We were far away from Africa, but as we followed “Penny” through the alleys and back streets of Guangzhou China, African voices, fabrics, and smells transported us to the African continent. We made our way through the markets selling everything from electrical supplies, wholesale clothes, African foods, African movies in various languages, and African hair weaves. There were several old and very tall, pink-toned buildings clumped together, and it appeared that it was primarily Africans who were living there. We had been told that there are 200,000 Africans in China and I was beginning to understand how it was possible.
Penny, who was leading us, had been trafficked to China, and when her visa expired, she was sent to Bangkok. When we met her on the streets of Bangkok, she was distraught over her situation, but decided that she needed to make the best of it. She was responsible for nine family members back home, but she had lost her farm and her means of provision. Although we were offering to send her home and even provide a small stipend to start her business all over again, she didn’t think it was enough to provide for her family. Penny had returned to China.
We hadn’t heard from Penny for some time until one of her friends in Bangkok told us that she had been harmed. While Penny was still recovering, her visa for China had expired. In that time the fee for overstaying a visa doubled from $800 to $1600. Penny, found that she, like many others, was stuck in China illegally – not allowed to stay but, unable to leave.
We followed Penny and joined her in a long line of people, stretched all the way out the building onto the street. These people were waiting their turn to use the elevator. Penny was taking us to meet Auntie “Reggie” who rents a room in one of the pink-toned 30-story buildings. Penny had found Auntie Reggie, (or maybe Auntie Reggie found her) when she was stranded with no money, no shelter, and few options in front of her besides jail. Auntie Reggie had taken Penny in and given her a job cooking African food.
The line finally reached the elevator and we crowded into the small space. I was thankful for the buzzer, which warns when there are too many people, otherwise I’m quite sure we would have exceeded all possible limits. Most people don’t talk in elevators, but a man was trying to flirt with Penny’s friend, and asked what room she stayed in. She told him. I felt annoyed that he asked, and concerned that she told. Boundaries didn’t seem to have any meaning there. We arrived to the 18th floor and pushed our way out of the elevator, still following Penny. A Chinese and an African child were playing together in the hallway. We passed bags of ground corn and potatoes stacked up against the wall. I glanced in the door down the hall and saw a Chinese store – a convenient store. The children ran in and out.
Penny opened the door to the apartment, and we immediately felt the tension. An African woman was sitting by the door. She looked angry and didn’t respond when we said hi. We shook some limp hands and said hi to the others in the room. A little boy played behind the sofa. Penny cleared the sofa for the four of us to sit, and we sat down feeling out of place. The others sat across from us after moving off the sofa. They didn’t look directly at us. We weren’t sure where to look either. Penny was excited to have us there, but the others watched us nervously. After bringing us some cold Chinese tea, Penny asked what we wanted for dinner. Jennie, having visited their country before, knew what food to ask for. She suggested “Irish.” It didn’t sound very African to me, but Penny knew what she was referring to, and went out to get the potatoes.
The angry woman got up and left. Jennie asked another woman where she was from, and in her African accent she said, “America.” She laughed and left the room. The little boy wanted something he didn’t get and began to cry. One of the women picked him up and cuddled him. We tried conversation but got little response. I looked around the room. The furniture was simple and worn. The wallpaper was torn halfway down the walls. There was a small TV playing African music videos, and it was providing an easy escape from uncomfortable conversation. Familiar smells of African food made our mouths water, so we drank more of the Chinese tea.
Penny brought a huge plateful of potatoes cooked in tomato with a couple small pieces of chicken, (which were mostly bone). She put the plate down in front of me. I waited for her to bring some empty plates so we could dish it out and share. When she came back she carried three more plates, one for each of us, but each was full of potatoes. How could I possibly eat that many potatoes? Penny was so happy and told us that as we ate, she would replenish our plates. I took a bite, and although it was good, I made up my mind to eat very slowly.
Auntie Reggie entered the room and sat on the arm of the sofa across from us. Her friendly, warm laugh cut through the tension and changed the atmosphere. As she talked, everyone relaxed. “So, let me tell you about Africa!” Auntie Reggie began to share with us the situation in Africa and how these women and even men had ended up trafficked and stranded. “People in Africa think that those who fly on a plane and travel abroad are big people,” she said. The girls giggled. “They come back wearing expensive clothes and tell you that they can make you rich in China. You see their clothes and you think I want to have clothes like that too.” The girls giggled again. Auntie Reggie continued with the tales that have become all too familiar to us. The girls no longer laughed, and were looking down somberly as she talked. She shared how the women, once brought to China are deceived and left stranded, with no options other than prostitution. Their return tickets are cancelled, and the phone number they were given is no longer working. They see another black person and they follow her into these African neighborhoods. They are far from home, but there is at least some comfort in the familiar sights, sounds, and smells of Africa in this neighborhood.
Auntie Reggie told us that thirty Africans presently share her two-room apartment. Auntie Reggie, it turns out, has a heart of gold. As she finds people, who are stranded, and in difficult, (if not impossible) situations, she welcomes them into her apartment. As long as they can find a place to sleep, whether it is in a chair, on the floor, or even in the bathroom, they are welcome to crash there. The little two-year-old boy had been abandoned at two weeks. When Auntie Reggie heard about him, she went and collected him and brought him into her home. He has no documents and his birth was not registered. The challenges that come with his situation however, are not today’s problem.
Today’s problem is finding a job for “Mary”. Mary’s mother had called Auntie Reggie from Africa, to tell her that her daughter was in jail and asked her for help. When the daughter was released, after having been in jail for one month, Auntie Reggie took her in. The police told her she had ten days to get a ticket and leave the country or she would be arrested again. Today was the end of the 10 days. Mary was now stranded in China, at high risk of being arrested again. The penalty for overstay would start all over again. Mary didn’t have money for a ticket home, so Auntie Reggie was helping her find a job teaching English. Auntie Reggie said Mary was bright and could teach English in China, but first she needed help getting her hair done up and finding appropriate clothes so she would look right for the job. We weren’t sure, but it sounded like Mary had avoided prostitution, and if things worked out well with this job possibility, she might still avoid prostitution.
“Jane” sat there, quietly listening. We asked her story and she told Auntie Reggie to share it for her. Auntie Reggie joked, “Did I bring you here?” Then she told us that Jane had been arrested for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The police confiscated her passport and told her she had to leave the country in 10 days. Jane still owed $7000 to her trafficker. She had no way to buy a ticket. Now Jane lives in China illegally. She wants desperately to go home, but will most likely have to spend time in jail first. “I fear jail,” she told us. Her situation sounded impossible, and I wondered if she would be stuck in China for years to come. At least for now, Jane has found shelter with Auntie Reggie.
Our visit became enjoyable as we shared together, weaving the sad stories together with moments of laughter for relief. We ended by praying for everyone there. I thanked God for this amazing woman, Auntie Reggie, who shelters so many, and I prayed for breakthroughs and open doors for the others. Penny and Jane led us back out to the main street. As a taxi pulled up, Penny hugged us and thanked us for coming. Penny isn’t ready to go home, but someone has donated funds for her to start a small business. While in China, we discussed her options for using the funding to get started. Penny is determined and if anyone can make it work, she can. Jane smiled shyly and told us, “I really like you! I was nervous when you came, but as you talked, I saw that I like you!” We hugged her and said goodbye.
Jennie, Beng, and I, had come to China, to network with others because we have met so many African women like Penny who had come to Thailand via China. “Adi” is a young American who bravely enters these neighborhoods to seek the trafficked women and offer assistance. She has already assisted four women to return home. We were grateful to connect her with Penny. Earlier that day Adi had taken us to meet the Ugandan Deputy Consul, Paul. We were impressed with his heart and dedication in combating this issue and helping his people. He has made it a priority for his term in China, and his efforts for his people there, has already won him a promotion. But, even as Deputy Consul of Uganda, he has limited funds and continuously searches for solutions to these problems. With the overstay fee at $1600 per person, it’s beyond his budget, but not his heart. When Paul began to hear how bad the situation was with the traffickers, he showed up at a community meeting and announced that their honeymoon was over. He told them those who are caught would be turned over to the police and charged with human trafficking. He and the Consul General have worked hard on getting some procedures in place in Africa that have prevented many girls from being trafficked to China. Since then, the flow to China has slowed down, but he now receives floods of calls from women and men who were already trafficked, and with the steep overstay fine, are now stranded.
The routes of the trafficked women from Africa to China, to Thailand, have joined us together in a fight for freedom and justice. Neither Auntie Reggie, nor the Deputy Consul, nor Adi, nor we at NightLight, have the resources or strategies that will solve these problems. Together however, maybe we can begin to strategize for ways to prevent, intervene, and restore. Together, maybe we can make a dent and turn back the tide of human trafficking.
Penny, by the way, even though she decided not to accept our help in Bangkok, sent a friend our way. She was the catalyst for a chain reaction that has since led to 30 African women finding freedom from human trafficking and returning home. We are called to take a small step forward, to be present, to listen and to love. But, a small step forward, in unity with other freedom fighters around the globe, begins a greater movement for freedom. If we all work together, the potential impact will rattle the chains across the globe with the message, “Freedom is on its way!”