“You can choose twelve.”
The words hit me like a sucker punch. My hands found my knees as I struggled for air that had come so easily just a moment before.
Thirty-four young girls stood lined up against a bus with black letters that had faded into blurred lines. A few stared at their worn shoes. I was thankful for that because I could not bear one more set of eyes on me. The rest watched me with desperation and guilt, wanting so badly to be chosen, but knowing what that would mean for the ones who were not. My soul seemed to collapse under weight of the choices before me.
I turned to the Mr. Diacov who stared at me in an effort to avoid the silent pleas from the girls. Black buttons struggled to hold his grey suit together around the bulge of his stomach. The dark circles under his green eyes nearly matched his coal-black shaggy hair and the stubble that covered his chin.
“Please.” I begged. “There must be something we can do. The home can hold more than…”
He raised his hand to stop me.
“I’m sorry, but the inspectors have made it clear. That is all that will be allowed in the residence. And let me be very clear, if it is found that you have exceeded this number you will be fined, evicted, and your organization will be stripped of its permits in this country.”
I nodded and prayed silently for strength. How was I supposed to choose who would have a home and who would be thrown out on the street with no one to care for them?
I turned back to the girls and let my eyes pass over each one, making silent judgments on their value in my mind and hating myself for it. One girl held herself so tightly that her knuckles turned white as she swayed back and forth. Another tried to smooth out the wrinkles that cut through her dress. Each one stood and waited for a single word from me that could mean life or death.
Mr. Diacov shifted uneasily. “Mr. Cameron?”
I raised my hand and pointed to a girl with curly brown hair and blue eyes. Tears began streaming down her face as she walked slowly into the arms of my assistant Deborah. The next minute stretched for an eternity in my mind. My heart wrestled with each decision. I was the rescuer for every girl I chose and the executioner for those I did not. Each face has been burned into my mind, but one remains clearer than all the rest.
I had made eleven of the best and worst decisions of my life and only one choice remained. For a reason that to this day I cannot explain my eyes locked onto one particular girl. She was shorter than most of the other girls. I waited for her to look up so that I could see her eyes when I pointed to her.
Slowly her head rose and her eyes caught mine. Before I could move she gently shook her head no and returned her gaze to the ground. Knowing she would be chosen she quietly asked me to take another. And for that she captured my heart. I could not let her go. I loved her instantly.
I pointed and looked over to our government liaison. “And her. What is her name?”
Mr. Diacov followed my finger.
“That is Stella. But you are mistaken. You have already chosen twelve.”
My head whipped around to the group of girls standing with Deborah. I counted eleven.
“But that’s only eleven.”
He turned with me and pointed. “Natalia’s baby makes twelve.”
Anger and disappointment fueled the words that erupted from my mouth.
“That shouldn’t count! I have twelve beds and the baby will not be using one of them! The child will not effect the conditions of the house or… or anything! These are people’s lives we’re talking about. Please!”
Mr. Diacov waited for me to finish with a face of stone. He leaned in slightly and lowered his voice.
“I understand why you are upset, but there is nothing I can do. We do not determine the number of occupants allowed based on how many beds you have purchased. Our laws are very clear and I am only here to make sure that they are followed.”
Hot tears rolled down my cheeks. I turned back toward the bus and saw that the driver was already ushering the girls back aboard.
I called out as I ran toward them. “Wait! Stella!”
She looked back at me as her feet shuffled to a stop. When I reached her I knelt down and stared into brown eyes that held only sadness.
“Where are they taking you?”
She studied me for a moment. It should have been her that was crying, but she was calm. Her whole life had taught her that disappointment was all she should ever expect and all she would ever get.
“They will drop us off at the bus station downtown. There are shelters not far from there.”
Her voice was as light as a sweet whisper.
“Stella. My name is Philip. I… I will have a place for you. I just need time. I am leaving for America next week and should be able to get another home very soon. How will I be able to find you?”
She looked confused. I thought maybe she didn’t understand me. Just before I could clarify she answered.
“I have no home. I’m too old for the orphanage now.”
My mind raced to find someway I could find her again.
“Is there a park downtown?”
She nodded. Movement caught my eye and I looked to see the driver coming back to get her.
“Listen to me. I don’t know when, but I will come get you. When I have the room I will come to the park on the first day of the month at noon. Can you wait for me on the first of each month?”
The bus driver grabbed her arm and began to pull her toward the doors. I walked beside her.
“Stella? Can you wait for me? The first of each month.”
They reached the doors and the driver guided her onto the bus before walking around and closing the doors. I followed Stella as she walked down the aisle and sat next to a window that had slid down about halfway.
“Stella? Can you wait for me?”
She turned and studied me once more as I stood with my hands pressed against the cold metal. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. A small smile spread across her pink lips. It was hope being set free for the first time.
“I will wait.”
The bus rumbled to life and with the grind of metal on metal shuttered into drive. I backed away and watched Stella shrink into the distance.
We celebrated that evening with a feast of grilled cheese sandwiches and ice cream. We still had so much work to do, but this was the start. I now had twelve lives to care for and protect, but I could not get Stella out of my mind.
The next year was a whirlwind of traveling and fundraising. Deborah worked tireless with the Moldovan government to secure all the documents we needed to open another home as I raised support for our rescue operation.
With the generous support of several churches and businesses I was able to raise the money to purchase another home before returning to Moldova the following fall. We already had our eyes on a home and put in an offer the day after I landed. It would be close, but if there were no snags we would be able to sign off on the house on the 26th of Novemeber. The first of December occupied my thoughts every day. In my head it became known as Stella Day and Christmas could not compare to the joy I would have when it came.
The mood in the house was joyful. Jani, the house leader, had done an amazing job with the girls in the short time they had been with us. They were telling Deb and I a story of their first attempt at baking a cake when the knock at the door came.
One of the girls jumped up to get it as I stayed to listen and laugh at the adventure I had missed. She returned a moment later and told me that someone was here to see me.
I excused myself and walked to the front of the house. Mr. Diacov stood just inside the door with a hat in his hands. With how well our girls were doing and the opening of our new home only a few days away, not even a visit from this bureaucrat could spoil my mood.
“Welcome Mr. Diacov! Come to check on us this evening?”
When he looked up I knew immediately that this was not an inspection.
“Could we step outside for a moment Mr. Cameron?”
I motioned with my hand and he opened the door and stepped into the crisp night air. The door closed with a soft click and I buried my hands into the pockets of my jacket.
“What is this about? We have followed every letter of the law.”
Even in the cold air he continued to fiddle with his hat. He would not look at me and suddenly I began to feel like one the girls that stood in front of this house only a few months before.
“This is not about your permits. Some news came across my desk and I thought you should hear it.”
He took a deep breath and a white cloud appeared as he exhaled.
“Our government is grateful for what you are doing here. As you know, the problem with human trafficking has grown out of control in this country. Some of our leaders have grown wealthy by looking the other way and organizations like yours may be the only chance many of the children have.”
I could feel my guard going up even as I said, “Thank you.”
“The gangs and organizations that operate in this country are very good at what they do. One of their favorite targets are homeless children. They know that as soon as they turn 16, they become too old to stay in our state funded orphanages. With no homes or jobs, they offer them shelter and food. But it’s all a lie. They are drugged and sold to the highest bidder. Once they are taken, it is nearly impossible to ever find them again.”
My body began to shake from something that had nothing to do with the cold.
“Mr. Diacov, why are you here?”
The silence that followed allowed my mind to race with every bad thought that could fill it. His raspy voice interrupted my imagination sending our girls back out onto the streets.
“Our police received a tip and raided a warehouse last night. A slave sex ring was using it as a base of operations. Forty-six girls and thirteen boys were being drugged and prostituted. Among those found there the young girl were speaking to the day that your home opened.”
My hands shot out and grabbed his shoulders.
“Stella!? Where is she? Can I see her?”
He looked up at me for the first time. His face was covered in shadows, but I could see the pain on his face.
“I’m sorry, but she was not breathing when they found her. The medics have told me that it appears like she sustained internal bleeding during a very violent rape. Evidence suggests that she had died hours before they arrived.”
All my strength left me. I let go of him and dropped to my knees. Sobs wracked my body. My thoughts accused me.
I should have taken her! I should have found a way. I should have saved her.
Mr. Diacov knelt down and placed a hand on my shoulder.
“I’m so sorry, but think of all the good you have done. Think of the girls inside that house. You cannot save them all.”
“Maybe not. But I could have saved her.”
“Mr. Cameron, please do not do this to yourself. It will do you no good to torture yourself over this girl. There is nothing you can do now.”
His words ignited something in me. The fire of determination exploded through me. I shot to my feet, causing him to stand and stumble back. I stepped forward and stared into his eyes.
“You’re wrong. I can never forget. And I will let her memory teach me to never stop. I’ll work harder and tell the world her story. Her voice will cry out to me until every last child is free from slavery.”
I turned and walked back to the door thinking of how I would tell our girls what had happened.
“Mr. Cameron, there are more than a million people enslaved in this country alone.”
My hand rested on the cold handle, but I did not turn it. I looked over my shoulder at a man who had given up and pitied him. He had shielded his heart from the pain it was meant to feel by turning the problem into a statistic. All he chose to see were numbers. If he refused to look into their eyes then they couldn’t find their way into his heart. I silently vowed to never let that happen to me.
“You will never be able to save them all.”
His eyes met mine for the briefest moment as he whispered his coward’s excuse.
“Then I will always have her with me.”
Copyright © 2014 Adam Drake
Author’s Note: Stella’s Voice is based on a true story. For more information about Philip Cameron and his work in Moldova visit http://www.StellasVoice.org
The U.S. State Department estimates that over 25 million people are currently enslaved in the world. The average age of the victims of human trafficking is 12 years old. We can all do something.
“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. To not speak is to speak. To not act is to act.” -Dietrich Bonhoeffer