I did the best I could at saying goodbye to you in a way you’d understand, but it feels like something was missing without a hug. I know I was not allowed to hug you but I have always thought about how it would have felt being able to fully embrace you in my arms. Despite spending 10 days together, I never realized that saying goodbye would restrict me from the forms of emotional expression that I’d always accepted as normalcy. How could I expect anything to be normal when women and girls make up 98% of victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation and you and the rest of the girls have experienced that.
I’d arrived at the safe way house knowing I came to help you, spend time with you, give you something to look forward to every day and give love to you. Over the course of a few days, I expected to form relationships, teach you some things but also learn from you-Through my time there, I learned more in my life than I ever had before. More about the power of strength and courage, the power of affection and empathy. But what is left unsaid is the hug I couldn’t give you, the hug that embodied how proud I was of how you survived the adverse conditions you never asked for, how you emerged as a young woman committed to becoming a successful contributor to your community. I was proud that you endured and surpassed society’s expectations of what you statistically could have become. An estimated 35.8 million people are in forced labour (including sexual exploitation) at any given time as a result of trafficking. Most females age 13-17 experience at least one form of sexual abuse, you are only 11 years old and are already out of the 55% of girls and women who are still being trafficked. I wanted to hug you, but cultural diversity prevented me from saying what I wanted in a physical way.
I was anxiously waiting to leave. My first instinct was to hug you and the rest of the girls. Hugging is natural to me but to many post sexual assault victims, they experience insecure attachment patterns, struggle with intimacy or are too eager to form close attachments. “Remember, do not hug the girls, do not let them hug you. Push them away if they try to and grab their wrists while shaking them instead.” I could not hug you? Okay… My mom always told me to hug people when saying hello or goodbye but the lady told me not to.
My whole life, hugs were an integral part of my daily communication. In my family, every morning I woke up for school, my mom would come in and kiss me on the forehead, symbolizing that it was time to wake up and expressing me how much she loved me. I would slowly but surely get ready to leave for school. I put my uniform on, brushed my teeth, ate my breakfast and every day at the door my mom would be waiting to give me a hug goodbye. She never missed a good morning kiss and goodbye hug. Some days when I was rushing out the door, nervous I was going to be late for the bus, she still made me wait for her hug or should we come chase me out the door with her arms wide open insisting I come to her screaming “I LOVE YOU.”
“The girls are going to come say goodbye now,” the lady told me while I was physically there but mentally still entangled in my own thoughts. When will they be able to hug someone without feeling confused or distressed?
I go about most of my days hugging friends and family not thinking about the 20 girls that I had been working with, a simple hug brings up traumatic and difficult times in their lives. Almost one third of all rape victims develop PTSD sometime during their lifetime; and more than one in ten rape victims still have PTSD today.
When I had to say goodbye and was told that I couldn’t hug you, I didn’t know how else I could express the emotions encompassing me. I never realized that hugging was so ingrained in my culture but was something so rare in yours. We became so close in the short time we spent together, a hug only seemed like the right thing to do. When you came running up to me with your arms wide open, with the big bright smile on your face, the only thing I wanted to do was hug you and I’m sorry I couldn’t. I am sorry that I had to treat you like all of the other girls who were not comfortable with physical touch.
More girls tried to hug me. I didn’t hug them back but I realized even though I did not get the feeling I love while hugging someone, they did, they found the trust and comfort that they had once lost in me.
In the end, I learned that hugs come in all kinds of different forms, just as all people do. I want this letter to act as hug from me to to you that you can pull out and read whenever you need a hug, a reminder that you are loved, that you are enough and that you are more than your circumstances.
With love and hugs,
love —> affection
to form —> to build
to show—> express
run –> chase