Trigger warning: Sexual assault
Sofia* is eight years old. She arrives at The Oasis Residential home in San Lucas, Guatemala with matted hair. Dirty bare feet. She clutches the hand of the police officer as she walks up the steps with another girl, and looks at her strange, new surroundings.
Her red dress is two years too short. Her lower lip trembles. Her round, brown eyes fill as she takes in the building where she is now going to live. A Tia, one of the female houseparents, welcomes her with comfort and nurture—the makings of a home. But behind her warm smile, the Tia fights back tears. She's seen this before, dozens of times, and despite her extensive training and background checks to become a houseparent at Oasis, it never gets any easier. Girls like Sofia and the other girl, Flor,* come to Oasis along a variety of paths with varying degrees of needs, but they're all here because they share one horrible commonality:
They're victims of sexual crimes.
Little Sofia was raped by an unknown male from the time she was five until just a few weeks ago when she told her teacher in an apologetic whisper. Her father died years ago, and her mother has abandoned her. The girl with her, Flor, is also eight and was recently rescued from a child pornography ring where, for three years, she'd been videotaped being raped multiple times a day by men four times her age.
Sofia and Flor were rescued by the children's protective services of Procuraduria General De La Nacion (PGN), the Attorney General of Guatemala. After the Child Court judge determined they needed to be removed from their homes for their own safety, the social worker called Oasis to see if they had room.
They did, and this group is giving both Sofia and Flor a soft place to land for the first time in their lives.
The Tia hands the girls welcome bags with hygiene basics and stuffed animals, a little fox and a tiny elephant, then shows them to their new room. Each girl will have her own bed, a luxury neither has ever had before. The Tia then guides them to the community closet where she helps the girls choose clothing they'd like all for themselves—new sparkly dresses, shorts with pockets for treasures, and even white sandals with rainbow hearts on the straps. Then, the Tia gives them chicken soup, and sweet, ripe mangoes for dessert.
That night, when Sofia and Flor lapse into fitful sleep, memories return like vultures, circling overhead to carry them off into the desert of depression. To cope, Sofia disassociates with reality altogether while Flor fights her sorrow with fits of rage. The next day, therapy psychologists and educational psychologists prescribe a compassionate course of treatment that includes narrative therapy (including sand and play therapy), EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), and ILS (Interactive Learning System) to help them stave off the sea monsters trying to suck them into the deep.
Within several days and into the coming weeks, Sofia and Flor will get to know the other girl who lives in their room. Blanca*, a 12-year-old in the top bunk, was raped repeatedly by her brothers and their friends. Once she told her mother she was pregnant, she was given a makeshift abortion and two black eyes to ensure the bleach smell of back alley office never left her nightmares.
Not long after, Blanca was abandoned to the streets. A stranger found her, and shuttled her to the hospital to recover. Eventually, Oasis welcomed her with open arms, and have been helping her work her way out of the darkness ever since.
Without Oasis, a ministry of Kids Alive International, a 100-year-old charity that rescues at-risk children, these girls would likely remain broken, battered, and discarded in the barren desert of a government shelter that does not have the means to provide specialized care. But in Oasis, girls who are victims of child pornography, sex rings, trafficking, incest, rape, and other sexual crimes, some among the 4,700 Guatemalan girls between the ages of 10-14 who are impregnated by rape each year, they not only get a warm compassionate home, they get a bit of justice, too.
Oasis helps the girls work with the Ministerio Publico (the district attorney) to support criminal proceedings against their aggressors. These girls, showing indomitable spirits, recount their harrowing tales as they lead attorneys, police officers, and other governmental officials to the places where they were abused. Then, they appear in court to face the people who have hurt them most, often their own parents, trusted friends, or siblings. Through videotaped testimonies, sponsors from Oasis, and a court system trying to get it right, they convict the people who have assaulted them, providing the girls a sense of justice in the short lives that have been shaped by the opposite.
To date, these girl-focused teams have a 70% conviction rate.
After the trials, the future looks a little less grim for Sofia, Flor, and Blanca as soft rays of sunshine filter through the leafy branches of their haven. Under the program "Families Together," they'll eventually move out of Oasis into the homes of families—biological or foster—who will love them. Who will protect them. They'll receive ongoing therapy and educational help while they transition, along with court-ordered collaboration by the family for a full year. They'll get the chance to be girls with hopes and dreams, and maybe even the chance at lives where the attainment of those dreams is possible.
As with all victims of sexual abuse, they may find themselves right back out in that barren desert of broken dreams, lips cracked, tossed about in the violent surge of memories swirling around their heads. But if they do, they will have a stalwart protector in the years moving forward, a sanctuary to which they can return.
As they do now, they'll have a shelter.
They'll have an Oasis.
*names changed to protect the girls
More About Kids Alive
When missionaries Leslie and Ava Anglin began taking in homeless Chinese children in 1916 to care for them as their own, starting the first Kids Alive mission, they likely had no idea the impact the organization would have on these girls, and the other orphaned, abandoned, and abused children around the world. Currently there are missions in Zambia, Kenya, Sudan, South Sudan, Taiwan, PaPau New Guinea, Romania, Lebanon, The Dominican Republic, and of course, Guatemala.
Kids Alive has maintained fiscal responsibility for the last fifteen years, receiving a 100% perfect score two years running from Charity Navigator and the highest score possible the previous thirteen.