Daily Inspiration: Meet Rebecca McDonald

Author: VoyageMichigan Magazine
September 2022

Today we’d like to introduce you to Rebecca McDonald.

Hi Rebecca, we’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.

I had the greatest privilege in the world of growing up on the Indian Subcontinent in Bangladesh and Pakistan. As a tiny child, my father, an American surgeon, took me to the golden land of Bangladesh. I attended boarding school in Pakistan. All my formative years were spent in lands steeped in Islam. My playmates were mostly Muslims but Hindu and Buddhist as well. My earliest memories are of “playing house,” which meant making “curry” from our mud pies and praying on “make-believe” prayer mats.

At the age of 14, a watershed experience set me on the course of action that my life has followed ever since. My family stayed through the bitter war of independence from Pakistan. The carnage for women was especially horrific. In the poor countryside, women were property bought and sold in a marriage contract. As in all wars, property is attacked. The women were no exception.

Every day I went to my father’s hospital after school to pack 300 units of relief after the war for the most destitute families. I had a helper and playmate. Her name was Neehru, and she, too was 14.

Neehru was a Muslim girl that had been thrown away at my feet by the men of her family for the crime of resisting rape. It is not common for Bengali men to rape their women, but every culture of the world has predatory men and women.

Neehru’s real crime was that she fought back. To teach her she was only property with no voice and no right to fight back, they poured acid down her throat and burned her vocal cords forever. This is a frequent occurrence. The acid of Neehru’s suffering burned a hole in my heart and set me on the pathway that I have been on ever since, of giving voice to the silenced cries of women and children.

My passion is to create safe places around women and children at risk wrapping arms of love around them and empowering them to rewrite the stories of their lives. Since returning to America, I have added to my efforts to open the eyes of my American sisters to the plight of women globally.

In 2006, Women at Risk International became a registered, separate 501c3 entity, even though I had been reaching out to women decades prior. Our goal at WAR, Int’l is to see captives set free; to address 14 different risk issues that prey on vulnerable men, women, and children. We are partnered with more than 171 individuals and organizations in 45 countries, and we continue to bring a voice to the voiceless through these partnerships.

WAR, Int’l now has a storefront boutique & online boutique filled with items made by rescued women from all around the world – including here in the United States through our US Training Center program in Michigan. We invite people to shop with a purpose, bringing hope and dignity to women who have suffered lives of trauma and exploitation. We want to be a circle of protection for these women.

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way? Looking back, would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?

Firstly, whenever you are a founder & entrepreneur, you are learning organically, from the ground up. There’s not a lot of models to look to & learn from, so you must lead with humility & a good sense of humor to be able to laugh at your mistakes, learn from them & pivot quickly. When excellence is a core value these are vital ingredients & demand a commitment to any obstacle. At the end of the day, every obstacle is an opportunity in disguise.

Women At Risk International addresses 15 risk issues; the one we’re most known for is human slavery. The truth of these stories is dark, horrific, & gut-wrenching. Whenever you present those kinds of stories, it has to be done in a way that your audience, your constituency, and your circle of influence respond not with fear but with a heart of compassion that leads to action. There is a real challenge in presenting this subject with transparency while staying confidential & without eliciting disgust or anger. Those obstacles must be overcome; the goal must be to light a fire of passion to create a legacy of safe places & enlist hearts to use their time, talent & treasure to make a difference.

Secondly, the depth of brokenness & horror that the survivors we serve are subjected to demands an excellence all of its own – safety, confidentiality, trauma-informed care, persistence, & unending compassion must invade every aspect of what you do.

Lastly, when you choose to make your passion an area that is unaddressed by society as a whole, you are the tip of the spear & you will hit walls of ignorance, fear & disbelief. 30 years ago, when I began fighting this century’s fastest-growing arm of crime, slavery, people didn’t know what human trafficking was. Being credible & believable & yet not terrifying your constituency requires a lot of diplomacy & persistence. Today, people know what human trafficking is, so it’s no longer an obstacle. However, they still think it’s a foreign problem & are unaware that the greatest risk is within our own nation, to our own children. Up to 300,000 minors per year, AMERICAN citizens with constitutional rights, are at risk & few are talking about it. There’s no such thing as a smooth ride when you start something that is so unknown. The good news is people really do care – overwhelmingly so – when they are exposed to such broken darkness in a way that shows that rescue & healing really can happen. When you give them practical ways to make a difference from the sanctity of their home to those they love, there’s a genuine response.

Albert Einstein said, “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.” My experience, WAR, Int’l’s experience, is that good people really want to set the captive free, be a circle of protection to those they love & bring hope & healing.

As you know, we’re big fans of you and your work. For our readers who might not be as familiar, what can you tell them about what you do?

What I’m most proud of is the survivors we work with. They are the heroes of the WAR world who have been to hell and back, put their lives back together, risen up & flourish. We have graduated doctors, lawyers, engineers, nurses, mommies, teachers, goat herders, cosmetologists, counselors, bakers, candlestick makers – whatever their dream is. Seeing them go from horrific abuse to powerful individuals is what makes it all worthwhile.

What sets us apart is that we specialize in creating circles of protection around those at risk through value-added, culturally sensitive interventions. We are most known for our fight against one of the many risk issues we address, human trafficking: this century’s fastest-growing arm of crime.

We train the WAR world that there are 4 core values that are unique.

First, we believe in wrap-around, holistic services. We address all the needs of our rescued survivors & operate like an umbrella, where we pull in all their needs.

Secondly, we believe in sustainability. We want our survivors & programs to create revenue streams that pay their overhead so that they are not solely dependent on donations. Ideally, donations are for growth, not for overhead. We’re very intentional in helping diversify & have multiple revenue streams. We do not just rescue but help that individual dream of a future, plan a career path, & find ways to avoid being re-victimized.

Thirdly, we are passionately intentional about cultural sensitivity in all programs. What that means is that in any of our 58 countries, no 2 safehouses will look alike. They must fit the cultural value system of that nation, that people group, in order to be effective & long-lasting.

Finally, we believe that anti-trafficking & addressing risks to marginalized people is timely. This generation, globally, is born with a social justice gene in their DNA. Like never before, when this generation gets into positions of leadership, they are going to address the social ills about them. This gives us great hope for the future.

What do you think about happiness?

There is no joy like seeing a man, woman, or child rescued, restored, & empowered to walk in worth & dignity. Even greater is the luxury of hindsight. We can look back on decades of work & see generational change. When grandparents, parents, & children are all united in an effort to end the risks that plagued their family, environment, and world & are then restored together, that is systemic change. On a personal level, when a survivor finds their voice after being silenced, my joy is boundless. My passion is to help them find their voice, whether it be professionally, physically, emotionally, artistically, musically, in their own way, at their own pace, or in their own time. Longfellow said that the voice is the organ to the soul. Till there’s no breath left in my body, I will use my voice to bring survivors to a place of hope & healing & empower them to find their own voices.

I Call Out

Author: Kayla, WAR, Int’l Intern
September 2022

As a teenager in my late teens, I call out for the injustice being done to my generation. I call out for the voices that are silenced. I call out for freedom and protection for children and teens who are vulnerable. I call out for moms and dads to be involved.

I am calling out because it takes many voices to be heard, and I want to voice something that I see is a problem. Many people, including myself, have believed that our voices don’t have value or won’t make a difference. This is my cry to make a difference—not as a political resume but as a voice of freedom.

I have been given this opportunity to share what is heavy on my heart and to invite you to join me in calling out for freedom!

A Cry for Men, Women, and Children to Take Action!

I look around my country in the land of the free, and I see a lot of brokenness and isolation. I see people vulnerable to being trafficked and exploited. I call out for moms, dads, aunts, uncles, grandmas, and grandpas to create circles of protection! We like to turn a blind eye to what’s happening, but we can’t! We have to get uncomfortable and reach out to people who are hurting!

This is our problem! We need to do something. We have an epidemic of slavery transpiring in our country! According to the U.S. State Department, at least 1.5 million people within North America fall victim to sex or labor trafficking. Friends, 1.5 MILLION PEOPLE in North America! Don’t think of that number as merely a statistic but as representative of other human beings like you and me, each with a name and a face, each with their own hopes and dreams, each with their own fears and insecurity. People like you and me who are enslaved and being robbed of their future.

I plead with people to take a risk and step up for the voiceless by educating themselves so they will not be caught off guard! The internet and COVID -19 have changed the face of trafficking as we know it. According to Statista.com, 83% of human trafficking is facilitated through the internet.

The popularity of technology and social media has increased trafficking and made it easier for predators to find victims. In a world where a lot of kids and teens are attached to their phones, it makes sense that traffickers have changed tactics. It is much easier to deceive and entice someone on the internet.

I challenge parents and kids to set up precautions and have conversations about the risks that the internet and social media present. It seems so innocent until it’s not! Traffickers know that kids and teenagers are vulnerable, and they use this to their advantage.

Take a stand today and have a conversation with your kids about internet safety. You can’t put your kids in a box to “protect” them from this issue. Parents need to have open and honest conversations about this topic. Talk about “red flags” and boundaries that can be put in place to safeguard them from being exploited. It means being practical and smart as you handle this new generation of technology at your fingertips. Circle around your kids, your nieces and nephews, your grandchildren! They are lonely, confused, and hurting. Being a teenager is not easy, so give grace but also give truth. They need you to circle them in protection and love.

To the teenager and beyond, if there’s anything you take away from this message, know that you have a voice! Will you stand with me to reach out not only to our peers but also to our communities?! Not in anger, but with love and a heart to listen. As I wrap this up, I want to communicate a spirit of humility that I am right there with you wrapped in my own comfort bubble, and this is the beginning for me to break out of my own comfort zone one step at a time. That’s all I ask—to take one step at a time!

This is Kayla calling out!

International Women’s Day: My Thoughts & Three Conclusions

Author: Rebecca McDonald, President & Founder
March 1, 2022

As I’ve traveled the world, I have heard of horrific stories of the lack of rights, some unrepeatable. In many lands, a woman raped must have a witness because a man’s word is literally worth 2 women. If he comes up with a male witness to say the opposite, she must find 4 witnesses. I’ve discovered faith systems where the women are not allowed to take part in ANY part of the worship. They can cook for the men but have NO say in their faith. Should their family cease to produce a male, their faith dies completely out. Men can get a divorce just by saying so 3 times, but a woman can never divorce. In rare cases, if she does, she will never see her children again. Women are denied school, can’t hold jobs even if trained as doctors or lawyers, must not run a business…the list is endless.

Growing up as an American in lands where women and girls had next to NO rights had a profound effect on me. My home was a safe place where my voice was precious & heard. Being an only girl with 3 brothers helped with the “princess status.” But seriously, my parents took me seriously to the point that my word carried more weight than my older sibling due to our approach to things. I was treated like the oldest child in many ways. Meanwhile, outside my home, my girlfriends had almost no say. They were bought and sold in a marriage contract. The culture even had “marriage brokers” the same way we approach buying a home to find the right details, price, pedigree, etc. for the male family to “consider.”

Three distinct events left an impression on me.

1) You recall my 14-year-old village girlfriend was raped (by family), fought back, and had acid poured down her throat to “silence her” literally.

Nehru: My 14 yr. old girlfriend forever silenced with acid poured down her throat.

2) For the wealthy, it was even harder in some ways with more at stake. I remember 2 upper-class girlfriends. One, the daughter of the Minister of Education, a power elite family, “met and fell in love with” a high-class boy while in the USA getting their education. From the richest Bengali family, it was “OK.” BUT, they had to go through the charade of pretending it was an arranged marriage and they’d never met. Heaven forbid a woman should choose her own path…or a boy for that matter.

3) Then as an adult, I sat in the home of another wealthy family related to the nation’s President who babysat his young son. That night while my son played with the President’s son, their daughter came in angry from university classes. Her father had arranged a marriage to another wealthy family. The sisters of the “groom to be” came to “check her out” looking her up and down in the door of the classroom like she was “a cow for sale at the market.” She complained bitterly that any family whose women treated her like “property for sale” was not a home she wished to marry into. Very simply (so liberal of him), the father just said, “Ok…I’ll look for another.” She walked off happily. I sat thinking about the fact that she was submitting happily to his giving in yet still in charge of who she’d marry.

What Does All This Prove?

Simply that for all our progress as women, we have a long way to go in many lands. I have 3 conclusions from a lifetime of working to empower women.

l) I love America despite its many many flaws. I am a woman that founded an organization and has a voice in any setting and platform I wish to pursue. Yes, it may be that I have had to fight harder, dig deeper, swallow slights…but I am willing to do so if it means lifting the broken, the voiceless, the wounded, the hurting. At the end of the day, there is no slight, indignity, or put-down that compares to those of the lives we represent. So for them, we willingly take up that cross and march on. I’m patriotic not for apple pie, motherhood, or football, but for our right to speak out! I beg you to hold your rights as a privilege and luxury. The day we lose the right to speak freely, we are not a great nation anymore. I know what that looks like. I grew up with girlfriends that had no voice. We must always allow the voice of the silenced no matter whether we like its sound or not. It is what makes us great. When you silence anyone, you give predators power. Our right to free speech in every aspect is truly what sets us apart.

2) I am a mother of 3 boys (& 1 daughter), a sister to 3 brothers, grew up as an American surrounded by the “Taliban mentality,” & work with law enforcement and clergy (male-dominated). I know the world of men and I respect it. I don’t want you to bash my boys any more than my daughter. While we must find rights for women, we must not do it to the detriment of our boys. Fixing a wrong by going to extremes only hurts everyone in the end. I have an article on this on our website. Suffice it to say, All Voices Matter Regardless of Genders. We need to stick together to lift all voices in the fight for freedom.

3) Four decades of being the “Voice of the Silenced” proves those who suffer have the most profound insights. We’d be wise to listen first to them, the experts. They may not have the solutions to the problem politically, legally, or structurally. But their voices should be the template, the mentor, the guard rails that guide significant changes. To fix something without the insight of the experts is to not fix it at all. With 2 ears and only 1 mouth, listen first and twice as long. Then be the voice of the silenced no matter how small you think you are.

Passionate to be the Voice of the Silenced:

Two Hurricanes, One Disaster

Reports from our partners in Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean

By: Darius Hall, Intern
and Bethany Winkel, Senior Staff Writer

With several partners in areas affected by the recent hurricanes, Women At Risk, International (WAR, Int’l) is keeping a close watch on the news. Hurricane Maria, which began pounding the Caribbean as we prepared this article for press, has narrowly bypassed our partners in that region. In the meantime, we have been gathering information from several of our partners who have weathered through Hurricanes Irma and Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey

Considered a Category 4 hurricane, Harvey decimated southeast Texas with winds topping out at around 100 miles per hour. Unforeseen record-breaking flood waters topping out at almost seven feet were witnessed throughout southern Texas. Advised by officials not to evacuate, much of the southeastern Texas population suffered through possibly the worst hurricane the area has faced since Hurricane Carla in the 1960s.

Though located directly in the path of Harvey’s havoc, our safehouse partner in Texas fared relatively well, despite the rest of their region being significantly dismantled.  The staff, residents, and animals were all reported safe, and the staff and occupants worked tirelessly to calm and assist others in the community. However, two women in the safehouse’s outreach program have lost everything in the flooding, and many other families the safehouse assists have also been affected by Harvey. WAR, Int’l is helping to raise funds for them, and they wish for our continued prayers as they attempt to adjust to this tragedy.

Hurricane Irma

Harvey had barely dissipated when Hurricane Irma made landfall. With wind gusts covering over 70,000 square miles, a diameter of almost 300 miles, and speeds peaking at about 185 miles per hour, Hurricane Irma wreaked devastation in the Caribbean as well as the southern part of the United States. Impacted states include Florida, Georgia, Alabama, the Carolinas, and even Tennessee. Millions went for days without power, homes have been completely destroyed, and flood waters defile the streets, making transportation and adequate living nearly impossible.

In light of the damage and destruction Irma left behind, WAR, Int’l was concerned for several partners, both stateside and abroad, who are located within the path of the hurricane.

A Report from Our Florida Partner

While Irma itself was projected to become a Category 4 hurricane by the time it touched down in Florida, our outreach partner fared relatively well, noting that by the time Irma had reached them, it had diminished to a Category 2 hurricane. The organization was well prepared and took early precautions, which included boarding up their windows, securely fastening down outside amenities, and turning a garage into a makeshift stable for their animals. While Hurricane Irma seemed to significantly demolish much of coastal Florida, our outreach partner reported that they had no property damage and that all the occupants and animals were unharmed.

Irma’s Impact in the Caribbean

With the brunt of Irma’s force hitting the Caribbean Islands, WAR, Int’l was particularly concerned for the neighboring nations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, where we have several partners.

Haiti was impacted less significantly than many other areas. However, the hurricane has brought many other issues upon this nation. Our partners in Haiti indicated that the flooding and mudslides were a very real threat that could damage the infrastructure of their already frail and weak nation. The flooding caused by Irma within Haiti has the potential of overtaking roadways, which will make travel and rescue efforts very difficult. Mudslides as well are a very serious concern for Haiti, since much of its agriculture has been decimated over the years due to the many major natural disasters that Haiti has endured.

In addition to dealing with the fallout from Hurricane Irma, there is also much civil unrest going on within the nation. Protests have turned into violent riots where vehicles are being set on fire, local businesses and shops are being plundered, and authorities are using tear gas as a means to subdue the violent protestors.

The Dominican Republic was one of the countries receiving the fullest extent of Irma’s wrath within the Caribbean. Our partners reported rather severe damage now plaguing the area, including flooding that is about 3 feet high. This, in turn, is making travel on the streets an almost impossible task. In areas where the raging waters have subdued, debris and refuse litter the streets, leaving a terrible reminder of the wrath of perhaps the most detrimental storm to ever come out of the Atlantic coastal region.

Updates from Our Caribbean Partners

The good news is that, as far as we know, our partners in these areas were spared any loss or injury. Our partnering safehouse in Haiti suffered only minimal damage from the initial wind gusts. They reported that all of their staff, women, and families were safe and all facilities were fully intact. Our Haitian microenterprise partner likewise reported no loss. In the Dominican Republic, our education partners were prepared with supplies and a plan for providing refuge to affected families. However, Irma moved to the north, sparing them from damage. We have not received updates from our partnering Dominican safehouses, but we trust that no news is good news. Meanwhile, our Caribbean partners have been spared the wrath of Hurricane Maria, and for that, we are very grateful.

How You Can Help

In spite of all the turmoil and tumultuous times facing those abroad and stateside, there are many ways to be proactive and assist those who need help. Here at WAR, Int’l, we make it a priority to lend a helping hand for those who find themselves in unfortunate circumstances and situations. Because of this, we have set up an emergency “Rescue 911 Fund” so that, even on short notice, we can come to the aid of our partners and those they serve. This includes assistance with disaster relief and efforts. Keeping these people in prayer is also a helpful way to show caring and hope (Philippians 2:3-4).  It is important that we come together in difficult times to support each other in the best way possible.

Celebrating Mothers Around the World

By Alyssa Evans, WAR, In’tl Intern

Women At Risk, International (WAR, Int’l) celebrates motherhood year round by caring for women and children in need of love and acceptance. Through our partnering safehouses, vocational programs, and orphanages, we strive to provide nurturing environments for these individuals as they recover from risk and trauma. Becky McDonald, President and Founder of WAR, Int’l, often notes that our partners serve as “Mommies to the Mommyless.” For WAR, Int’l and our partners, mothering and nurturing at-risk people all over the world makes Mother’s Day all the more meaningful. Knowing just how valuable mothers are in each culture across the world, we decided to take a closer look at the diverse ways they are celebrated.

The oldest Mother’s Day traditions date back to the ancient Egyptians, who celebrated the Goddess Isis, Mother of the Pharaohs. In modern day Egypt, they celebrate “Eed omm sa-eed” on March 21, the first day of spring. Yet Mother’s Day around the world is celebrated on different days according to the holiday’s origins in that country.

American mothers will be celebrated this year on May 14. Mother’s Day was first proposed in the United States by Anna Reeves Jarvis and Julia Ward Howe out of a desire to unite mothers who had lost sons in the Civil War. Jarvis’s daughter, Anna M. Jarvis, later lobbied for six years to create a national day of recognition for mothers. Mother’s Day became an official holiday in the United States in 1914.

Canadian Mother’s Day is also held on the second Sunday in May and is said to be the country’s third most popular holiday, right after Christmas and Valentine’s Day. Card sales and phone calls are the highest on Mother’s Day.

Feliz Día de las Madres, celebrated in Mexico on May 10, is the busiest day of the year for restaurants. Mothers are given flowers and serenades from mariachi bands. The most popular song to celebrate the day is “Las Mañanitas”:

I would like to be a little ray of sunlight/ To enter through your window
And greet you with Good Morning/ Lying in your bed
Of the stars in the heavens/ I have to bring down two
One is to greet you/ And the other is to say good-bye.

In the United Kingdom, “Mothering Sunday” is held on the fourth Sunday of Lent and originated in the 1600s in England. Fasting rules were set aside for that day, when mothers were given freshly picked wildflowers and special Simnel cakes baked with fruits and almonds.

In Japan, “Haha no Hi” is now celebrated on the second Sunday of May, just like in the United States, but it originally was held on Empress Koujun’s birthday. Today, Japanese mothers are given flowers, and children draw pictures of their mothers and enter them into contests.

Mother’s Day in South Africa also coincides with the North American celebration on the second Sunday of May. Mothers and Grandmothers are celebrated as life givers, and their sacrifices for their families are recognized by reversing family roles for the day. Children bring their mothers breakfast in bed and do the chores all day. Here they take the tradition of giving flowers a step further: everyone wears flowers in honor of the holiday.

All around the world, mothers have a special day when they are recognized and appreciated. No matter where or on what day you celebrate Mother’s Day, it seems that moms everywhere appreciate baked goods and meals, songs, jewelry, flowers, cards, and homemade gifts. When you shop for your own mother this week, consider visiting the WAR Chest Boutique, online or at one of our three Midwest locations. There you will find jewelry, accessories, chocolate, coffee, and other gifts mothers will love. When you honor your mother with a meaningful gift from our Boutique, you also help provide a woman or child with an opportunity to be “mothered” by our partners and programs.

Information for this article was gathered from a variety of sources, including Mother’s Day.