A Cry of the Heart: Human Trafficking, One Survivors True Story
The fresh scent of pine-filled air caught my breath as I stepped out of the car. I looked forward to a weekend where I could forget about my worries—especially my past. The eight women who were with me knew my secrets, but others would see me as just another Christian woman.
At least I hoped they would.
My blue jeans and a pink, zip-up sweatshirt covered my tattoos. My thick, brown hair, pulled back in a ponytail, made me feel as if I fit in.
Excitement bubbled in my chest as I engaged with the women I met at Pinecrest. They seemed as happy to meet me as I was to meet them. I flashed a bright smile and looked them in the eyes as I introduced myself. Some were young mothers like me. Others were older, perhaps grandmothers. I loved making these new friends, but purposely kept my conversations in the now, so they wouldn’t figure out my past. As I watched them laugh and hug each other, I wondered what they would think if they knew.
Tables were laid out on either side of the walkway that led to the various meeting rooms. Each table previewed the workshops offered the following day. At the last display, I stopped. A poster of a young woman caught my attention. The girl leaned into the window of a late-model sports car, talking to a man. She wore a tight, black miniskirt that fell inches from her waist, a black stretch tube top that only partially covered her breasts, and a short, black leather jacket decorated with silver zippers. Six-inch, strappy, black stilettos held her feet, and a short, blond, pageboy wig covered her head. The large wording at the top of the poster read HUMAN TRAFFICKING.
Human trafficking? But that looks familiar.
I didn’t understand. My eyes fixated on the picture as my fingers dragged across the girl’s jacket. An uneasiness stirred inside. Her jacket looked like one I’d once owned.
I picked up one of the flyers that sat on the table next to the poster and turned to Sarah, my pastor’s wife, who’d been browsing the tables with me. “I’m going to this workshop.”
Later that evening, during chapel, I found my mind wandering. The room was alive with singing, praising, and the keynote speaker’s message, but I couldn’t focus. My mind kept rolling back to the image of the girl on the poster. Why did she look so familiar? Did I know her? My mind raced with questions and thoughts about the words “human trafficking.”
That night, sleep eluded me. The next morning, as soon as breakfast was over, I quickly made my way to the conference room listed on the flyer. I found a seat in the back, my small attempt to remain incognito. Just as the speaker started, Sarah slid in beside me. We turned our attention to the podium up front.
“My name is Shari Neal Sanderson,” the speaker began. “Thank you for coming. We will spend the morning learning about a little-discussed evil—human trafficking. There are more than twenty-one million people who have been forced into human or sex trafficking at any one time. It’s a growing problem, even in the United States. It is going on right where you live. You may have even seen it and not known.”
The speaker turned and clicked her mouse to start a video on the projection screen behind her. I watched intently, almost in slow motion, for several minutes. The girl in the film caught my attention.
Wait! That’s me! That girl is me! At least the girl I had once been.
My heart beat fast and then faster, pounding in my ears. My head reeled and left me dizzy and nauseous. Something wasn’t right. I wanted to run away, but I couldn’t move.
Slowly my spirit began to lift from my body. Looking down at myself, visions from my past life flashed before me. One right after another. Bits and pieces, like the flash of a camera’s light. Scenes of conversations with women I once knew played out. The stench of garbage on the streets I once walked swirled in my senses. My nostrils filled with the body odor and foul breath of men who’d paid for the unspeakable services I was forced to provide. The pimps who’d once controlled me, the drugs that had once quieted me—pop, pop, pop—hundreds of details, all of it at once. Pop, pop, pop—the images surged stronger and stronger. My breathing became more labored. I gasped for air.
Girl, you know this is pimping. Why are you playing with me?
The words shrieked into my ears. Heavy, musk cologne overpowered my senses.
Don’t mess with me. I spent all this time and money to bring you here, and you do this?
His full hand tightened around my throat, and fear ran through my frozen body. The horror came back full force. The demonic face and voice of the man who had kidnapped me ran before my eyes. The humiliating sounds of verbal attacks, and the degradation of being raped over and over and over flooded my mind. Vicious slaps burned my face once again.
It was as if it were happening at that moment, there in the back of the conference room. The pain of feeling worthless, hopeless. The fear, anguish, and shame rushed through me.
I struggled to maintain a consciousness of my surroundings. There were a million questions I wanted—no, needed—to ask. Questions I’d never thought to ask.
A moment of clarity gave me the answer to the most important one.
I was trafficked.
It wasn’t your fault. I brought you here for a reason.
The soft voice spoke clearly, but I knew I was the only one who heard it. Shivers shot down my back.
And then, I jolted back to reality. My breath caught, and I became aware of streams of tears that covered my face.
Sarah turned to me. My head fell onto her shoulder as I whispered my confession.
“I was that girl. I was trafficked.”
“Oh, honey. Let’s go outside.” Sarah lifted me by my arms from the chair. Holding on to each other, we walked out of the chapel into the much-needed fresh air.
“I want to talk to Shari.”
“Are you sure?” Sarah wiped a strand of hair from my tear-drenched cheek. “This might be too much for you.”
“Yes. I need to tell her.” My voice quivered. “Let’s go back.”
The film and talk ended within minutes after we sat back down. Sarah gave me a head nod. I eased to the front of the room, took a deep gulp of air, and extended my hand to the speaker.
“My name is Debra Woods. I think I was trafficked.”
I sobbed uncontrollably. Shari took my hands and looked into my eyes. I saw compassion in her face. Sarah slipped up behind me and squeezed my shoulder. The dam of shame burst, and I easily told my story to this total stranger. The story I didn’t want anyone to know but couldn’t stop from telling. I felt safe with Shari and Sarah. And I was.