I flew from Phoenix to Chicago last night. Shortly after takeoff, a young girl in the seat behind me began to cry.
I knew exactly who it was. I’m always aware of my surroundings when I travel with adults with cognitive disabilities. Sometimes I need to step in and check the gawkers and the mockers. Sometimes I need to curb the fear of the unknown that creates barriers between 'them' and 'us.' Sometimes I scan the room and identify possible allies, just as I did last night with the unflappable flight attendant who helped us get settled in the back of the plane.
As we helped fasten the seatbelt of my crew I noticed across the aisle a young girl traveling with two adults. She was probably 10 or 11, wearing an ill-fitting graphic t-shirt - the 'Justice' brand? - with a sassy adolescent phrase across the front. She watched my crew intently as so many 'tweens do when they see us out and about, so I knew exactly who was behind the small, sad sobs.
In the beginning she struggled mightily to contain her sadness, but eventually surrendered to the bigger wave of grief inside. The high pitched whine crescendoed into a low, uneven wail. Thankfully the air in planes is thick and buzzy, so the sound didn't travel much further than my row.
It was uncomfortable to be so close to such sadness, and to be so powerless to help her - and for so long.
I worried about her. I kept thinking, “I hope her Mom is okay,” for though there was an adult woman in the middle seat next to her, the urgency of her sobs had the gravity of something unthinkable. I leaned in for clues and heard a few.
When my ally flight attendant noticed the situation and asked if there was anything she could do to help, the woman in the middle seat asked her for some ginger ale to ease the stomach ache that was causing the girl’s tears. When I heard her say that, red flags begin to pop.
That was a lie - those tears were from anguish, not physical pain.
From the clips of their conversations I managed to hear, I knew the girl was fearful and felt confused about what was to come.
“I’m afraid…….I don’t know…..what if………when?”
The woman’s responses to the girl didn’t make sense to me, but details without context are impossible to verify or disprove. I could tell, however, that there was an underlying question not being answered.
“Our people….you will go…….after that....we.....you......then.....”
Neither the man nor the woman seemed particularly invested in comforting the girl. There was no gentleness being shared in the row behind me. I never heard “…..you’ll be okay.”
My God I thought. What if the girl is the victim of trafficking? It would explain so much - her confusion, her anguish, and her attempts to keep her cries to herself. Come to think of it, there had been no overt family resemblance in the row behind me.
I remember reading something very recently about flight attendants being trained to spot human trafficking, so I approached my flight attendant ally and discreetly shared with her my concerns and disquieting hunches. I saw her eyes change when she “got” what I was saying.
“You don’t want to be wrong about this, you know?” I said. “You don’t want to insult someone with such a heinous insinuation but…Jesus. You don’t want to be right, either."
She asked her co-worker to check if the names of the trio matched: all three last names were different.
Suddenly everything about the situation felt urgent and disturbing - I’ve read articles about trafficking recently that were almost too horrific to finish. I’m the kind of person who thinks that the whole GD country should come to a halt so that every resource available in this great land could be used to find and free every single young woman currently living in bondage. I don’t think it’s too much to ask to relieve suffering of that scale.
To think that this young girl might be the victim of such wickedness made inaction unthinkable. Back in my seat, I strained to hear more words: ....."uncle”… “make sure.”
I saw my uniformed ally go to the front of the plane and disappear into the cockpit. I was relieved to see her following through, but put the number for the National Human Trafficking hotline (1-888-373-7888) into my phone just in case. (I also Googled “How to spot human trafficking")
The girl had fallen asleep. I was thankful she had been given a reprieve, even one so temporary.
Another flight attendant casually looked over the shoulder of the man in the aisle seat - what was he writing? Reading?
Eventually there was a conversation between my ally and the man on the aisle. Once again, I aggressively eavesdropped.
“Can I see something….”
“Where is she going….”
“I had to ask..”
“Why don’t they tell us these things…..”
“You have a good day, now.”
My ally’s body language relaxed, like she was satisfied with his explanation. Even so, I pretended to take a picture of my clients, making sure the man was in the frame.
When we landed, I turned around and talked to the girl and the woman - gave myself the opportunity to look directly into their eyes for my own peace of mind.
We talked about the spring training game I’d just been to. We talked about the weather in Arizona. I observed how similar the climate was between Arizona and Southern California - how the orange/yellow cast of the sunlight was the same on the horizon of both single story infinities.
The girl said she had an uncle in California. (“uncle…”) Did the woman in the center seat flinch? I thought so. I said good-bye and good luck when they slid out of the seat and disappeared from my life.
The flight attendant filled me in: They were two ICE agents just doing their job. Not human traffickers, but ICE agents.
“He showed me his badge. I didn’t tell him you were the one who tipped me off, just in case. He thanked me for checking it out - for looking out for her.”
“ICE agents? Where are her parents? Is she being deported?”
The flight attendant nodded. “They have been hired to accompany her during the process. Two of them.”
“But where are her parents? Where’s her Mom? Is she going to meet them?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t ask.”
There could be only two answers to that: her parents are either still in the country, or they are out of the country. But either way, the system had separated them from her, and had assigned two dark skinned strangers to escort her away from her home.
I don’t know the details of her situation - maybe her parents are truly bad hombres. Maybe not, for that is no longer the criteria for a former crowd-rousing campaign promise.
But what I do know is this: when I was her age, I lived in Naples, Italy. It was one of the most profound times of my life - a sacred experience that permanently shaped my world view and forever endeared me to that country.
If she is being ejected from the United States for bigoted, immoral reasons, and is being sent back to a middle eastern country without her family, strong-armed by two hired hands, then she stands a very good chance of turning against America.
And just what she does with that resentment is anyone’s guess.
That's my piece, and that's my peace. Thanks so much for taking the time to read my silly words. It truly means the world to me. Carry on...
Whoa. That was some pretty deep stuff. Thankfully the flight TO Phoenix was ridiculous and hugely amusing. Click here to read about THAT flight...