an excerpt from “Share: Communicating for a Better World” by Neelley Hicks, release Spring 2020. Subscribe now for updates.
The message came from WhatsApp: “My sister is in trouble.” Immediately, I was put into a group of people who cared about Ruth and were trying to help her escape.
She shared her location: she was at the police department in United Arab Emirates. I was at my home in Nashville, Tennessee. Ken (Ruth’s brother) was in Uganda. How could we help her with both of us being so far away, not speaking the language, not knowing their customs?
Ruth said, “I’ve been put through hell. Please help me. I want to come home.” Then, silence. For more than three days, we heard nothing from her and we did not know where she was. Was she still alive?
Her family was out of their minds with worry. Ken wanted to travel there to look for her, but there was no money for that. And if he got there, how would people respond to him?
Normally I don’t declare outcomes – really, I don’t remember ever doing it before. This time, I did. “She will come home and be held by her mother once again. She will speak to other women about what’s happened and help them. We have to trust God.” Where did that faith come from? Honestly, I didn’t allow myself to think of anything else happening to her other than her coming home safe.
If this had been ten years ago, we would have had to travel there. But because of mobile phones and networks throughout the world, we never stopped working – especially when we were not hearing from her. We made our plan. We would find someone we could trust and send them to the police department where we last heard from her, after all, they were not helping us find her just through phone calls alone. Finding Godfrey took some time, but when we did, he agreed to go there and ask for information about her. Her passport had been sent electronically to both of us, so he had the documentation needed.
“She was taken to prison,” he reported. At least we knew that she was alive – but why was she taken to prison? I googled the name of the prison, and found a Facebook page with reviews. Really? People had reviewed it as if it were a hotel or something. As if you would have a choice of which one you prefer. The one with spa services, comfort food, air conditioning of course and a robe with slippers waiting at the bed. A room smelling like rosemary would be a great addition too. Some had given it rave reviews, while another wrote that her brother had died there.
Ruth wasn’t a criminal. Her third tour as a foreign domestic worker was set up as always. She had worked there before – making money for her child and extended family was the goal. After all, there were not places near her where she could make the kind of money she could there. It was going to be at least 7 months – maybe more, but it would be worth it – or so she thought.
I didn’t trust the police to tell Godfrey the truth. We needed to see Ruth. We needed to know that she was alive. The prison was far from Godfrey but he was willing to travel. He just needed the money and approval. $50 was all it would take, so I sent the money personally.
Ken is a persistent man – this I knew from the years of contact I had with him through email. A United Methodist deacon, he was connected to others I knew and when I began Harper Hill Global, he was there with me. Not physically, but together in spirit – dreaming with me about the role of communications in helping people. Communications passes through walls – all kinds of walls. I was (and am) determined to use communications as a way of overcoming poverty of the mind. Where people die because they lack health education. Or poverty of the spirit – where women think they’re nothing because someone else (or even a society) has told them so. Ken and I had been on this journey together for over two years, so when he told me it was his sister who was in trouble, it was like having a staff member in an office tell me that. There was no way I was going to let this go.
Receiving an alert that the money had arrived, Godfrey went to collect it. He started on his journey to the prison, not really knowing what to expect.
“She is registered there,” he said. They wouldn’t let me see her, but they said that if the family pays for her flight home, she would be released. The cost of the ticket was $325. Her friends in Uganda and South Sudan were meeting together at the church conference. They collected $160 and sent it to Harper Hill Global. Another friend from Denmark sent money as well. Then two people in the US. Together, we had even more than enough to pay for her flight home! Time was of the essence – none of us knew how she was being treated. By then it had been over two weeks since we last heard from her.
Godfrey traveled once again – this time with one of her friends. At least if they could see her from a distance, they would know she was alive. At least if she could see them, she could maintain hope.
“The officer said she would be released within 5 days of payment.” We counted the days – figuring when she would be home. That day came and went. No word. No Ruth.
I had posted a message on Facebook asking if anyone knew of trustworthy people in Abu Dhabi. One of those who responded was my friend Marianne. “My brother was a journalist there. He knows people.” She reached out to Robert to see if he was willing to help. He and I connected immediately. Robert knew of others there and was able to contact one friend – another journalist. We just needed to know that she was alright. That she would be coming home soon. That every act we had taken wasn’t in vain.
“Am I tilting at windmills?” I asked myself. There were other things that needed to be done in my life, but this had taken priority. I’ve always been an idealist – that’s for sure. Trusting people is part of my core. “Generous to a fault,” is what my mother used to say about me. Her presence in my life has grown since she died. I think of her often, and every time I say the name of my nonprofit, she is there. Harper Hill Global is named in her memory – on the tenth anniversary of her death.
Word came by text. “Ruth is still there, and she will be sent home on October 4th.” Excitedly, I let Ken know. This word would help his mom – after all, she had collapsed and was literally sick with worry. Ken went to her home to help her physically and to encourage her with hope.
On October 4, 2019, I received a video from Ken.
“Thank you so much. I was really in a bad situation but because of you, I have come back home.” Ruth’s voice shook as she said these words, and the jackhammer pounding in the background at Entebbe International Airport echoed the callousness of her treatment for the 8 months she had suffered – not as a domestic worker, but as a victim of human trafficking.
Since then she has shared with me how many other women she met in prison who were put through similar situations. Are their families looking for them? Will they ever go home alive?
We had faith. We had mobile phones, connectivity, money. We had her GPS from when she was last seen and we had a human network who united their hearts in a focused way. If we could bring Ruth home, what else can we do to help others…to improve the world?
“The Tower of Babel” (Genesis 11:1–9) is a story about language and how many languages came from one. Paraphrased, it goes like this:
As all people had one language to speak, they began plotting to build a tower that would reach to the heavens. God saw their work and wasn’t pleased, so God confused their languages – creating many out of one.
Today, we have a second chance. We speak in one language again – the language of “digital,” but confusion and chaos are still found everywhere. Through Twitter, Facebook and all forms of social media, this incredible gift we’ve been given is often squandered and misused to do harm and perpetuate pain throughout the world.
Yet the greatest opportunity awaits: using this one language of “digital” to improve lives all over the world – with education, healthcare, job skills development, human equality, and so much more. What will you share with the world? The gifts that God has given you, however small they may seem, may be the greatest gift to another. Share.