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James’ Story: You Can Blossom After Abuse

On the 2nd of March 2019, It was a fairly cold Saturday morning when I got out of my dorm room at Lynn University. I had a small carry-on and a backpack as I made my way to the front gate to meet my Uber driver, who was driving me to Fort Lauderdale airport to catch my flight to Santiago, Dominican Republic. This was the beginning of Spring Break, and my good friend Isaac King, who was also studying at Lynn University, and I were going to spend our entire week carrying out research on the problem of street children in the DR and shooting an amateur documentary of our trip. As I made my way to the airport before the crack of dawn, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this trip. I was also nervous because, despite all my Duolingo lessons, I had only managed to learn “gracias” and “no habla español.” and If you couldn’t speak English, I would add “Lo siento.”

"Predators come in all shapes and sizes: there is no stereotype." Read this moving and impactful story of recovery after abuse.

Isaac, was already in Santiago and he spoke fluent spanish so I reminded myself that  he would speak for both of us. I arrived in the Dominican Republic without incident, and our trip was off to a productive start. By our first day, we found a group of street children near the “Monumentos a los héroes de la Restauración,” a major cultural landmark in the city. The second group of children we encountered spoke neither spanish or english, which came as a surprise, but we quickly realized the language they spoke was creole, because they were refugees from neighboring Haiti who now worked and lived off the streets of Santiago.

Lucky for us, one of them could speak Spanish (we will call him Michael). He was no older than 10 but was very charismatic and radiated brilliance. He had taught himself Spanish to survive the streets of the DR, so he served as a translator between us and the rest of the children. As we got to know them, and learn about their stories, a man who appeared to be in his 40’s approached Michael, and beckoned to speak to him to the side, he didn’t seem to mind that we were filming and we just kept recording. When the conversation was over, Isaac asked the boy, what they spoke about and with a shy smile, he said the man was soliciting him for sex. As it dawned on me what we had just filmed, we immediately began to think of how we could help protect Michael and his friends. We approached a police officer and narrated what had just happened. He told us, matter-of-factly, “This is normal here, and they are niños de la calle” – they are just street children.

My heart sank to my stomach, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of helplessness. An all too familiar feeling of helplessness. Standing there and hearing those words from the police officer, pierced me to the core, I wanted to scream but couldn’t find the strength. I was deeply saddened not just for Michael, but for a boy I knew from years before this encounter, his name was Akoso.

Akoso was around five years old, no older than six at this time, he grew up in a sheltered home, with two loving parents and two brothers. He was the child who always had a big smile, and a million questions, like Where do babies come from? Why are clouds white and why is the sky blue?

He was a ball of energy and couldn’t wait to show off his ability to somersault, breaking a thing or two along the way. He grew up under the watchful eye of his parents and when they were not around, a relative looked after him and his siblings. One fateful afternoon, while his parents were away and his brothers played in the yard, the caregiver, took him by hand inside the living room, and asked that he take off his clothes, just as he was asked to when she would shower him but this time, she asked him to lie down as she molested him, and took away his innocence – James Akoso Okina is my name and I was that boy.

"Predators come in all shapes and sizes: there is no stereotype." Read this moving and impactful story of recovery after abuse.

Truth be told, I don’t remember much of what happened after, but I remember being overwhelmed by a  feeling of helplessness as mixture of my tears and her sweat dripping on me rolled down my face. I also remember her saying, “it is okay, don’t tell anyone”.

After that day nothing was the same, the things I felt where too complicated for my six year old mind. As I grew older, the shame became guilt, and my self esteem suffered. I felt so dirty and  no matter how hard I showered for years after that, I believed I deserved every misfortune that happened to me. I blamed myself, but I was just a baby for crying out loud.

Predators come in all shapes and sizes: there is no stereotype. They are friends, neighbors, family members, male and female. The responsibility to protect children everywhere rests on all of us. This is the first time I am sharing this story publicly, over 20 years later, I haven’t even told my mother yet, as I know it will break her heart. Somehow, I obeyed and even found comfort in those words “It is okay, don’t tell anyone”… well, not anymore. Stories like mine are often taken to the grave but that changes.

Flavia who is the Special Events Manager at Child Rescue Coalition encouraged me to share my story with someone I trust in private before sharing it here. So yesterday, I called my older brother who is a a child rights advocate himself and shared this story with him for the first time. After a deep sigh he said “James, I can’t believe this happened to you, why did it take you so long to share it with me?” [Pause]  No! He didn’t say that, he said “Wow, Thank you” and, proceeded to share with me his own story of sexual abuse by a neighbor… for the very first time. I could hear the relief in his voice. Relief from a burden he too had carried from his early teenage years. The same burden of secrecy and shame many male survivors of sexual abuse are well acquainted with.

"Predators come in all shapes and sizes: there is no stereotype." Read this moving and impactful story of recovery after abuse.

That little boy that stayed hidden all these many years is here today, and he has a question for everyone, a line borrowed from a song by the  songwriter Joy Oladokun that says “If you’ll poison the apple, why plant the tree? Why plant the tree? If my story is unique, its is only because by the grace of God my path has been that of healing and not a repeated cycle of a poisoned apple growing into a poisoned tree. I have blossomed, so I know it is possible.

Your support can help rescue a child from sexual exploitation and prevent abuse so that they can grow up to live happy and healthy lives.  Consider joining CRC’s Coalition Club and committing to donating at least $25 per month on an ongoing basis and stand strong against those who wish to take away the innocence of children. Instead of poisoning the apple or watching it happen, let us nourish it, and build a better world for all the James and Michael’s out there. They deserve better. This is how we blossom together.