We are often so bombarded with stories of war, famine, disease and poverty that we become desensitized.
We walk past these issues of brokenness, favoring ignorance over compassion.
We often think, “If I stop, what will happen to me?” But if we do not stop, we fail to realize the empowering, restorative and transformational stories of others.
When my grandfather, Lt. Colonel Check Yee, was in ministry with the Salvation Army in China, he would often send me photos and stories of the people he served in the rural villages. Despite living in a broken society where food was scarce and the government had no concerns for its people, children were freely playing, women were chatting and laughing and men were engaging over a cup of tea.
I remember his photos were so vivid—they captured expressions of dignity and portrayed stories of hope. These stories, however, were also infused with issues my young mind could never comprehend. Oppression, imprisonment and affliction were so foreign to my carefree childhood life. I remember when I was 12, I received a photograph from my grandfather of a little girl from the village in rural China. She was around the same age as I was; she was shy, timid and quiet looking. My grandfather titled this photo, “She reminds me of you.”
It wasn’t until now, 10 years later, that I am faced with the haunting realization that this little girl could have been me.
A single image can say so much about an individual. I’ve been a witness to countless images that portray the “third world” as a place of despair. For too long, images have been used to capitalize on individuals, families and cultures. Worth has been shattered and dignity broken.
My goal as a humanitarian photographer and filmmaker is to not exploit, but to leverage stories that empower, restore and transform. I strongly believe that storytelling through imagery must disseminate truth with dignity.
From documenting a widow with leprosy in the jungles of Vietnam to seeing the plight of the homeless in the backyards of Los Angeles, I have been privileged to be a part of the lives of those who, in the midst of brokenness, can regain their sense of dignity. I wanted to highlight similar stories by producing a documentary film and portrait book series, While Women Weep. The first in the series was filmed in Kenya.
After filming for a month, I was challenged by these extraordinary women’s stories of empowerment. I learned how they have risen above circumstances and, despite adversity, are impacting others.
During the film editing process, I came across repulsing research: The majority of women who live in extreme poverty lack essential resources and the critical education needed to survive. Young girls struggle to feed their families, afford rent and pay for their education. Given such limited opportunities, many young girls feel they have no other option but to enter prostitution to pay for daily living expenses. Rape is too common—especially among Kenya’s poor and vulnerable schoolgirls.
The Nairobi Women’s Hospital estimates a woman is raped every 30 minutes.
According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, annually, more than 13,000 girls are kicked out of school for being pregnant. Rape victims are often forced to leave their homes, left to fend for themselves and raise their children alone. Because young girls have little financial means, unplanned pregnancies often lead to abortions. Many girls find ways to self-induce abortion; methods include chlorine intoxication, overdosing on birth control pills or using knitting needles and metal wires. According to the Guttmacher Institute, the dangers of a self–induced abortion are revolting: in Eastern Africa (2003), one in five maternal deaths were due to unsafe abortions.
As I was learning more about the plight of women in Africa, my good friend in Kenya sent me a message about her classmate, Eunice, who was the same age as me. As a young, unemployed single mother living in abject poverty, Eunice’s primary goal was to continue her education at Kenya Polytechnic University.
Despite the turmoil Eunice was facing as a rape victim, she was still striving to better herself through education. Eunice needed an opportunity to continue her studies to pursue her goal of becoming a psychological counselor for girls who have been victims of rape. I was so moved by her story that I immediately sent her $350 to pay for her term’s school fees. Through this single opportunity of a scholarship, she rose to the very top of her class and is an example for other women who have been sexually abused. Her success was so compelling that I thought about the millions of other girls worldwide who are also in need of the same opportunities.
In Kenya, I witnessed the pain and agony of countless people living in poverty. As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t walk away. God was tugging at my heart, challenging me to be a voice for those who are silenced by oppression. I then heard the voice of God asking me, “Nikole, now that you have seen the brokenness of women in Africa, what are you going to do about it?”
Through Eunice’s story, I was liberated from my own selfishness. As God was challenging my heart, I felt called to start an organization to provide spiritual, educational and economic empowerment for girls worldwide. I thought that maybe, God was calling me to be a part of something greater—a part of stories that could change not only my life, but the lives of so many other women who are vulnerable to sexual abuse.
Then, Freely in Hope developed.
Our programs aim to provide for women like Eunice who are in need of sustainable opportunities to break out of the vicious cycle of poverty.
Through this process of working to advocate for those in oppression, God has been conforming my heart to feel the joys and pains of His. Daily, I hear stories of suffering, despair and brokenness. I meet people who are crying desperately for help. It breaks my heart knowing there are so many others who have not yet felt the embrace of God’s love and compassion. I only hope to fulfill God’s purpose for me by being an activator of His love and compassion by leveraging stories of dignity through the ministry of Freely in Hope.
Daily, as I bring my own brokenness to Christ,
He completes me with stories that restore.
In Luke 4:18–19, Jesus states His mission: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
As I strive to execute this mission, the Lord is challenging me to break down barriers of ignorance to proactively initiate love and compassion toward those in desperate circumstances. There, in my brokenness is where I have been transformed.
There is beauty in the broken.