Chennai; Bangalore; Chikmagalur; Kolkata; Shillong; Tezpur; Dehadrun; Delhi; Mumbai; Goa.
Those were the various locations throughout India where Juanita spent 5 months volunteering from April to September 2016.
It was definitely the most life transforming experience, that her previous trips to Thailand (teaching English for 3.5 months in 2009); Japan (tsunami relief work for 8 weeks in 2011); and the Philippines (anti sex trafficking work for 6 weeks in 2015, and 9 days in 2016) did not adequately prepare her for.
Seeing such abject poverty broke her heart, and it wasn’t until she travelled to Kolkata that she cried for the first and only time during her entire trip. Travelling in sleeper class meant Sari, linen and Chai sellers; blind singers; lame beggars; and book merchants to name a few. Nearing Kolkata it also meant child plastic bottle collectors.
As the train neared its destination some boys got on the train carrying large bags on their backs, they were all working so hard that they were not aware there was a foreigner in their midst. One of the tiny boys Juanita saw had creatively made a hole at the bottom of a black trash bag and placed it over his head, making two holes either side of the bag for his arms to prevent his clothes underneath from getting wet.
Seeing that Juanita cried silently; she cried because he was working so hard; she cried because he had a job; she cried because so many able bodied individuals begged when they could instead have jobs; and she cried because he was working so hard that he didn’t see her, the foreigner that desperately wanted to give him 100R.
Stepping off the train and seeing Kolkata filled with streets and streets of homeless families; men and women who were skeletal; children in unclean clothing, was overwhelming. There was so much need and Juanita had so little money, but she did not allow that to stop her. Instead she was simply creative aka she sometimes skipped meals and used that money to buy dozens of toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, and head lice shampoo.
Some nights she would simply pick a street and hand out the items, other times she would leave them by the head of a sleeping man, woman or child, and although it didn’t solve their long-term problems it met an immediate need.
Asides from meeting the temporary needs of the homeless, Juanita also spent a lot of time with survivors of trafficking, one of whom had willingly crossed the border from Bangladesh but when she was taken in by a “kindly” lady was drugged and transported to a brothel in Tamil Nadu.
Such stories were not unheard of, and Juanita spent time talking to a number of survivors of sex trafficking that had been rescued and housed in Chennai. From the conversations she’d had with them and the local articles she’d read one common theme was that there were many women and couple traffickers; the victims were often drugged; and they frequently knew their trafficker who was often their boyfriend or husband.
Hearing the girls and young women talk about how they were befriended by an older guy who they fell in love with, and trusted when he said he could help her find better paying work. Sometimes the girl became pregnant and either had a forced abortion or the baby died mysteriously. She was often subjected to horrendous physical abuse at the hands of her partner until he got fed up & sold her to a brothel.
Each of the survivors were beautiful in their own way but had such insecurity and low self esteem that they considered themselves ugly. This is notwithstanding the fact that India has a cast system which considers people to be lesser than, plus the small matter of skin color.
The girls and women Juanita spoke with were receiving counseling but its effectiveness would never disregard of societal norms; knowing and accepting this made it easier for Juanita to understand the Indian culture with all its differences.
In doing so she also spent time at the Dalit School where an evening program was held each night for children whose mothers worked in the brothels. Although supervised there was no structure to the classes, and since Juanita had attained the reputation of being a game master the children would continually pester the teacher until she relented and allowed them to play. Teaching the children games like UNO, Greedy Greedy, and Jenga was always fun and not just for the children.
The children were a tremendous joy to be around; they demanded so little and had an attitude of gratitude for the simple things in life. That’s not to say Juanita did not experience her fair share of challenges, but nothing that would ever cause her to walk away from the work she was doing.
Juanita was making a difference, albeit a small one. She was spending quality time with the children without the use of harsh words, actions or corporal punishment. Instead their time together was about having fun, laughing, smiling, enjoying their life, youth and the lack of responsibilities they should have, as part of being a child. Of course the realities for a child growing up in India is vastly different from a child’s upbringing in the West but that did not stop Juanita from playing games with the children and facilitating other light hearted activities that they all thoroughly enjoyed.
In other parts of the country Juanita volunteered as a caseworker, reviewing the available evidence and witness statements in preparing requests for remuneration for the victims. She liaised with local law enforcement, lawyers and rehabilitative homes to assist in the impending trials; and reached out to foreign embassies and the media concerning a number of missing women and suspected human trafficking cases.
Lack of resources led to many failures in the Indian legal system, whilst the issue of corruption was always a matter of concern at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Despite this Juanita left there with hope; things were being done, the police were cracking down on traffickers, madams and brothel keepers; women and girls were being rescued from locked cupboards and under floorboards.
There was hope which was something Juanita wanted to be a part of; bringing hope to the hopeless, love to the unloved and change to all of India.