Walking home from bar outreach just before midnight, I meet a little friend. She’s one of the kids that roams the streets in the area, and I am so happy to see her. It has been a long time since I’ve talked to her because she, and most of the other street kids I relate to, was arrested as an illegal immigrant and deported over a month ago.
She and other children like her have been brought from another country to this city to beg – by family members or other adults in their lives who want to make a profit off of them. Each day they sleep until late afternoon, then they are sent to the streets in the red light areas to beg, sell flowers or gum, or shine shoes through the night. Most of the money they make, goes back to the adults. If the police catch them, they get sent back to their home country. Then the kids are gone for a month or so before we see them back on the city streets again.
After hugs, new year’s greetings, and an update on her life, I ask my little friend to catch me up on the news of the other children. She tells me her older sister is “grown already” (at 16) and working in prostitution, and asks me what I will give her sister as a gift if she becomes pregnant. Dodging her question, I ask back, “Is your sister pregnant?” The answer is “no,” but another one of the girls is pregnant, she says as she absentmindedly tears petals off of one of the roses in the bundle she carries.
“What about your older brother?” I ask her.
“He’s grown already [at 15],” she says, “and he gets to stay home and study. He’s in 6th grade now.”
So, in her world, when little girls are “grown already” they go into prostitution. And boys? I guess they try to catch up in school. So, there are the kids’ options.
Beg. Or sell your little body to strangers, hoping if you get pregnant you’ll get presents. If you’ve got a baby to hold, you might make good money begging.
Beg. Or try to go back home and fit into school as a 15 year-old sixth grader. How long will that last?
I listen to my little friend, and mirror her nonchalant attitude, even though I’m internally protesting everything she says. Her reality is heart breaking, and I don’t know if anything I do can change that.
“Where are you going now?” she asks me.
“To the convenience store to buy an ice cream,” I say. “Do you want to come get something, too?”
She comes along, and I buy her dinner. We sit outside the convenience store, eating together.
Suddenly, she springs up and runs into the street, cradling the big bunch of flowers in her arms. She sees a couple walking by with a bundle of roses, and thinks they might be in the market for more. I watch their interaction from the sidewalk. My friend playfully weaves circles around the couple as they walk, hand extended, begging them to buy. He stops, takes her flowers in hand, looks them over, then hands them back to her. She touches him and he touches her. Is he being playful? Or flirtatious? The line blurs.
The woman reaches into her wallet and hands my little friend some money – a good sum of money – enough to buy her a week of meals like she’s just eaten. Gripping the little girl’s face in her hands, the woman lectures her in a French accent, “Take care of that money. Be careful.”
Returning to perch with me on the sidewalk, the girl is euphorically waving the money in the air, celebrating her conquest. I advise her to be more discreet, and she tucks the money away.
“They have a good heart,” she tells me.
I wish everyone who had money had a good heart. Having money doesn’t mean having a pure heart. I am happy for her, but I wonder who will get that money when she goes home, and I wonder what sort of lessons this little one’s reality is teaching her daily. I wonder what her reality will look like when she’s “grown already.”
She says she’ll go home early now that she has money. She hands me a rose – a gift. I admire it and gush gratitude and smell deeply.