One month in. One month in the land I dreamed of. And it is beautiful and the people are beautiful. And they love to love. They love to connect, they take time to create, and family is most important. Their food is fresh, their wine flows to overflowing, and their hospitality seems endless. Yet I can’t help but see the pain that is also here. Because we are human. And all humans have a shadow.
In Florence, the city of art and romance; I saw an old woman hunched over so that her face was parallel to the ground as she walked. She was begging in a foreign tongue, yet desperation translates to every language.
Countless people ask for money here, especially as I move south. But my soul felt drawn to this woman. I gave her 5 euro, the price of a simple breakfast, and touched her hand to try to translate love. As I touched her she sobbed. It wasn’t a simple cry. It was a depths of the soul, pain bubbling up and bursting over, sorrowful, and real cry. I will never forget that sound. I bought her two sandwiches and some water. And I prayed for her. It was all I knew to do. Then I turned the corner and fell against a wall to cry myself. Pain is as easily translated as love.
In Arezzo I met a family that heads up an evangelical church. They are a loving family with four children under the age of 11, chickens, and two dogs. They live in a country house and I shared the bunk bed of their 11 year old for one night. That evening, the mother asked me to drive with her to visit some women in the neighborhood. For years now she has been driving about five minutes down the road from their home to speak with the local prostitutes. Late in the night, on unlit country streets, under the beautiful Tuscan moon. The kind of streets where you expect happiness and rainbows. Only for some women it is only darkness. I was shocked.
Mostly this mother of four just wants to tell the girls that they are beautiful. That they are worth something, that they are loved, and that they are not forgotten. She explained that the first road was a road where the Nigerian girls worked. They were usually sold to their pimps by family or friends for a small sum. The girls were told that they were coming to the country to work a trade, promised a good job. They were never informed that the trade was a trade of human dignity for shame, of human rights for bondage, and of hope for the darkness of the human soul.
The second street that we turned onto was the Romanian section. These girls were usually coerced into the trade by a man that pretended to be their boyfriend. This street was mafia controlled. The mafia would rent this “prime” spot to the pimps. The pimps would collect rent and their own payment from the girls. The girls usually sent whatever was left back home to their families. Unless they bore a child from the job. Many times the women were forced to have abortions, but occasionally the pimp would allow a girl to keep their baby. Mainly because this solidified that the girl would not try to run, since they needed to provide for their child.
“Don’t they try to get away?” I questioned. “Yes, they do. And if they are caught they are beaten near to death if not killed. If they do make it, they have no trade other than prostitution to earn money, and they are in a foreign country. If they try to go back home, many times they are killed when they get there. By those that sold them in the first place.” My stomach turned.
This couple has tried to help a few of the girls that had the courage to say they wanted to leave. One they had been talking with for years. She was sold into the job as a little girl, beaten on a regular basis. They formed a friendship with her and tried to help her start over. Paperwork was submitted to get a passport, because this was taken from her when she was sold. They helped her get an apartment away from her pimp. She tried to work less, but the family did not have enough money to help her stop working prostitution and get her trained for something else.
Then she disappeared. No one knows where she went. Her phone doesn’t work. She is gone and there is no way to find her. They fear the worst; did her pimp find her, did she get robbed, or worse. The family grieves. I wish that I had a happy ending to relay for this girl, but I can’t. Yet this mother is not deterred and continues to go and make friends with the girls as often as possible, at the risk of her own life.
Because Italy in it’s pain, also has its heroes. Like the friend of my host here in Naples. He goes out nightly to feed the men that are on the streets near the central train station. He feeds them and and talks with them and shows human kindness to people that are generally forgotten. These are the heroes of the country. Those that look beyond themselves. Beyond their own needs to see the pain they are surrounded by. Among the art and history and tourist spots, if you look closely…you will see it. The grief and the glitter of hope.