Honoring Julieta

As we are gearing up for our two yearly fundraisers, BRAlapalooza in Denver and BRAlapalooza2 in Chicago (which you are all invited to!), we keep mentioning our Julieta Award. This year’s Julieta Award winner is Danielle Snyder, our program partner in El Salvador and an exceptional woman who also happens to be our keynote speaker at both events this year.

But who is Julieta? What does this award mean? For those who have attended an event of ours in previous years, you have heard Julieta’s story, but there are so many more of you incredible supporters who most likely have never heard of this woman other than the fact that we have an award we give out in her name.

This story happened long before I came onto the Free The Girls scene, but her history is a crucial part of the FTG story – she informs the way we work, operate, and interact with the women we serve. We strive to be eternally optimistic, to shine a light and focus on the stories of hope rather than the tales of despair, but Julieta’s story is a dark one.  A dark one that needs to be told. So please allow us to tell you her story – it’s a hard one, filled with sorrow and pain, but the fact is Julieta was a woman full of strengths and flaws just as we all are. A woman who made her own decisions, disastrous as they were. A woman who had lasting scars both physically and emotionally from her past. A woman who affects all of us here at Free The Girls.

Julieta was one of the first three girls to ever sell bras with Free The Girls. She was part of the pilot program in Maputo, Mozambique. Here is some of her story in her own words: “As a child I suffered. My mom died, and I didn’t have food at home, and so I needed help. Those who helped me sent me to work on the street as a prostitute. I was 9 years old. I had to live in camps and abandoned houses. Sometimes I would run away and find a center that wanted to help. But prostitution was the only life I knew, the only way I knew how to make money, and so I would run away from the center, from those who were trying to help me.”

Friends, do not judge Julieta. Returning to the streets, to the only way of life one has known, is so common. Sometimes the unknown is much scarier than the known, no matter how horrific the known might be. Imagine how frightening it would be to find yourself in an entirely different way of life than what you’ve known since you were 9 years old – even if those who now surround you were only trying to help.

“Living on the street is very violent. There are fights about money and clothes. I have a friend who lost an eye in a fight. I was in a lot of fights.”

Dave, our co-founder who lives and works in the Mozambique program, has said that the first thing you noticed about Julieta was the scars all over her face and body–legacies of various “boyfriends” and her difficult life.

“One of the men I was with attacked me. He picked up a rock and smashed my leg.” Julieta ended up in the hospital from this attack. Her femur had been shattered by this man and his violence. A woman from a local organization, one of the centers that had helped Julieta before, came to visit her with gifts of food and offers of assistance.

Julieta took her up on this offer, and moved into a house with another woman who had drastically changed her life after years of prostitution. Because of the severity of her injuries, Julieta needed to walk with the assistance of a cane, had pins in her leg, and needed reconstructive surgery in the future. But the two women living together supported each other, and both became part of the pilot phase of selling bras with Free The Girls. After selling her initial bulk of inventory, Julieta declared, “I have dreams to support and build my family.”

Sadly, these are the last words we have of hers recorded. The walk to wholeness and freedom is not easy – she had years of abuse and violence in her past, essentially all she had ever known. She was wounded – visibly so. She had spent years numbing herself with alcohol, but even when she was sober, she would lash out in anger. She was angry with the world and everyone in it – even those trying to help her.

Those who knew her for years said they only rarely saw a smile or a laugh. The only time that our Mozambique partners captured a smile from Julieta on camera was when the very first batch of bras were being sorted for the pilot phase. The women found a black bra with a faux fur trim on it. They joked that this bra was to wear to the beach, and they all laughed together.

Julieta remained relatively sober for about a year and a half. Once the pilot phase was a success, Free The Girls realized that this endeavor was going to be so much larger than simply carrying a few suitcases of bras over on a flight once a year, and we started forging the connection with our shipping partners, LR International, Truckers Against Trafficking, and CNN. While everything came together beautifully, it was too long of a wait for Julieta. She needed money, she knew how to get money, and after an argument with her housemate, she returned to the streets. Everyone begged her to return to the safety of her friend’s house and the Free The Girls program. For weeks, various people went to the streets to urge her to come back, but she wouldn’t listen.

And then came the tragic word that Julieta had been murdered. The same man responsible for shattering her femur, ended up taking Julieta’s life.

This is real and hard and dangerous work. There was a shift in the urgency of the other women in the program after Julieta’s murder, as if they realized that the alternative to success was death. There was a shift in Free The Girls as well – it was at that moment that we promised ourselves and our program partners that we would never accept a delay in shipping bras, that the women would never run out of inventory to sell. And to this day, five years later, we have kept our promise.

This is a sad story, but it’s a true one and a necessary one to tell. We want to celebrate and be excited about the successes of the women in our program, but we never want to forget the heartache and the devastation as well. We are fighting a difficult battle, and sometimes it doesn’t end the way we would have wished. So we honor Julieta’s memory and the struggles of all the women in our program (and those with no alternative yet) by awarding the Julieta Award to individuals who have stepped up to become exemplary in being an Everyday Abolitionist through their lives. Previous award winners include Paul Jarzombek from LR International, Ricky Youngquist from Truckers Against Trafficking, AnnJanette Alejano-Steele from Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking, and Lisa Cohen, senior producer of CNN Freedom Project. These individuals have fought against the chains of modern-day slavery and have devoted their lives to ensuring survivors have the opportunity for true and real freedom.

Let us never forget Julieta. Let us never forget the reality of what these women have lived through. But let us also realize that Julieta’s legacy lives on. Just last month, her former housemate took to the streets along with her sister and Leonor, our Program Manager, to recruit more women just like Julieta to leave the streets and come be offered hope in the form of employment selling bras. And we have welcomed seven new women from this recruitment in the past two months.

You are all invited to become a part of our fundraisers either through attendance, sponsoring, donating an auction item, or making a donation. Please know that your involvement and dedication to this cause is greatly appreciated. It helps ensure that no woman has to wait for bras. It helps ensure that more women can be served. And it helps ensure that there are more and more of us fighting the injustice of modern day slavery.

Gratefully yours,