Standing with the victims

May 21, 2012

A-Hang (a pseudo name for the purposes of this article), a 29 year old Vietnamese care-giver, arrived at our shelter as a victim of rape. She was working as a caregiver for an elderly man whose son had raped her repeatedly. She arrived in the shelter in August 2005. I had worked as a nurse for nine years in a hospital in the Philippines (Pagadian, Mindanao) and was head nurse when I resigned to join the Columban Lay Mission Programs. However, I had no experience with trauma counselling so did not know how to deal with A-Hang’s case.

I would see her looking out the window with a vacant look on her face. I knew she was so lonely and probably depressed, but I felt that I could do little more than be silently present to her. My Chinese language was quite limited at that time even though I had done one year of fulltime language study. I soon realized that by being present to her I was comforting her. One day she said to me, “You are very good.”

After about four months A-Hang started talking to me about how she had been raped. She cried and let me see her feelings. I knew that was good, that she was beginning the road back to recovery. She also started participating in activities and talking with others at the shelter.

When the time came for her court hearings, I helped her prepare herself for the ordeal. We looked at a movie about a court case dealing with rape and that made her hesitate. She told me she was afraid to re-live the feeling of being raped. I told her that if she showed such feeling it would help her case. I advised her to be focused, not to worry whether or not she cried or felt bad, and to consult the translator if necessary.

I admired her sense of confidence, her strength and courage. She would say, “I am doing this because I am fighting for my rights. This is my time to speak the truth.”

A-Hang won her case. Her criminal employer was sentenced to time in jail and was obliged by the court to pay her compensation. She was also the first migrant worker to win the right to a cross-sector (care giver to factory worker) transfer.

Like so many others A-Hang had arrived at our shelter weary of life, depressed and seemingly broken. She found the inner strength to gradually come back to life. We at the shelter were privileged to accompany her along the road of that difficult year long journey. Her facial expression told me that she was moving on. In fact, she was the first of many I have seen make a similar comeback after being abused or exploited in some devastating way.

A-Hang’s case confirmed for me in a striking way that I had made the correct decision when I applied to join the Columban Lay Mission Programs. When I was a young nurse I had the timeline of my life worked out – profession, good job, better job, migrate to U.S., marry, have a family and a nice home. A Chilean couple, both of whom were Columbans Lay Missionaries with the Columbans, began to help me see radically different, undreamt of possibilities.

I had the idea that only Sisters and priests could be missionaries. The Chilean couple showed me that was not so. They had a baby and lived in the small town of Midsalip (Philippines). Life was not easy there. I noticed that they also spoke our language (Cebuano) among themselves. I knew Columban priests who came to the hospital at times, Frs. Larry Ryan and Mick Sinnott, so I asked them about the Columban Lay Mission Programs.

I applied to join the Program, was accepted, did the initial orientation course and was assigned to Taiwan. Following Chinese language study I expressed my preference for work in the mountains with the indigenous with whom I thought I’d have a good chance of improving my Chinese. I ended up with the migrant workers who generally speak Chinese poorly. The story of A-Hang and so many others has ensured that I never regretted the path I have walked.

I visited my sister in the U.S. to see what life was like there. I still wondered whether I might like to work and live there. I soon realized that it was not for me – working for long hours to pay bills and have lots of nice things. Here I am empowering women who have been abused and exploited. This makes so much more sense to me. I also learn a lot from the different cultures of the women who come to our shelter.

At times, it may be tiring, frustrating and disappointing here because many women feel hopeless and give up when they are only part of the way into their court cases. Still, the A-Hangs of this world assure me that this work is very worthwhile. In August 2010, A-Hang came to say, “Goodbye” to me. She told me, “I’ve earned enough money for my daughter’s education. I’m going home now.” I asked her how she was, whether the troubles of the past still affected her. She laughed and said, “The past is over; I just want to move on with my life.” A-Hang is a practicing Buddhist, and I know that she finds a steady strength in her religious faith.

Columban Lay Missionary Beth Sabado lives and works in Taiwan.