the smell of my desperation has become a stench

Independence

This is how you can help.

It was mid-evening on a Thursday night at an hour when I would have normally been putting Leta to bed, reading with her side by side. She’s currently poring over the fourth book in a five-book series, always giving me a recap of her favorite parts before I turn her lights off, and in the days leading up to my trip to Southeast Asia I was highlighting every passage in a book I was reading about a wife who willingly and routinely sent her husband into brothels to collect evidence. Now that I have returned I climb into her bed beside her and listlessly scroll through apps on my iPad. My kindle is right there, it’s where I read almost everything, but I can’t concentrate for very long periods of time, my brain returning to streets and alleys and bars, dark cars and conversations I made longer with an endless string of questions and scenarios.

The back of my brain is still humming, and its low chorus reminds me, don’t forget. Don’t be consumed, Heather, by the tiny, repetitive details of everyday life and let what they showed you narrow into a mute haze, remember how their voices broke almost unnoticeably when presenting to us a bulleted powerpoint presentation of how they go about collecting evidence knowing that those sterile details would pale into almost nothingness when the four of us came face to face with a numbered girl sitting next to us in a brothel, leg to leg, faces close enough that they would inquire as to why my berry-flavored lip gloss smelled so good.

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The undercover team that let us into their home and offices—a kitchen they had stocked with Diet Coke, American cookies, and nut mixes based on what they had read about each one of us before our trip—they are not what I am supposed to come to you with as the crux of my message. They want no credit or attention or thanks or gratitude. I made them visibly uncomfortable when I thanked them out loud, more than once or twice, for trusting us enough to show us the hourly specifics of how they spend their lives freeing young girls and boys.

The victims, they told me, they are the brave ones. They are the ones who are enduring cruelty and enslavement and violence on a daily basis that the average American cannot possibly fathom. Talk about the victims, they told me, and I will. I will talk about the girl who can barely speak the language, who was promised a job at a restaurant where she could earn enough money to send back to her family and instead was kidnapped and sold, her passport stolen, all correspondence with her family cut off, a debt to pay now only with her body. I will talk about her.

But I have some other things to say first.

That Thursday night an undercover investigator—we’ll call him Robert, one of the many operatives who can claim to be retired military personnel, an older man of my height who is graying around his temples, a Brooklyn accent so thick it hung in the air after every word with a weight almost heavier than the humidity—he trusted me enough to accompany him as he and a fellow investigator maintained watch over Laura Parker (author of the book I mention above) and an interpreter while they hired two freelance sex workers, women we’d interview for an hour and a half about their lives and hopes and fears. 

Robert and I could live next door to each other and never exchange a hello or a head nod while seeing each other grabbing the mail. Our political and spiritual views lie at opposite ends of the spectrum. He has no interest in anything online, doesn’t watch television or listen to modern music or understand what a pageview is. He’s never seen Frozen. In any other setting I would assume that he and I have absolutely nothing in common, but in those offices and bars and while walking along that street lined with women who were selling themselves, so much rose to the surface that connected us to each other: the overwhelming love we have for our children, a profound appreciation of family, the sadness and outrage about the abundant inequalities between us and the people around us, the trust we offered each other in those few short days.

I’m not supposed to express gratitude to Robert or the other people who are doing what he is doing, but so rarely if ever do the people they rescue ever know who it was who risked their lives to gather the evidence that led to their freedom. But I don’t know of people who are more deserving of that sentiment, especially given that Robert could be sitting in a barcalounger in his living room back in the states enjoying his retirement and is instead working countless hours a week on the other side of the world trying to restore the lives of people who cannot do it for themselves. For those of us who want to help but have all-consuming obligations at home—families, jobs, school, homework, appointments—let us say thank you for doing this work on behalf of those whose worlds you have changed. Because we have the privilege of paper and pen and word documents and text messages and voicemails and blogs and tweets, while those girls and boys are just beginning their road to recovery. Thank you for dedicating your lives to putting them on that path.

The trust that Robert and the others offered to me is an experience and an honor so humbling that it is impossible for me to come back here and not deliver to you their message. I don’t think that they knew they were giving me one, but I now understand that it is at the crux of why I was supposed to be there. Someone upon my return didn’t realize they were rolling their eyes while telling me that until tourists stop traveling to Southeast Asia for sex, the demand will be too high to make any real difference in human trafficking. Why even bother? One or two girls here, a few there.

One or two girls here, a few there.

Robert and his colleagues are acutely aware of the Sisyphean task in front of them, and yet, they continue to roll that boulder up the hill. 

They continue to sit in dark cars with cameras and binoculars, continue to enter brothels and back alleys to collect information from girls they know are underage, girls they will knowingly and tragically leave behind until they can make a case, continue to put themselves in grave danger because tonight or tomorrow night or some night next month may be the night they get the recording or the testimony or that one missing piece that can trigger a successful raid. For one or two girls. If they’re lucky, maybe even a dozen.

One or two girls here, a few there. One or two worlds changed, a few worlds changed over there.

Statistics be damned. One human life matters.

Many of you have asked how you can help, and trust me when I say that I know what it feels like to hear about these things and fantasize about selling everything, moving to the other side of the world and jumping in wherever you can, wherever you’re needed. Put me to work, I want to say. It’s what my mother said to me on Sunday afternoon. But the reality is that the overwhelming majority of us cannot leave our obligations at home. We cannot move our children or leave our jobs or stop attending to the tasks that keep the cogs of our life in motion. Couple that with the fact that the majority of us don’t have the expertise or experience needed on the ground.

However, they do. You can send them in your place. 

The Exodus Road has determined that $35 covers the costs of an average night of local investigations for their men and women in the field. They work with four search and rescue teams, but the one who invited us into their home was Delta Team in Southeast Asia, and to say that they are very close to my own heart is an understatement. More than any other donation they need is this cost of an investigation. This money covers lodging and transportation often while they are trekking into remote villages of border towns where trafficking occurs in extremely impoverished conditions.

The proximity of the time I spent with Delta Team and our celebration here of Independence Day was unplanned, but I cannot help but regard the timing as fortuitous. For so many of us the Fourth of July is a time spent with family on sprawling grassy lawns, tables filled to overflowing with potluck dishes and barbecue. We light sparklers and then snap photos as our children’s faces erupt with delight, all of it in the name of those who fought to build the foundation of this country and the freedom we are privileged to enjoy because of it.

Often when we think of that freedom we immediately go to thoughts of our right to free speech, to peaceably assemble, the free exercise of religion and the right to bear arms. I would guess that rarely do we seriously reflect on some of the very basic privileges afforded to us as well: the ability to leave our rooms and homes, the ability to live with our families and the years spent watching them grow, freedom from having to sell our bodies for sex.

While celebrating Independence Day this year I would challenge you to consider these simple, fundamental liberties and the people who fought so that generations of Americans could sit with their families on those grassy lawns. And then think about Robert, working right now—today and tomorrow and next month and next year—on the other side of the world entering a dark brothel where he knows a teenage girl has been kidnapped and is being sold for sex against her will on a nightly basis.

Send his team in your place

You can join the Delta Team along with me by committing to a $35/month donation. You can fund investigations and help them change the worlds for those girls and boys. Jamie Wright started a private Facebook group for generous donors and supporters where we can safely “talk about, celebrate, and pray for the work we’re conspiring to fund.” Members of the The Exodus Road and Delta Team often join in and give updates on their work including covert footage of investigations and news of successful arrests.

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To support this team on a monthly basis, click here and check “DELTA TEAM” underneath “Search and Rescue Team” and click on “Heather Armstrong” where it asks how you heard about them. In the “Additional Comments” box please leave the email address you’d like to use if you want to join the private Facebook group.

If $35 a month is out of your budget, you can also make a one-time donation. Just select “One Time” on the “Donation Frequency” line.

If you’d like to use Paypal, you can click here to join the Delta Team, or click here to make a one time donation. There is no option to leave the email address you want to use for the Facebook group when using Paypal, so just send it to me (dooce at dooce dot com) and I’ll see that you’re invited.

Last year Jamie was able to inspire over 200 people to join in making monthly donations to fund this team. That’s a very high bar to set, but we are hopeful. Through our combined efforts we’d like to galvanize a similar number of donors. This is our main goal.

Please help us help them rescue lost children.

I know many of you have to buy diapers and pay for school lunches and have healthcare premiums that eat at every penny of your monthly budget. And still, you may want to help in some small way. If you can’t afford $35 a month, please consider a one-time donation. Any amount of money you give will go directly toward these needs:

– $3k to ship NSA declassified gear from the states to Southeast Asia
– $4800 for 4 computers 
– $200 training materials
– $2k misc supplies and gear (hard drives, batteries, cases, etc)

I have invited Laura Parker of The Exodus Road to jump in and respond to any questions or concerns you have about the logistics of their organization that you may have in the comments section below. Please bear with her as she is on the other side of the world in a time zone far removed from our own.

Just $35 a month (or whatever you can give). Please join me. Share the stories that we’ve been sharing. Look at these photos and let them make you uncomfortable. Reflect on your own independence.

Heather B. Armstrong

Hi. I’m Heather B. Armstrong, and this used to be called mommy blogging. But then they started calling it Influencer Marketing: hashtag ad, hashtag sponsored, hashtag you know you want me to slap your product on my kid and exploit her for millions and millions of dollars. That’s how this shit works. Now? Well… sit back, buckle up, and enjoy the ride.

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