Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Beauty for Ashes

Arts and crafts pieces beautify the shelter that provides refuge for trafficked survivors.
Photo: Judith Santiago

June 20, 2010

The day started early. I arrived in Yerevan, Armenia at 4:30a.m. Karine Harutunyan of UMCOR’s Armenia office greeted me at the gate with a big UMCOR sign.

As I was driven to the hotel by Arthur, UMCOR’s designated driver, I looked forward to taking advantage of the few short hours of rest before visiting UMCOR Armenia’s office. The trip is part of a two-week assignment to visit UMCOR-NGO projects in both Armenia and the Republic of Georgia.

I wondered what this day would bring. I was there in part to meet survivors of trafficking in an undisclosed shelter. What will the survivors share? What will be the response? Whatever was to come, I readied myself to lend an ear, extend a hand, and be a voice to speak on their behalf. While I anticipated being a vessel of strength for them by sharing a relatable, personal story, they became the strength for me. I honored and admired each one’s courage and fortitude to keep hope alive despite their daily struggles to overcome their past. I witnessed a quiet humility and strength that breathed hope for each of the four women I met. And, I saw glimpses of dignity begin to emerge as they shared their experiences.

One survivor displayed her arts and craft handiwork on the walls and on the shelves of the main living space. Her gift for creating center pieces or adorned frames was greatly encouraged. Her face lit up as we spoke about how talented she was, and how she could one day leverage her new found talent by starting her own business. I admired her pieces of artwork, and realized the pieces expressed the “beauty for ashes” (Isaiah 61:3b) that God gives each of us in the place of our brokenness. When you’re broken there is a something so bittersweet when expression comes from a dark or painful place. In this case, beauty and hope was expressed in the artistic arrangement of flowers. And, isn’t this the expression of Jesus in our lives – that out of the heap of our pain and sin hope emerges? In this shelter, hope was shining everywhere. Smiles instead of despair, joy instead of mourning, beauty instead of ashes…

I was warmed by all of UMCOR’s staff, and I realized that although we were countries apart, we spoke the very same language of compassion for one another as the work continues forward to keep the shelter operating for those yet to be found. More than 85 women have journeyed through its doors and into a more normal life. Some have maintained their identities; others have had to hide theirs; while still others wade through the dark waters. But, even though we don’t see them, it doesn’t mean they’re not there.

Tomorrow is a full day of meeting community health workers, mothers to-be, women-run cooperatives, and volunteers. As part of the trip, we hope to visit the USDA-supported Sustainable Cooperative Extension and Agricultural Development Program; the organization’s HIV/AIDS work, which is funded by the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund; and UMCOR Health, as well as the US Department of States’ Pharmaceutical Distribution Program and Small Reconstruction Projects. I look forward to see what the day will bring.

Judith Santiago is the Media Communications Associate for UMCOR.

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