In Benin, we do a lot of family tracing and documentation of children who had been lost in the trafficking world, who have been intercepted from being taken, or who never even existed on paper. Due to poverty, most families do not have the eight dollars needed for a birth certificate, nor do many parents know how to read or write so documentation is not a priority. Because of these things, most of the children we work with rarely have a birth certificate, or even know their actual age or correct spelling of their own name. It is all like a jigsaw puzzle that we have to put together so that a child can simply attend school. The process always involves finding a parent or living relative, then bringing them to the social welfare office to orally report all the family details so that the proper information can be put on paper. Finally, we are able to apply for the child’s birth certificate through the court system.
I am usually very comfortable sitting in a Social Welfare office in Africa because I’ve had numerous visits there. But on one particular day, I was completely unprepared for what I was about to witness.
We had rescued a young girl and had been caring for her for four years before we could finally convince one of her parents to come to the social welfare office to begin the oral reporting about her life. You might wonder, why was she in our care if she had parents?
The mother was on our micro finance program and as part of the program, we inform parents that if they can locate their child who had been trafficked and can get them back from where they were sold to, then ORR will help that child by adding them to our school and feeding program. This will remove the financial burden from the family, which is usually why they trafficked their child in the first place. To our shock, this mother did just that!
Sadly, after being gone for three years, the girl returned to her family’s village to find that she did not know how to speak her native language anymore. Her parents felt hopeless in keeping her and tragically, they were preparing to send her back to Nigeria again, for more money. That’s where we stepped in. We have been protecting her ever since; first in a foster home and now she is living in our safe home for girls, sleeping in a safe place, eating three meals a day, and going to school.
Four years had passed and the need to get her documentation was vital; her future was in jeopardy as stated by the social welfare office. Our staff finally convinced the father to come with us to the Social Welfare office. In this office, the daughter, father, social workers, our ORR Country Director and myself were all present.
They started their questions with the daughter, who we will call, Annie. “Why are you living with Orphan Relief and Rescue, Annie?”
She responded, “because my parents sent me to Nigeria to work.”
The social worker then asked the father, “Did you receive money for sending her to Nigeria?”
“Yes, I did” he responded so matter-of-fact, without emotion.
“How much did you receive in exchange for your daughter?” asked the social worker.
“I received 10,000 CFA” (equal to 20 USD), said the father.
“What did you spend it on?” asked the social worker.
“I bought food.”
“Is this all you received for her over the course of those three years?”
“Yes, it was”, he responded.
I suddenly realized that I was no longer comfortable being a witness to this, as this just turned into much more than a simple family tracing, it was now a criminal investigation. Our safety was at risk if this father was to be prosecuted. (There is only a two-month jail sentence for traffickers, so we are extremely careful when walking through the family justice questionnaires, and we let the courts handle the questions regarding trafficking).
The questions continued. The social worker turned to Annie and asked, “Were you mistreated in Nigeria, and if so, how?”
“Yes, I was”, she responded. “I was beaten numerous times a day and was hardly given any food. I was always hungry.”
The social worker turned to the father. “Did you ever check on your daughter to see if she was being mistreated?”
“No”, he responded.
The social worker continued, “If you knew Annie was being harmed, would you have brought her back home?”
“No”, he said again.
Oh, my heart! This poor girl was sitting right there, listening to her dad’s confession about how he basically did not care that she was being hurt and that he only cared about the money he was getting for her! To me, this ccontradicted every instinct of what a parent is supposed to do. Sadly, these stories are all too common in an area where the individual’s fight to survive has overruled how God created us, which is to love and protect our children.
We did not legally need any further correspondence with this father so we gave him money for his transportation home. Then we were able to focus all our attention on Annie during our own car ride home.
I said “Annie, I am so sorry you had to listen to your father share what he did. That must have been so hard for you.” She shook her head yes.
“Oh, Annie, where your parents have failed you, God has not. God has been with you and will continue to be with you through all of this hardship. One day in the future, you will be going back to your village, and you will be showing your cousins and relatives a better way. You will be the one making sure no other child ever goes through what you have been through.”
She looked up at me and smiled.
I said, “Annie, do you believe that is true, that you will be the one to show them how to care for their families and children?”
She shook her head yes again.
I prayed for her heart, and realized a lot more went on that day then I could see in the physical realm of the here and now. Healthy futures are currently being established for the hundreds of children and families on our programs. And they will translate into thousands more, through what these precious lives such as Annie’s will be facilitating. These children know their mission is big, and they have a story to tell that they will not be keeping silent about.
Thank you for partnering with us to help Annie and the many other children who have similar stories. You are making a HUGE difference with us. Your generosity is setting kids free! With your help, more children like Annie are being rescued, protected, and cared for while we are working hard among families to prevent them from being in this position at all.