But for the grace of God and “someone…”

From the clandestine violence of child-trafficking, hers is a voice of anguish, hope

By James E. Copple

In the small town of Lafilya, Abebech and her family struggled to survive the worst drought in memory. Theirs is an impoverished community of nearly a thousand people in southern Ethiopia, where social advancement is impossible, and a child with any imagination quickly becomes discouraged at the dim prospect of ever escaping.

For reasons known only to Abebech, South Africa represented an escape. So, when the 13-year-old met a woman who, for a price, would arrange transport to her dream destination, it meant hope.

Several months later, Abebech crossed into Kenya at the border community of Moyale. She was one of four girls given forged and counterfeit documents, then placed on a bus in Ethiopia. On the journey, police are bribed and border officials turn their heads at the clandestine human-trafficking enterprise that feeds the local economy. Once in Moyale, Abebech found herself in a holding-room with about 40 other young girls and was terrified to realize her destiny was no longer her own.

The woman who gave her hope for South Africa was now selling her to a Lorry driver. The Lorry is a multi-layered truck with two levels for transporting goats. Abebech is placed in a bag and tucked into a tight space below the first level of goats. She will spend three days in this position, unable to move or even turn over. At night, she is released from the bag and raped repeatedly by the Lorry driver and two of his friends. He gives Abebech the ever-present Khat, a popular sense-numbing drug consumed in East Africa. For the next three days, she is stoned and has no grasp on reality or the horror of her predicament.

After a brief stop in Isiolo, Abebech continues her journey to Nairobi, where she is unloaded from her Lorry prison at the local Somali community of Eastleigh. She is packed into a tight room, where she sleeps with other Ethiopian and Eritrean girls. They were all trafficked to the city with the hope of finding employment and food. They paid a price for their transportation, and when money wasn’t enough, trading in sex was the next best currency.

For two months, Abebech would search for work, refusing to leave for fear of being identified by police and returned to Ethiopia. She tried twice to escape captors but was quickly recaptured, beaten and tortured. She spoke no English, Swahili or any language familiar to Nairobi. She knew only her local dialect. Abebech was without papers; had no place to go; and she couldn’t find a way out. Finally, in an act of desperation, she ran from the house and never stopped.

The Rev. Kebede Gutowa an independent pastor and missionary working in Eastleigh among the Ethiopian and Somali community, was having tea in a local establishment when a neighbor interrupted and beckoned the pastor to his shop. Her face was familiar, but the Rev. Gutowa couldn’t place the young girl before him, covered in dirt, hair unwashed, clothing ripped.

The neighbor said the girl spoke no English but nodded when asked if she was Ethiopian. The Rev. Gutowa began speaking his dialect from the village of Lafilya in Southern Ethiopia, and Abebech immediately responded. Within minutes, they recognized each other  –  their families had been close in the small village. The Rev. Gutowa had been aware of Abebech’s disappearance, and her family believed she had wandered from the village and was maybe killed and eaten by a wild animal.

The pastor took Abebech to his home, where his family quickly cleaned her up; fed her; and listened closely to her brutal and ugly tale of capture and torture.

Periodically, Abebech would break into tears, both in relief that she was safe and in shame believing she could never return home. Abebech lived with the pastor and his family for about eight months. During that time, she would look for employment. There was discussion about reuniting with her family in Lafilya, but Abebech couldn’t bear the thought of returning to the village. She was filled with pain and shame.

Finally, Abebech would register with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and was given the option of returning home or seeking refuge in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. She chose the camp and has been there for two years. With access to a variety of services, Abebech is healing. She is enrolled in school and finding direction in life. Within the next several years, Abebech has a serious chance to be resettled. She is a survivor, and by whatever way you want to describe it, she is a miracle. Nearly 50 percent of the girls trafficked as she was simply don’t survive.

In each of the survival cases, there is a story. There is someone who noticed, and someone who cared. These “someones” are the difference between life and death. Abebech’s story is one repeated in nations around the world. Ultimately, the story plays out in a local community or neighborhood. Maybe yours; maybe mine.

It isn’t just Africa or Ethiopia. It’s everywhere we live, work and walk. Abebech’s miracle wasn’t borne from grand gifts, governments or wholesale change, but one of small gestures that matter. When we invest our hearts, our compassion and our humanity in the people, places and lives around us, we all have the chance to be that someone. We all have a chance to be someone’s miracle.

For security reasons the names of the principals have been changed and the name of the Ethiopian community has been altered to protect families from gangs and other traffickers.

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