? How can these lives become such a commodity to have such an intense system of capture and delivery.

I suppose it is with that experience in mind that I so fully support the efforts by The Association of Junior Leagues International to tackle things like Human Trafficking. The League I belong to will be working with other organizations to put on a community forum at the start of the new year about this issue. I am glad, it is about time that we made this more real. It has so many faces and so many aspects that this is such a huge story to tell.


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