Monday, February 14, 2011

A Valentine From The Philippines: An Interview With Crystal Sprague

Today is a day when love in its many incarnations is celebrated with gifts of flowers and chocolates and the ramblings of the Hallmark poets clumsily trying to express the way you feel about someone whom the poet has never met; alas, 'tis Valentine's Day.

C.S. Lewis defined love this way. He said: “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket- safe, dark, motionless, airless--it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”

Crystal Sprague has the above quote on her blog. It is the definition of love to which she subscribes, and the one she lives by. She was kind enough to do an interview with COH and her answers are profound with wisdom and yet accessible with practicality. Anyone thinking of entering the social work field will learn much from her work in Cebu, Philippines as the Clinical Director of My Refuge House, a safe house and aftercare facility for the victims of sex trafficking and sexual exploitation.

My Refuge House’s statement of purpose is a “dedication to alleviating the effects of abuse and trauma sustained by the victims of sex-trafficking”. After a girl is rescued she must be convinced she is safe, that she is outside the reach of the evil that enslaved her. You have said that it’s through “repetition” that MRH achieves this. Practically, what does that look like?

Beliefs, especially the ones that we live by but never take the time to analyze, are very hard to change. They affect the way we think, act and feel. Girls come to us believing many things: that they are worthless, that they are unsafe, that no one will ever love them or care about them again. Changing those beliefs requires dedicated people who can consistently see when a person is acting upon a false belief and address it with truth, over and over again. It takes time, dedication, patience, wisdom and repetition.

A practical example of this is if a girl yells at one of the staff because she feels threatened or unsafe, the staff will take the time to help the girl realize what she is feeling and why she reacted the way she did. The staff is trained to recognize this situation as a trauma induced reaction rather than a personal attack. After this process occurs enough times, the girl should be able to recognize the threatening or unsafe feeling before she reacts so that she can learn to react differently the next time.

Is this the most difficult part of the rehabilitation process?

That depends on the person; however, trauma induced reactions are instinctual and rarely premeditated, so recognizing and changing them is very hard work. That is the reason appropriate education and training is necessary for anyone who works with victims of abuse.

You stress “that relationship-building is crucial to the healing environment”. That implies a deep investment of yourself into hurting girls. How hard is it not to stay broken-hearted, or become callous, or not just take justice into your own hands?

I don’t think it’s possible to work with victims of abuse and not develop “tough skin.” I couldn’t survive if I was broken-hearted all of the time. Nor could I do my job effectively. Relationships are crucial, but they also have to be professional, and as a professional you have to know your limits. I must recognize when I need a break, and actively seek out activities to rejuvenate myself. I will not be helpful to anyone if I don’t know how to take care of myself.

At the same time, I have to know when to show compassion, and when to set appropriate expectations. Both are critical parts of relationship-building. The girls have to be able to trust that I will follow through with the reasonable expectations I set, just as much as they have to trust that I will be there to listen.

On your blog there is that C.S Lewis quote. How is it that you have avoided the “entanglements”, that is the tendency of humanity to inoculate ourselves against the suffering of others by wrapping our hearts in those “little luxuries”?

Lewis, in this quote from his book “The Four Loves” expresses the complete abandon that is required to love well. To love in such a way that you remain vulnerable also means opening yourself up to being hurt. And if you love this way, it is likely that you will get hurt. It’s incredibly hard to remain vulnerable in relationships, and completely counter to human nature.

Working with broken people is harder still. It creates a whole new meaning to loving well. You sometimes find yourself loving people who have never seen what real love looks like, or who are convinced that they are unworthy of love. Sometimes when people are hurting, they lash out and hurt others, whether they desire to or not. These reactions can be a means of protection or a method of testing sincerity in the other person. So there is a constant need to actively remind yourself, as a caregiver, how sincere, empowering love looks.

The reason I love this quote is because it doesn’t hide the fact that selfless, merciful love for others is dangerous, but also acknowledges that avoiding the entanglements of relationships will lead to something much worse – a false feeling of safety as redemption fades away.

To answer your question, I would say that the distractions of little luxuries are something I’ve always been keenly aware of. Like most people, I am selfish and sometimes desire to fill my life with meaningless and trivial things. But I’ve always been drawn to positions where I’ve been given the chance to love broken people, and other times I find it harder to distract myself from my work than to fall into the temptation of distraction by “little luxuries.”

I believe that Christ calls us to love in a way that is fairly radical and once we experience it, it’s addicting. That said, it’s also important to take time to recover from the stresses of working with traumatized people. When faced with emotionally draining situations, I force myself to take time to just enjoy life.

Cebu is a tropical paradise full of every sort of "entanglement" you can dream of and.....

....a nightmare of poverty and exploitation where young girls are bound in brothels.

COH has found that the stories of the individual tragedies of one victim are more affecting, more inspiring than faceless statistics. Is there one girl’s tragedy that stands out from your time in the anti-slavery movement?

Becky’s* story, a hopeful tragedy, is a mixture of coercion, naivety and deception, that ends with hope and restoration.

When Becky was 14 years old, two of her neighbors told her they had a job for her as a dancer. They took her to a restaurant where she met a foreign man. She was led to believe that she would leave right after she finished eating but was given a glass of juice with a drug in it that made her lose consciousness. When she woke up, she found herself naked with the foreign man on top of her. Petrified from the incident, she felt nothing but shame and worthlessness. She lacked the ability to reason and was soon convinced to continue working in the sex establishment.

While working there, she went to the city health office to process her health card. Becky says she was led into a room, and a doctor came in and forced her to have sex with him in exchange for her city health card. The doctor then brought her to a hotel where another man was waiting for her inside the room. The two men took turns raping Becky. This incident finally drove her to seek help and escape from the bar, but left her traumatized and scared.

When Becky came to MRH she was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She couldn’t sleep at night because she had vivid nightmares and tried to run away on multiple occasions. She hated being looked at and would often erupt in anger if she thought someone was staring
at her. Even though Becky agreed to come to MRH, she desperately wanted to go home to her father. Unfortunately, Becky’s traffickers lived next door to her father’s house, and he was scared for her safety after filing a case against them. Their home was no longer a safe place.

During Becky’s stay at MRH she made amazing improvements. She no longer got upset when she thought someone was looking at her. Her nightmares subsided and she was able to sleep easier. Although she still has extreme displays of emotion, the MRH staff learned how to support her during those times and the outbursts lessened considerably. A sponsor from a partner organization has agreed to buy Becky’s father a new home so he can move to a safer place and she can eventually join him again.

What about MRH’s greatest success story?

Each person’s success is worth celebrating, so it is hard to place one higher than another. However, here is one that is great:

Anna* is from a hard working family in a district outside of Cebu. Both of her parents are farmers and she is the oldest of five siblings. Anna was sexually abused by her uncle continually from the time she was 11 years old until she was 14. When Anna finally told her mother about it, they filed a case against her uncle. Determined to seek justice, but fearing for Anna’s safety, her mother sought a place where Anna could live while the court case was ongoing.

Anna came to MRH when she was 14 years old. Here are some words she wrote in an activity at the center:

“The hope or dream for my life is to finish my studies and someday… to become a computer science [major] or teacher. The best dream of my life is to win my case so that I can study my lessons without thinking [of any other] problems.”

Anna was very determined to finish school, but obviously was also traumatized by her past. She was naturally quiet, and sometimes unable to express what was going on in her thoughts. While at MRH, she made significant progress in her legal case, as well as her personal life. She also improved in her ability to be honest and open with the staff and herself. In fact, when asked what she learned at MRH she said “I have learned how to share about the good things and the bad things that people do and what God wants us to be.”

Anna graduated from the program at MRH after one year and was transferred to a long term shelter that was able to assist her in pursuing her educational goals.

On your very first blog post you were patiently waiting to hear about a position with International Justice Mission in Cebu. Are you surprised at where you are now?

I am sort of surprised. This dream has been in my heart since I was a teenager, and I’ve believed for a long time that the deepest dreams that we have, the ones that never falter regardless of the situations we find ourselves in, are usually put there by God. And if that is the case, God will do whatever it takes to fulfill those dreams. I’ve worked hard to get here and God has amazed me with the ways he’s orchestrated the rest. I’m learning to be less and less surprised when He does.

Outside of the good book, any heroes?

Martin Luther King Jr. said: “The moral arc of the universe bends at the elbow of justice,” and he lived to align principles of justice with the realities of life around him. MLK had one extreme goal in mind: the end of racism. In order to attain that goal, he used many unique, often controversial strategies. His dream was extreme and his methods were revolutionary, and that translated directly into radical changes for the people living in the United States.

Right now, our world is faced with another extreme goal. It will take the same dedication, creativity and fervor that MLK displayed to accomplish the eradication of slavery around the world.

There are a lot of young people wanting to enter the anti-slavery movement. What can you tell them? How did you prepare yourself to join the fight?

There are two primary ways someone can be involved in this fight: The first is educating the public and advocating for the enslaved. The second is direct involvement, which should be done hand in hand with local people who live in the country where the injustice is happening. Both are extremely necessary and cannot be accomplished effectively without each other.

In most places where these atrocities happen, there is a lack of skills, education and resources necessary to create sustainable change. My advice for someone who wants to be directly involved is to educate yourself in a skill that is needed in the place you intend to make a difference. I chose to study Social work. Other helpful skills include law, public policy, counseling, business (to create sustainable jobs for former victims) and education.

Personally I believe that national staff - who understand the culture, speak the language fluently, and are dedicated to seeing their country change in long term ways - are critical to the fight. One of the most important jobs for westerners is to support national staff by training them with the resources that are more readily available in developed nations.

Is there one book you would recommend to those seeking a career in anti-trafficking?

Gary Haugen’s book, Terrify No More, is the book that inspired a small group of people in Southern California to actively do something about the issue of trafficking. After reading it, the congregation of New Heart Community Church opened My Refuge House. For those who haven’t read it, I would highly recommend it.

Who are those most at risk in and around Cebu and what can realistically be done to get them out of harm’s way?

Educating local communities about the realities of trafficking and women’s legal rights is one way to realistically prevent trafficking. Those who have not been educated about the risks of coercion and trafficking that occur on a regular basis are much more susceptible than those who have. Educating communities about ways to intervene, about what trafficking looks like, about how to spot suspicious situations, and how to appropriately intervene are realistic tools for protecting the vulnerable in the community.

MRH is in the process of building a new facility (artist rendering above). How important is this to work they do in Cebu? How can people support MRH and the building project?

My Refuge House came to Cebu to fill a gap in the rehabilitation process for victims of trafficking. Our new facility is vital. Although MRH has been serving clients since 2008, our capacity to do so has been limited by our temporary facilities. The new facility will give us the capacity to house 30 girls for our short term program. It will also give us the ability to house 12 participants through high school who have graduated from our program but don’t have a safe home to return to. It will increase our capacity to serve girls by more than 3 times.

Our new facilities were designed with the unique needs of trafficking victims in mind. Our property and developments on our property will be created to facilitate the refuge our participants need to feel safe. The area will be equipped with a prayer garden, a function hall, and plenty of room for facilitating growth and healing. It will give us adequate space to have classes, group and individual counseling sessions, and physical activities. In addition, instead of one large home, five small homes will be built to incorporate a therapeutic family style environment instead of an institutionalized one.

If you wish to learn more about My Refuge House please visit us here for more information. If you wish to donate to the building project or operational funds please go here for more information. All gifts are tax deductible and every penny will be used to facilitate a healing environment for former victims.

How fluent are you in in Cebuano?

Cebuano is something I’m still working on, but I can converse fairly well. Most of my language acquisition was informal, from conversation or direct interaction, so I’m very hesitant to speak in any kind of formal setting. It is great for building relationships. Because the United States occupied the Philippines for a number of years before World War II, English is widely spoken. For a lot of people this deters language-learning, but I’m happy to say mine is improving daily.

What are the Cebuano words for freedom and justice?

Kagawasan is Freedom and Hustisya is Justice.

What about the words for “Conspiracy Of Hope”?

Pagkonsabo sa Paglaum: Conspiracy of Hope.

Anything you would like to add?

Thank you to all who support the work of My Refuge House and other similar work. Sustainable change can only happen when there are enough people standing up and supporting an issue, so don’t ever underestimate your influence or importance.

*(The names in Crystal's stories have been changed to protect client confidentiality)

So on this Valentine's day, let us open our hearts anew to the girls of Cebu and to all the other children around the world forced into slavery. Let's join with My Refuge House as they restore broken hearts as well as broken lives. And may our hearts be broken by the senseless tragedy of sex-trafficking and may our love remain fiercely resolved and tirelessly committed to justice. May it cost us something.

Thank you for joining our
Pagkonsabo sa Paglaum. Oh, and Happy Valentines Day.

1 comment:

  1. I have had the privilege of spending time on the ground with Crystal and can testify to her passion, professionalism and dedication to this cause. She is a credit to the effort to restore dignity and health to victims of trafficking.

    If you have a heart for this subject, lend your support to My Refuge House. I can assure you that they will be amazing stewards of the support they receive.