Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Small Things; Great Love

There are unique practical challenges to doing legal work in the developing world. 

Two rats sometimes frequent our office.  One indomitable animal-lover named them Harold and Gerald.  For context, this is the same intern who befriends the dogs outside our office that have been nicknamed “Virus” and “Train Wreck”, respectively. 

A reporter who failed to appear at our office for an appointment called to say that she “was not accustomed to working in such areas as these.”

There is a small goat pen neighbouring the office, and every afternoon, about 30 of them scamper across the street.  They jockey to plunge their snouts into feed buckets, ram each other in the head, and cause general havoc for the autos trying to navigate down the lane. Every week or so, a new set of animals hops off the back of a truck and trots merrily into their pens, where they unknowingly await their demise.  You see, this happy little goat kingdom is actually a slaughter house. 

Our third day leaving work, Mark froze mid step and turned me in horror.

“What is that?”

We had just passed the building, which was gated at the end of the day.

“The goats.”

“No,” he said, shaking his head, “that cannot be a goat.  That is a person.  Just listen.”

A tortured wail warbled through the air.  It was uncannily human, like something out of a horror movie.

“Trust me—I hear them from my window all day long; that is a goat.  At least, it was a goat. But,” I started, my gaze traveling up the concrete building to a small, barred window, “if there were a person inside, no one would ever know.”
The most disturbing thing is that a few short weeks later, I had tuned out the noise completely.

There are, leaks, faulty electrical circuits, cramped spaces, and makeshift desks so small that you need a system in order to read and take notes at the same time.  These are humble surroundings, to say the least.  Yet, almost every one of my colleagues travels 1.5 to 2 hours each way, every day, to do this work.  They spend up to 4 hours a day in sweaty, stinking buses and trains so packed that people who faint from the heat have no room to fall.

These people are my heroes.  The work done through them, from this little office, is amazing.  During our short time here, we have had 2 convictions in cases that we were told would be impossible to win. We have seen a notorious trafficker who is responsible for countless girls’ captivity, arrested.  We have seen two sets of girls come out from years trapped in darkness and begin living in freedom.  Daily, doors have opened in such ways that can only be described as miracles. 

This is life doing small things with great love.  Ride a train at rush hour, and you will start to understand.

Small things.  Great love.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Encounters With Indian Healthcare

A couple weeks ago I contracted some sort of skin infection. At first I thought nothing of it. But within a week the large, painful, red, bulges in my underarms could no longer be ignored. Initially, I was overwhelmed at the prospect of seeking medical attention in this foreign and intimidating country. Should I go to the hospital? How do I get into an Indian hospital? How will I find a reputable doctor, and not a quack that uses unsterilized needles? How will I pay for it? Do I call my travel insurance company? 
After a few minutes of panicked deliberation, a thought came into my head: isn’t there a doctor on the ground-level of my apartment, just a few feet away?

After a quick consult with Lauren, we agreed that I would go, but I would bolt at the first sign of a scalpel or needle. I set off downstairs to see the doc.

This is the sign that greeted me:

I was not comforted by the claim of “surgeon.” Ah yes, I know the cure for a skin infection, SURGERY. 

The pain was quite bad, so I told myself it was worth a try. Bizarrely, less than ten minutes after stepping into the office, I was back in my apartment having been examined, diagnosed, and provided with a full antibiotic regime. The price tag: 200 rupees, or about 4 dollars. So much for insurance, I thought. You would have to have open heart-surgery just to make the deductible worthwhile.

After some skeptical googling of the diagnosis and drugs, and a skype consult with Dr. Dad, I conceded that the doctor had probably nailed the diagnosis and prescription.    
But the story does not end here. After making initial improvements on the antibiotics, about three days into my course, the infection rebounded. What!? Apparently, Indian health-care professionals go a little light on the antibiotics. 

I decided I needed to up my dose, however, Doctor Downstairs was adamant that twice a day was sufficient. C'mon, the Internet and my Dad say three times a day. What more do you want?  I decided to undermine the doctor’s medical opinion and headed off to the pharmacy in search of more antibiotics. I was worried they would want a prescription, but nobody even raised an eyebrow. I probably could have loaded up with Oxytocin. 

I again made progress on the upped dose, but when new boils were still popping up ten days into my antibiotic course, I started to get worried again. Maybe the bug wasn’t sensitive to these antibiotics? Maybe I had contracted an Indian super-bug?

I asked fellow interns what to do. One guy gave me the info for a dermatologist he’d seen. 

“So, I go back to the family doctor and get a referral to get on the dermatologist’s waitlist,” I asked, thinking I might not even get in before we left India.

“Um, no. You just call her.”

So we called up the skin specialist, and she was able to see both me and Lauren (who had other skin stuff) that night. I don’t even want to know how long it would take to see a dermatologist in Canada. 

And so begins our encounter with Dr. Pramila, our neighborhood dermatologist. 
Dr. Pramila turned out to be rather amazing. Very professional, great bed-side manner, perfect English, and very thorough. We both left with multiple-step regimes for curing our ailments, and prescriptions for a whole wack of ointments and creams (that ran us about $25 combined). Lauren, who has bad allergies, and has struggled to find quality, accessible, skin-care in Canada, contemplated setting up a standing weekly appointment to take full advantage of this find.

The funniest part, however, was when Dr. Pramila told me that I was on the ‘right’ drug, but the wrong ‘brand.’

“Oh, yes, this drug will work, but I would recommend the one made by GlaxoSmithKline. The brand you have doesn’t really work.”

Apparently, I was taking a generic. And there is no guarantee that generic drugs will actually work here. About the efficacy of a tic-tac, in many cases. It’s not that they’re fake – they’re just not manufactured properly. Fake drugs are a whole different problem. An enormous and highly disconcerting problem. Some studies that tested drugs in Indian pharmacies found as many as 20% to be completely fake. But I digress.

So, in the end, I am happy to report that I am now infection free. My encounter with Indian healthcare was, on the whole, not all that bad. Some interns seem to have fared much worse. But for me, despite much trepidation, it did the trick.


Wednesday, 27 July 2011

When Things go Wrong

Our team was in the middle of a rescue operation.  This time, as often happens, there was a tip off.  The girls and the perpetrators scattered before we reached the building, and the rescue fell apart.  It was crushing.

An operation is an exercise in patience.  Investigators spend countless nights undercover gathering information.  These courageous individuals risk their lives every time that they are in the field.  Our legal team ensures that every single technicality is followed in order to create the best possible chance for a conviction.  Without perpetrator accountability, rescues are empty; they only leave vacuums that will be filled by others, essentially creating a market for new girls.  Our aftercare team scrambles to arrange immediate support for the victims.  If not, these girls are so traumatized that they may become uncooperative, try to return to a brothel, or refuse to tell their stories and allow their abusers to walk free.  Planning can be frantic, but it is always aims to be meticulous, because the stakes are extremely high.

When it goes wrong, it can be devastating.

I was listening to a sermon online when I got the news—a text message explaining that our rescue had failed.  It was just then that the speaker began talking about times when God may allow even the best of plans to be thwarted.  He talked about how God, in his loving sovereignty, will sometimes say ‘no’ to who he uses and when, but never to what.  His mission is always the same: rescue. 

My heart needed that reminder.

The next day, we did not have our regular morning meeting.  Instead, putting any differences aside, we just sang and were reminded that God loves those girls more than any of us do, and that He is infinitely more committed to their rescue than we are.

I would be lying if I said that this makes it easier to sit with the result.  It does not.  It is so difficult to grasp God’s purpose in face of this kind of injustice, but I do not want a faith that closes its eyes to seeming incongruities, or fails to ask questions that lack trite answers. 

I want a faith that is deep enough to wrestle with the truth of God’s goodness in the reality of suffering.  Anything less would be delusion.  But I am thankful for a God who draws near in our questioning, and who is big enough to answer.  

- Lauren

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Anecdotes and Pictures

We feel incredibly blessed to have been a part of the rescue operation Lauren shared about in her last post. This post is a little different, and has nothing to do with our work. I (Mark)wanted to put up a few pictures (below) and give a few anecdotes about life in India -- how, despite the fact I am really enjoying myself, it can be  frustrating, entertaining, difficult, and just really time consuming.

Grocery Shopping – Not many Indians can afford to shop in grocery stores. But there are enough to make “picking up a few things after work” a full evening affair. After my rick-shaw driver battled traffic for twenty-five minutes to get me the kilometre or two to the store, I came to realize that traffic here is not confined to the streets. It spills into the grocery stores, where the aisles are jam-packed with miniature-Indian shopping carts. There were busy intersections, one-way streets, turning lanes, wider aisles that served as high-ways, opportune u-turn places to avoid heavy congestion—all the standard traffic features. I forgot to get milk near the entrance of the store, but I quickly realized I was better off cutting my losses and continuing my forward progress through the store. And then, of course, to round out the analogy, there was the big traffic jam. Gridlock. A one hour plus line-up just to check out my groceries. After playing every single game on my cell-phone, I finally emerged, drenched in sweat, only to line up again just to have someone check off my receipt and let me exit the store.
E-mail – Checking your e-mail should take a few seconds. When we arrived at the office, however, the Microsoft Outlook server was down, and the internet was on-and-off. We tried to use the web-based version of our e-mail. When it worked, about 20% of our e-mails came through, and they were often up to a day late. Some never made the harrowing journey through cyberspace. Even when we could access emails online, it could take up to twenty minutes to switch from viewing the inbox to the sent items folder. I assumed the problem would be remedied within a few hours. I quickly revised this expectation to within a day or two. Two weeks later, Outlook seemed to take heed of my silent, mouthed, screams, and decided to return to us. I don’t know why, but I will never take it for granted again.
Critters – We have a lot of roommates, and they like to eat our food. Dozens and dozens of ants roam around our house searching for anything edible. Lauren had a rather unfortunate experience with these guys. We didn’t realize that all food must be sealed. One morning, Lauren realized that her cereal seemed rather alive. It was crawling with ants, but it was too late—she was already several mouthfuls in. But, please don’t get me wrong. I’ll take the ants (Lauren may beg to differ). So far, the cockroaches I’ve seen in my neighbours’ garbage are yet to make an appearance. And the rats that terrorized the previous intern (she swears it wasn’t the reason she gave us the apartment) seem to have been successfully vanquished.

[I (Lauren) have this to add: Mark has, unfortunately, been shocked out of the idyllic childhood cocoon that is created by growing up in a rat-free province (Alberta). He saw his first rat the other day. I, on the other hand, have been amazed at his capacity for selective blindness until then. Mark and I spend a lot of time together here, and I've seen PLENTY of rats. I'm fairly confident that he has been mistaking them for small cats all along. From a distance, it's an easy mistake to make. They are impressively large.]
Water – We get the water for a couple hours in the morning and a couple hours at night. From about 10:30 to 6:30, there is no water. Unfortunately, it’s not actually that predictable. A lot of times, running water will just disappear in the evening, right before you were going to take a shower, wash your face, or do the dishes. We never know if these are scheduled or unscheduled turn-offs. Back home, you’d need a month’s notice to turn water off for a couple hours. But here, you are expected to have a bucket filled for such times. We, however, can never remember to fill it. But we’ve got it much better than the people in the slums, where, almost incomprehensibly, close to 80% of Mumbai’s twenty million call home. Often, they’ll get just an hour or two of water from a community faucet. And during the monsoon, when flash floods cause sewers to overflow into the water supply, the slum-dwellers are sometimes forced to drink water that is mixed with their own sewage.  



                                     Market just ouside our apartment

                       Back Alley Cricket


Sachin II (No idea what I'm talking about? Common, only the greatest cricketer of all time)



                                     Fruitstand near our apartment, self-help seminar is tempting

Pani Pura -- famous street-food. You find one every block or so, a bit like Starbucks in Van (we haven't tried it yet -- during the monsoon season, eating street food is a bit like playing Russian Roulette with your digestive system).

Some slum-ish dwellings bordering the five-star Grand Hyatt that is just off the picture.

I'd like to think he goes to school during the day, but who knows.

Some relatively civil garbage cans, by this city's standards. At night, rats would join the mix.

British architecture in the South of the city. A good example of the traffic volume. But 99% of the city looks nothing like this.


A National Geographic shot from one of the world's most famous slums. Around a million people live here.

Sunday, 10 July 2011


The other night, we had a successful rescue. 

The stories here are both horrific and terrifyingly familiar, like some sick variation on "once upon a time."  Usually, they go something like this:  A girl meets someone while waiting for a train.  They talk, often about how the girl is seeking work in the city to support her family.  They board the train, but it is sweltering, and when the kind stranger offers her a sip of water, she gratefully accepts.  A few moments later, the world turns black, and she wakes up in a brothel.  She opens her eyes in Hell. 

It happens all the time.

Once in a brothel, these girls are beaten, threatened and abused until they break.  Then, their lives become an endless stream of serial rape. They are beaten if customers' appetites are somehow unmet. Most girls do not retain their earnings, and what they do get, they are often forced to spend on condoms, or on food to supplement whatever meals their brothel keeper gives them.

Many of these girls do not know where they are - what street, what building, what floor - because they are never allowed outside the brothel walls.  Any life or ambition they once had dissolves into an existence spent in filthy sex rooms from 6 pm to 3 am.  And no one comes to save them.

But the other night, four girls imprisoned in a brothel got to come out, and we are so thankful that tonight, they can sleep in freedom.  That said, it really is only the beginning.  The rescue itself is the product of hours of meticulous, patient, thorough work, but the road ahead is much harder.  Like so many other girls, they will now have to deal with the trauma of what they suffered, from deep psychological scarring to lifelong disease.  For many, medical tests will reveal HIV.

The trial will take years, but that is another story for another time.

We are amazed at the courage, skill, and enormous faith of the team.  In a week that has not held a lot of personal good, we have felt deeply blessed to have been witness to and a very small part of what God is doing here.

If any of this is even remotely interesting, I have a book for you. I'll lend you it when I get home, but if you want it now, get in touch with any of my family (I left them a stack) or Mark's parents, and they'll be more than happy to let you borrow it.

- Lauren

Monday, 27 June 2011

Sunday Night

It is ten p.m. on a Sunday night and we are caught in a traffic jam. But for the skill or lunacy of the drivers jockeying their autos through impossibly tight spaces, the street would be gridlock. There are three of us crammed into the back of a rickshaw. We are nearly home, chatting through a hot cloud of diesel and smog. A few moments before, we had been eating dinner at a friend’s favorite spot. Fifteen minutes from our apartment, the rooftop restaurant is worlds away from where we live: fine dining for a few dollars. It is only one more of the seemingly endless number of faces this city wears.

We stop at a red light, hemmed in by a sea of other ricks, coughing and sputtering as we wait. At first, I see them from the corner of my eye. The sight of white people had sent them scampering from their stations at the side of the road to flank our captive vehicle.

A small boy is on my left. He uses one arm to steady a pair of crutches at his side. The other moves in a practiced motion, bringing a phantom morsel of food to his lips over and over again. To my right, a tiny girl clamors for my friend’s attention. Her matted hair frames haunting dark eyes. Even streaked in dirt, she looked like a doll, or a character in Les Misérables—beautiful, tragic. Only there is no stage and no score. Just real life. Neither of them could be more than six.

I feel a hand on my leg. The boy is still motioning, more insistent now. My friend tries a few phrases in Hindi, saying hello and asking them their names, but their faces are unwavering masks. Misery. His hand is on my arm. I don’t know what to do, where to look, what to say. I have nothing for them and even if I did, I know that it would be immediately scuttled back to their handler who is lurking in the shadows and sending them out to canvas the streets.

The light seems to last forever.

Finally, mercifully, it changes. The rickshaw surges forward, nearly clipping the boy’s crutches as the children disappear behind us. It is only when I exhale that I realize I have been holding my breath. Two blocks later, we arrive back at our flat and climb the stairs in silence. I feel a devastating mix of relief to have escaped that moment and shame at how easily I can. I have seen this kind of poverty before. There have been other children in other countries clamoring for money and tugging at my hand, but somehow this sits differently. Here, there are no smiles or banter or practiced English phrases. Maybe it is the enormity or the normalcy of the need, but it makes me furious.

I can’t sleep.

Wide eyed in the dark, I lash out in my mind at any organization, nation or institution that should be doing something, anything about the crushing despair that defines this city. Most of all, I am terrified by the glaring reality of my own helplessness and the massive injustice I inhabit.

Then, gently I am reminded. I am reminded that Jesus knows their names, even though I do not. I am reminded that He has carved them into the palms of his hands and walks with them long after they fade from my memory. I am reminded that tonight I only peered into the story He is weaving over their lives. And I am reminded that his heart beats as loudly for me as it does for them.

An IJM colleague put it more eloquently that I, a phrase that has been etched in my mind and will likely find its way onto this page many times in the weeks to come: “We do not worship justice itself, but the God of justice.”

For now, that is enough.

- Lauren

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

First Impressions

Here we are, finally in South Asia. We travelled for about 24 hours stopping off in London and eventually arrived on Sunday afternoon. We were picked up by two fellow IJM interns and took a taxi-cab into the unknown. The very next day we started at the office.

I’ll start with the office. It is truly incredible to be in an IJM field office. Advocates are in and out of Court, investigators pop in and out of the office. Each day prayer requests, and praise reports, and also reports of setbacks and frustrations come in about the young girls and ‘forced majors’ (over the age of 18 currently, but still forced into prostitution, often as minors). I found reading one of Gary Haugen’s (Founder of IJM) books really brought home how horrific the experience of these girls is. But to be so close, to read actual reports – it is almost numbing. I really can’t even imagine. Tricked or kidnapped away from isolated towns, locked in cubicles, servicing 15-20 daily, beaten and threatened, tortured for not performing their ‘duties’ perfectly. I can hardly fathom a more hideous manifestation of evil.

As for the office itself, well, it’s actually a converted apartment building. It is nothing to write home about, although I suppose I am writing home about it. I should provide pictures, but I’m still a little reluctant to brandish my new camera outside. Apparently, everyone has been praying for new office space for five years. There are plenty of shining sky-scrapers marked with corporate logos rising out of the rubble. But we aren’t located there, and probably never will be. Our city is the economic capital of South Asia, and every bank in the world has an office here.  But rent is out of control. Lauren and I pay close to $600 a month for a very humble one bedroom, partially air conditioned apartment. Nobody knows when this ‘promise land’ of a new office will arrive.

How to describe South Asia? It’s hard. The city is completely insane. It’s the population of Australia crammed into one city. Something’s gotta give. It’s out of control in every way. Not enough power (it’s not atypical to just lose power for a couple hours because the power company intentionally rations you to provide power somewhere else), not enough drainage, not enough real estate to accommodate the 20 million people in the metropolitan area. It’s not all bad, though. There’s an incredible energy to the city, that I’m sure I will appreciate more as time goes by. And there are also, apparently, extremely nice areas that we will I’m sure visit at some point.

To get to work, we ride in rickshaws on busted up streets that are jammed with taxis, other rickshaws, people, cows, and many other things. I am convinced we are going to be in a head-on-collision about every 20 seconds. But apparently, because there is so much traffic, everyone is forced to go slow, and there are actually surprisingly few serious accidents. The constant blaring of horns stops only from about 1:30 AM to 5 AM (and I know this because the first jet-lagged night I had little to do but observe the frequency of horn blasts as I lay wide awake in bed).

The air is actually not as bad as I expected. The heat is certainly not as bad, as the Monsoon season is actually relatively cool. But the craziness is about all I could have anticipated, as is the dirtiness.  Some places there are no strange smells. And then you’ll approach a giant heap of garbage --  a public dump right in the middle of a residential neighbourhood, and your sense of smell just gets inundated with nasty. Nasty that just doesn’t exist back home. The first night I was a little reluctant to even venture out to buy water (I did, eventually). Everything was just SO foreign. I’ve experienced Africa, Nicaragua, Thailand, Cambodia... but never this.