The following story is from Kimberly Smith, president of Make Way Partners. It’s the story of her encounter with a girl who lives her life trapped as a slave in the sewers of Romania . . .
Dear Fellow Missioners,
The other day I was fumbling with an old laptop I haven’t used in a number of years. It was the laptop I carried with me on my first trips into Sudan and Romania. I was trying to find a way to salvage and transfer the many stories, journal entries, and photographs it contained before sending it to the recycling bin.
The laptop predates jump drives. The CD burner was long ago busted, and the wifi no longer functions. It seemed my memories were destined to stay trapped within the sand-clogged metal contraption.
Even as I was tempted to tell my laptop, “Fine. Keep the stored treasures all for yourself.” my eye caught a picture of Marlita on the screen. While the computer trapped the file of her story, my mind held her memory closely. I met Marlita the first time I crawled down into the sewers of Bucharest, looking for children lost among the vermin.
I’d heard stories of young orphaned or castaway girls who’d made the feculent sewers their home, rather than freezing to death in the snow banked streets of Romania. I was determined to see for myself if the stories I’d heard were true.
As I stood on the snow-banked street late one night, the only light came from the moon and stars reflecting off nearly three feet of snow. Ionuts, the gypsy man I’d hired to guide me through the dark and smelly tunnels, pried off the manhole cover. Steam blasted my face and I steeled myself for what I feared I would find below the street on which I shivered.
I sat on the cold street, letting my feet find the rungs of the metal ladder that would help me make my descent into both my fears and the sewer. I turned on my headlamp and lowered myself a yard or so into the cave. When my feet could find no more rungs, I yelled up to Ionuts, “The ladder has stopped. I can go no further!”
Ionuts’ response wasn’t what I wanted to hear, “You must let go. The ladder can’t go all the way because sometimes the water comes to high. Just let go and your body will find the floor.” Does this crazy gypsy not know how afraid I am of heights?
With Ionuts starting down the ladder himself, I feared his boots would crush my fingers on the rungs they clutched above my head, so I let go. I only dropped about three feet before finding the wet bottom of our cave just as Ionuts had promised.
We meandered for thirty minutes climbing over garbage, old furniture, and long forgotten toys—or stooping to crawl under low hanging pipes before I heard other voices. It sounded like an argument. Ionuts needlessly commanded, “Stay close to me.”
As we approached a small cluster of children, we could see two men arguing in their midst. Most of the children did not appear to be overly concerned with the argument, but one little girl held tightly to the left arm of the younger of the two men. She stood only about chest high to them.
Ionuts called out something in a light hearted voice, making all aware of our presence. Obviously they knew each other well. After a brief interchange, where it seemed Ionuts explained my presence, the older man spoke to me in broken English as he pointed to the little girl. “My girl. She my girl; but the young one think he have her now.”
Wanting to make sure I got the right picture, I asked Ionuts if they were having a turf war over the little girl. Ionuts nodded his head, “That is always the case down here. The men take who they want. The girls go along because they hope they’ll be protected and get food for their sex.”
I asked if they would let me talk with the little girl. Andrei (the older man) was proud that I took such interest. He pulled the little girl loose from the young man and thrust her toward me.
We sat on a warm pipe against the scummy wall. Ionuts told me the little girl’s name, “Marlita.”
Marlita’s feet were bare. She wore only a tattered cotton dress which was far too big for her. It had been pinned at the back of her neck so that it didn’t slide off her slight shoulders. I couldn’t even imagine when the last time her hair had been washed or her body bathed. But what struck me most were the raw, red slashes on the underside of her forearms.
“Marlita, I want to help you. Do you have any family down here or up above?”
Stray hair fell across her big brown eyes as she shook her head.
Ionuts quickly explained to me that Marlita’s father died of Alcoholism when she was just a baby. Her mother couldn’t make enough money to pay the rent in their tiny apartment; Marlita and her mother ended up living on the streets of Bucharest. After some time, Ionuts believed, her mother traded Marlita for enough money to buy a plane ticket to Spain. No one had heard from Marlita’s mother since she left Romania.
While Ionuts relayed Marlita’s story, I reached my hand out toward her waiting for her approval before touching her arm. Her eyes let me know she would trust me at least that much. I hadn’t heard Marlita speak a word, but as I touched her raw scars, they revealed many of her secrets to me. At only seven years old, Marlita was a slasher…she cut herself to silence a deeper pain.
I begged Ionuts to intercede with the men so that we could take Marlita with us.
“Never. She is one of them now. They would kill us—and her as well—before they would ever let her go. At least not until they are finished with her.”
“When will that be?”
“When they grow tired of her, and a younger, prettier ‘Marlita’ gains their attention.”
I could not stay in the sewer; but neither could I leave without doing something, anything.
What could I do? A lone American in the midst of a land run by Organized Crime Lords and human traffickers.
What good did my presence accomplish? A strange woman and a mercenary guide in a dark sewer.
Why should this scared, wounded child trust me enough to come with me? Her own mother had sold her.
Could I take her out of this hell kicking and screaming and fight off Andrei and his young cohort at the same time? Money could not buy Ionuts’ support with such a scheme in the place where he had to live long term.
Heavy with the despairing weight of my powerlessness, I left Ionuts with his friends and snaked my way back out of Marlita’s horrible home. I had come for an education. In less than an hour’s time, I’d received more than I bargained for. Facing the complexity of the evil in a society where mothers trade their babies for a better life and neighbors turn a blind eye, confirmed we must have indigenous leadership to work effectively from within.
I never saw Marlita again, but ever so briefly touching her pain is what compelled me to keep searching and praying for a Romanian leader who we could support to stop this evil.
Iana Matei is the answer to that prayer, and House of Treasure is the heaven on earth for girls just like Marlita. One child at a time, Iana knows just how to go about rescuing these precious girls. We cannot work there without her. She cannot keep going without our prayer and financial support.
The MWP House of Treasure is the only shelter in all of Romania for victims of human trafficking; and we need to grow. I know it’s scary. I know it’s costly. But while letting loose of the treasure to which we cling is about as scary as me letting go of the rungs of that ladder in the sewer, the opening of our clenched fists does—and will continue to—save lives in the darkest, dankest corners of the world.
With prayers that one day the sewers of Bucharest will be full of nothing but sewage.
Love, your sister along the journey,
Please visit Kimberly Smith’s website and blog to learn more about her ministry. Also, check out her upcoming book, Passport Through Darkness, which I wrote about here. To find out what you can do to help protect girls in Romania from sex trafficking and keep them out of the sewers, visit Make Way Partners.