Today, I want to brag about one of our girls.

Her pseudo-name is Sarah. She was rescued at the age of 15, in 2012, as a strong, angry little girl, posing as an adult, who, even in her frustrated state, showed unmistakable signs of leadership.

Sarah was a stranger to stability. Her life up until that point had been full of conditional love, verbal abuse and rebellion. The last straw for Sarah, at the age of 12, was when her aunt shaved her head as punishment for being disrespectful. Sarah took to the streets shortly after, setting out to prove that she did not need anything from her family– the cost of their “love” was too high.

12 years old and wandering the streets, Sarah soon became addicted to drugs. She slept on cardboard in the middle of the city and set out each day to live independently and provide for her own needs. Thus when opportunities to “dance” for money became available, Sarah at the age of 13 was the first to sign up. As a kid she had won a few dance competitions, so this seemed like a great opportunity! She lied about her age, got a fake ID and excited to make some money, took any opportunity that was presented to her.

Sarah was trafficked, in the way that many are trafficked. She understood that “prostitution” was an option, a possibility for an uneducated child who needed money– she had friends who were “taxi girls” who waited under the bridge for a taxi to arrive with a paying customer in them, though she never engaged in that.

As a child, with no other options, she should have been turned away from any type of work like that. She should never have been “employed” as a minor to engage in sex work. That option should never have been available to her, and because it was, in her drug addicted, love hungry state, Sarah absolutely fit the definition of one who was trafficked.

Sarah was rescued at the age of 15, and brought to My Refuge House. There, she found a family. A family who loved and accepted her, no matter what. A family who gave much in their efforts to see Sarah embrace new dreams for her future. And Sarah slowly began to trust and thrive and dream.

Sarah, with her gift from her artist last year.

Last year, Sarah graduated from high school. Since she had dropped out of school at age 12, she never dreamed this would be possible, but through our education program, she was able to catch up, in just 3 years! And a few months later, Sarah passed her scholarship exam and was awarded a 4 year college scholarship.

Sarah wants to be a police woman. And she will be an amazing one. Her years of experience on the streets have made her strong. Her years of receiving love at My Refuge House, have made her even stronger.

Sarah is one of our peer leaders. I have a hard time putting into words the way she laughs and jokes and encourages her peers, the staff and visitors– she carries herself with this undeniable presence. She is confident in her role, confident in herself, confident in her future. And such a joy to be near.

A couple of months ago when I was visiting My Refuge House, Sarah was waiting to testify for the last time in her court case against her perpetrators, those who had sold her as a child on the streets, who had taken advantage of her vulnerability instead of pointing her towards help. Her court trial was postponed, again, (which is very common in the court systems in the Philippines) and I watched as Sarah tried to cover up her stress about the trial.

I was talking with Sarah, during that visit, and since her upcoming yet postponed trial was on her mind, she started telling me about the first time she testified in court. The judge ridiculed her as she gave her testimony. He kept asking “How many times did you dance? Why did you do it? Did you take off your bra? Why? If you didn’t want to do it, why were you there?”

Over and over again, the judge tore into her. She was crying on the stand she said, and even the interpreter was crying. I started crying, as I thought of our sweet girl, enduring that type of abuse in a public court room.

Sarah changed gears and started talking about becoming a police woman. Her lawyer from IJM, the ones who have been helping her fight this case for three years, told her “When you are a cop, if you see anyone being trafficked, be sure to let us know.” I was amazed. Momentarily, I thought of the 15 year old crying on the stand, not the capable, confident 18 year old in front of me. I asked, “Aren’t you scared?”

“No.” Sarah said with all confidence. “Because it’s not my fault. I know now, it’s not my fault.”

And there wasn’t an ounce of shame on her sweet face. Because not an ounce belonged there.

And she knew it.