Tuesday, May 06, 2014

A Lesson in Awareness

I promised to write a post about our experiences in Houston.

As everyone knows, travelling is an adventure.  Sometimes adventures come in the form of breath-takingly beautiful mountains and deserts; sometimes the adventure is a life learning and life changing event; sometimes the adventure is just plain scary.

This particular evening's adventure was both scary and a life learning event.  Travelling often means interacting with unknown people and situations.  It doesn't always mean safe.  If we wanted safe all the time, we'd have to insulate ourselves in our homes and never venture out.  How boring that would be.  But since life is not always pleasant, and people are not always nice, it is best to be prepared for the nastiness one may encounter.

My daughter and I are both passionate about eradicating the horrors of human slavery and sex trafficking around the world.  Have you read the articles or seen the news clips about the kidnapping of the girls from a boarding school in Nigeria last month?  Have you seen these photos on facebook and around the internet?

You'd have to be blind or deaf to not know about this horrific situation.

Trafficking and human slavery happens in our own communities, too.  Sometimes it happens right under our noses, right in front of us, and we don't recognize it.

In the past couple of years, my daughter and I have educated ourselves about this issue.  She volunteered with Generate Hope in San Diego, and The Professor and I have been supporting them with the proceeds from selling my knitting.  Last fall semester at The Professor's university, the student union presented a seminar to raise awareness of human slavery and sex trafficking.  We attended and listened to the presentations.  One of the presenters was from International Justice Mission.   In her comments she stressed the importance of noticing the little things that might indicate that trafficking could be happening in your neighborhood.

This is our story.

[please note:  this in no way reflects on the city of Houston.  We enjoyed all the other parts of our overnight stay there including a wonderful dinner in the downtown area and a drive through several beautiful neighborhoods.]

Driving across the continental United States with two children for five days can be exhausting for everyone, and so my son in law took extra care of us and pre-booked our two overnight hotel stays.  Through the booking agency he uses when he travels for the military, he arranged a fantastic place for us in Oklahoma City.  It was new, clean, and well-staffed.  We were expecting the same in Houston. However, that morning, son in law received a phone call saying the hotel where we were to stay had overbooked and we were being moved to another location.  That's what happens sometimes when one uses a booking agent.  We took down the new address and found it on the maps app on my phone.

Because we chose to eat dinner first before checking in, we arrived at our hotel just after dark.  A series of unsettling things occurred which, if they had been isolated events, we would not have noticed them.  But when things kept happening, we recognized them as red flags.  

The first thing we noticed before we got out of our car was that at least two cars drove up to the front doors, slowed down, stopped, then drove away without anyone getting in or out of the car.  Finally, one car slowed down, stopped, then moved over to a parking spot.  One man exited the vehicle.  As we were checking in, we noticed a couple of men exiting the hotel.  

We were given 'the manager's suite' on the fourth floor, and frankly it was not worth the money we were paying: one hide-a-bed was broken, the other bed's mattress cover was ripped, and there were holes in the sheets.  The closet door was broken apart.  The bedroom doorknob was completely missing.  There was a metal shard on the floor.  My daughter called her husband to tell him that the company needed to know that what they promised was not what we got in the reservation.   The room phone rang, but when my daughter answered it, the person hung up, and then the phone went dead and was disconnected.  

I returned to the car to get my suitcase and laptop. A car drove in, slowed down like the other cars had, then drove over and pulled in to a parking spot.  Again, a young man got out, but he had no luggage.  While I was on the elevator going down to the ground level and back up to the fourth floor, groups of one, two, or three young men got in or out, and none of them had any more luggage than a back pack.  

We could see the front of the hotel from our room window and noticed that more cars were making the same manuever we had noted when we first arrived--driving to the front door, slowing down, and either driving away or pulling off and parking--always it was men in the cars.   

As we were putting the children to bed, we tried to turn off one of the lights in the living area, but couldn't.  There was NO switch.  Since we couldn't call to report the light problem, I decided to go down and report it to the desk clerk.  She came back up with me, and as we got out of the elevator, I saw a young Asian woman wearing pajama bottoms and a t shirt walk from one room to another across the hall.  She never turned around to face me although the desk clerk and I were talking.  It was obvious by her nervousness that the clerk was very uncomfortable with me being in the hallway and seeing the young woman.

As I stated above, any one or two of these clues would not raise any suspicions, but when they were added together all within less than two hours, it became very evident that there was prostitution and probably drugs involved at this location.  My daughter had called her husband again to ask him about switching hotels, and as we began to notice more and more issues, he called the booking company and was very insistent that they let us out of the contract to pay for this place.  He told us to leave immediately even if we still had to pay for the night's stay.  Little Man had fallen asleep, but Older Sister was still awake.  We decided to pack everything in to our cases and purses and make only ONE trip down from the fourth floor to the car.  Three rolling suitcases, two computer bags, two purses, two kids' backpacks, and one sleeping boy.  On the way down, we met MORE young men (NO other women at all except the clerk and the girl in the hall) and then in the small lobby we saw an older man sitting looking at his phone.  Again no luggage. The lobby had only three chairs and a small end table.  It wasn't the type of place where some one would sit and check his phone unless he was waiting for someone.  Of course, it could have been simply that he was waiting for a friend to pick him up, but when all the other events were factored in, it just didn't add up right.

Remember that seminar I attended last fall?  The International Justice Mission speaker had shared a phone number for reporting suspicious situations.  I had written down the number in my little notebook and forgotten it until I was thumbing through the notebook on the first day of our road trip.  God reminded me that I had that number!

We loaded everyone and everything into the car, locked our doors, and drove away. A couple of major streets away from the hotel, we pulled in to a gas station where my daughter called the hot line.  The woman who she talked with agreed that all those events put together very likely meant that we had inadvertently stumbled into the middle of a prostitution/drug operation.  We weren't just being crazy and overly suspicious.The hot line works closely with the local police departments, and we can only hope and pray that that young woman is safe from trafficking now.

Here is the hotline information.  It is now entered in to my cell phone contacts.

National Tip Hot Line for Human Trafficking:  888-373-7888
They urge you to call any time you see any suspicious behavior.  Even if you think it is insignificant, your information may be the clue the police need to add together everything they already know to close down an operation and rescue the trafficked girls.

God does all things well.  Did we want to be switched to a different hotel?  No.  Did we feel uncomfortable and unsafe in that place?  Yes.  But we had the knowledge and resources to recognize a situation for what it was and get out of it.  Was it a coincidence that I noticed that phone number written in a little notebook?  I don't think so.  When we offer ourselves to God to be used for His glory, it doesn't always mean we stay insulated and safe from the world's evil.  But we can maybe make a positive difference in this world and its culture of wickedness and depravity.


ellen b. said...

Glad you had your antennas on and were aware. It really is so sad that this is going on under our noses. We have become more aware of these situations since Laura works at World Concern and another of our friends kids has a group working in Thailand...
A group from Lana's church stood on corners with signs pointing people to awareness of this problem in Seattle...

Willow said...

Thanks for your comment, Ellen. The most important thing (besides not personally perpetuating the problem) we can do is to educate ourselves and act on our knowledge.

Unknown said...

That was indeed a scary experience. With all the crimes nowadays, prostitution or human trafficking seems to be in the news more often than not. Good thing you have the number in your notebook. In your own little way, you somehow help to stop the operation and hopefully that woman will be saved. Thanks for the number. It’s really advisable to have one in our contact lists for such occasions.

Chin Angevine @ Scheiner Law Group, P.C.

Jerralea said...

Wow! That number is now in my phone as well...

So sad ... right in our own country where there is supposed to be freedom.

nikkipolani said...

God surely had you at the right place at the right time with the right tools to make a difference. Thank you for that resource!