She’s just a girl.
Not too different from you and I.
Or your daughter, or your mother, or your sister, or your niece, or your granddaughter.
Well, there are slight differences, but nothing so significant that separates her humanness from that of our own women.
For starters, she’s from China. And some places in China, and many people in China, do not have the same access to opportunity that we have in America. The same money, jobs, loans, protection, freedom. It’s just not the same, and we have to start there because we often judge this girl as if she made her decisions having had our own lives and opportunities. She didn’t. She had a different life.
It’s not that one life is better than another. It’s simply different.
She has a family, perhaps a job, often education, dreams, talents, aspirations, and, above all, dignity.
There may come a point of crisis, or need, or dream, to provide more for her family, or for herself — to earn more income, to have more opportunities and achievements. Not every economy has a “career path.” She goes only to work in a clothing factory from sunrise to sunset and walks away every month with maybe $200. Not enough to live on. And definitely not enough to live up to her aspirations — perhaps as a doctor, or accountant, or fashion designer.
When you live on the edge of survival you can’t afford the luxury of dreaming.
But she hears about a job, and it looks like a pretty good job. Doing hospitality work for an upscale restaurant or 5 star hotel. And the pay would start at $2000. $2000 a month! That’s 10 times what she makes how! Imagine if she did that for just 2 years — she could save up so much to pursue a real education and career path in the land of opportunity. Which, of course, is America.
The land of the free, the home of the brave.
So she makes the incredibly difficult and courageous decision to leave what’s familiar in hopes for a better future. She finishes the job search online, as we all do these days, deciding between job postings, applying to some, having phone interviews, video interviews, job offers, and then even learning that the future employer may offer to cover travel costs and even costs of a visa to get to America.
And what she thought was a decision to move into the free pursuit of happiness turns into a living nightmare.
She has just walked into the sophisticated network of international human trafficking.
When she arrives, her papers are taken, she is moved to certain spots and areas, often not knowing where she is. Her entry level job, which may have been high end domestic work, a restaurant manager, or hotel housekeeper, is actually now one of hundreds of Asian spas in Chicago.
And it’s no typical massage job. This one she finds she must perform sexual services as her job requirement.
What she ended up in was a front for prostitution.
But — but she’s only 19. She came here to grow and give and learn and excel.
This though — this is not what she came for. But now she’s lost and vulnerable — someone else is controlling her: her money, her security, her housing, her information, her everything. This may include physical beatings and rape as a way to “breaking her in” so that she knows who’s boss. Not enough customers coming in? Using her to create online porn is a solution. Gotta make money somehow off her. Resisting isn’t really an option, because her owner controls her money, food, and security.
Nobody would come looking for her if she went missing.
Of course she wants to escape — there’s no way America could really endorse this behavior. But there’s cameras everywhere in the spa, she can’t communicate herself or learn her rights because she is not given the chance to learn the language, she knows the police won’t help because illegal immigrants are not offered the same kind of protections and representation as citizens, and, quite frankly, no one knows and no one really cares about the immigrant prostitutes.
It’s the most overlooked square footage in our city. They’re poor, they’re foreign and they’re women.
She hopes that she can get out quickly, maybe just bide some time before getting enough money to move back to China. Her owner says she needs to work to, “pay of the debt you owe me from me bringing you here.”
But 1 day turns into a week, and 1 week into a month, and 1 month into a year.
And now it’s 14 years later. She’s 33.
“What do you want to do with your life? What’s your dreams?” I ask her this past Sunday while on outreach at her spa in my neighborhood.
She looked back at us with an empty stare.
“No dreams. There’s nothing I want anymore.”
We were all quiet as we let that admission settle into the air.
That was it. No hiding, no putting up a front to keep herself protected, protected from wanting something too much and not ever receiving it.
Her brokenness was real and we all felt the weight of it.
It all feels a little hopeless. An emotion a little too familiar, a little too acceptable.
I mean, she can’t speak English very well despite living here for 14 years, she hasn’t had a day off in a long while, and it looks like her desire is dried up.
But dried up flowers are pretty too.
They’re a little more fragile than full bloom flowers, but they’re not gone, and they’re definitely not useless.
I sit here wondering now if perhaps at some point Sonya* prayed to God, a God she doesn’t yet fully know, and asked for help. I wonder if one of her many desperate prayers was that he’d send some sort of relief and and freedom, giving her a chance to rekindle the fire of lost dreams.
I wonder if we just walked into an answered prayer.
I wonder if we just participated in a miracle, a 14 year-long dried, weary prayer.
I think 2 thoughts: first, that what an honor to be the carriers of light and hope, to be an answer by participating in others’ miracles.
And second, does not God also hear the prayers of his own children, of us, of me, and already has an action plan all set up for our help and deliverance and good? Do we not have our own miracles to walk into?
Though this story I piece-worked together isn’t solely Sonya’s, it’s a mix of a myriad of stories, articles and research told about immigrant trafficking and the Asian massage parlor facades. It’s such a complex, wholly difficult world to understand, mostly because there’s so much silence around it, from both those within and those of us without.
Though that conversation with her on Sunday may have been a difficult thing to hear, we were actually celebrating. Most conversations are superficial as it takes a long time to build trust and hear more of their story. Sonya in particular had been very distant and even at times hostile. But this time was different – she was open, kind, conversational, and allowed a deeper conversation than we’ve had with her previously.
We don’t always pray in person with the women, but this time we felt led and she welcomed us to pray with her in a circle, arms around each other. It was very simple, but so powerful. Her countenance was so different this time and she couldn’t stop thanking us and expressing gratitude. We were seriously ecstatic with praise for this breakthrough!
And her story is just one of thousands of those quiet and hidden Asian immigrants among us.
Be aware that these massage parlors exist not just in the Chicago city proper, or in any major city in America. Actually, of all the teams in Chicagoland, Napperville, a somewhat wealthy west suburb, has some of the most notorious parlors. Our teams are met by managers and bouncers at the doors who won’t even let them speak to the women. There are cameras outside the building as well as inside. Often the women work and live inside that building, never allowed to leave, and may not even know what state they’re in. To make sure they aren’t tracked, owners will move girls from parlor to parlor which are a part of a larger network of international trafficking and crime. They are very dark places.
However, that doesn’t deter New Name. We are a group of loved ones telling these women that they are loved, seen and heard. We don’t know their stories, how they got to that spa, and all the obstacles they have faced. But we know that if we are loved and forgiven, we have every right and place in the world to offer that to them.
We have teams all over the Chicagoland, from Wheaton to North Shore to all the way in the city, and we go into the spas bearing gifts and offering friendship.
We also live and breathe prayer. If there isn’t prayer, nothing happens. There is no hope, protection, or relief without God’s intervention.
Yes, not all massage parlors and Asian spas are fronts of prostitution. But we target our spas based off of online research where Johns (those who purchase sex) will review their experience with the businesses and the women. The reviews are explicit and include checklists of their masseuse’s body and how they would rate their performance. Johns use these reviews to decide the best places to go with the kind of woman they want for the right price.
But we believe there is hope and freedom in this industry, for the survivors, the Johns, and the traffickers. All are offered a place to the table of Jesus.
Here’s what we don’t do: We are not rescuers. We believe that each person has an infinite amount of dignity, worth, and value. They are intelligent, capable, smart, and have had to learn how to survive in ways that many of us will never have to. It’s incredible. We have much to learn from them.
We have no agenda but to love.
New Name also reaches out to all women in the adult industry which includes women at strip clubs and prostitutes posting services online. We do call centers and follow-up in order to help each individual take the next step in life.
Often, when a women decides that she wants out, there is an immediate need for a safe place before moving her into a longterm aftercare facility. Often these are trafficked victims. Since safety is the first priority, we have created an initiative called the Safer Place.
Our Safer Place Initiative quickly transitions a woman out of the adult industry to a safe place until we are able to get her to a long-term care or healing facility. We started the Safer Place because we were meeting with women who were interested in getting out but were discouraged by their boyfriend, pimp or even family members from going into a restorative program. We’ve found that when we take a woman a significant distance away from where she’s been working, she is able to have the separation she needs from her environment and can take some deep breaths, relax and process her decisions.
So get this: It’s my birthday today and I unashamedly admit my exceeding jubilance for birthday food (hot fudge brownie sundae, anyone?), as well as celebrating with good friends with some serious swing dancing tonight. And I may have a Stitch Fix box waiting for me downstairs — gah, happy birthday to ME!
But what would be the most incredible gift is to see our new Safer Place be completely prepared for the welcome of our first woman. One of our team leaders has renovated her and her family’s home to offer our first Safer Place.
Check out the Amazon wish list where there’s a list of items that are still needed to furnish the home. Could you participate in another woman’s answer to prayer, participating in her miracle?
It’s beyond totally worth it.
*Sonya is her pseudonym