Khadeeja was driving to work one day when a friend called to say she had spotted Khadeeja’s daughter, Azariah, on the streets.
“I turned the car around and made a detour and I see her walking toward me,” Khadeeja recalled. “I had to park the car and run after her. I got her but I couldn’t move her physically, so I called the cops. They came and made her go home with me.”
Azariah, 13, was a runaway. She ran away repeatedly from the family’s home just outside of the South.
“Every child you see, you look in their face to make sure it’s not your child,” said Khadeeja, 35.
Azariah, now 16 and living safely at home again with her family, says she was unhappy because her mother, who is single, depended on her too much to babysit her three siblings and help with other family chores. The family’s last name and their location cannot be used because it is believed that would jeopardize Azariah’s safety.
About running away, Azariah also admits, “I just wanted to do what I wanted to do since my mom was getting on my nerve.”
Now she is the eldest of six children, with the youngest being two months old. The family fell on hard times after Azariah started running.
“I lost my job through this ordeal,” said Khadeeja. “I went to work and I couldn’t do nothing.”
The family wound up in shelters and at one point they lived in Khadeeja’s car. Still, she made sure her children went to school.
Meanwhile, Azariah found that life on the streets wasn’t as carefree as she thought it was.
“It was fun being out there without people telling me what to do,” said Khadeeja. “But after you get out there, it’s not fun because you don’t have people that care about you and want to help you.”
Azariah may never tell her mother everything that happened to her, but she will say that she “danced at parties” for money. She also talks about how the man who wanted her to prostitute pulled a gun on her when she tried to run from him.
“He told me if I didn’t get in the house before he did, he would shoot me. He said, ‘You can go back to the house or die,’” she recalled. “Some nights I cried… He used to hit me and threaten me. I realized when he tried to kick me out on the street and tried to prostitute me and take money that he didn’t care about me.
“During that period I felt that I was a nobody. I felt like my life was a mistake and that nobody respected me and I felt dirty.
So Azariah managed to get away and find her way home. And then she ran again.
Khadeeja said the first sign of trouble in her house was when she discovered Azariah was sneaking out of the house. “I woke up in the middle of the night and she was not there. I freaked out.”
Khadeeja got in the car and drove around. Eventually, she found her daughter at someone else’s house. Over the months, Azariah’s hide-outs changed, but Khadeeja still tried tracking her down each time she left. The youth was arrested a dozen times.
Finally, during one of those arrests a counselor at the juvenile detention center called Lisa Williams, founder of Living Water for Girls, a nonprofit in Peachtree, Ga. with the mission: “To rescue, rehabilitate and restore commercially sexually exploited girls by providing safe refuge and holistic therapeutic services.”
Azariah went to live at the program and ran away twice.
“The first seven days, she packed her clothes every day, stood at the kitchen counter and said, ‘Please take me back to detention,’” recalled Williams, executive director of Living Water for Girls. “We said, ‘Why?’ She said, ‘I just want to go back; it’s too peaceful here.’ She needed chaos. That was what she was used to.”
Despite the running away, Williams didn’t give up on Azariah. She said she had a “come to Jesus” talk with Azariah at the detention center after the last time she ran. She said in part: “Beautiful, you are in shackles. Is this what you want for the rest of your life? I need you to listen. I’m about to walk out of here free and you will be stuck here, because you are still running from all of your pain, making bad choices and pretending that it doesn’t matter… You need to stop and really look at yourself. Your hair is disheveled, you are dressed in a prison jumpsuit; you are locked up in detention… Now you can pretend you didn’t want me to come and see about you today, if you want to. But if you have good sense, which you do, you would get real quick and in a hurry and ask me for help before it’s too late.”
Azariah went back to her cell and Williams left hoping that something she said would get through to the girl. Williams, who doesn’t take back every girl who runs, believed that finally Azariah was ready to participate in her own treatment. Two weeks later Azariah returned to Living Water for Girls. The teen stayed at the program for a year, participating in all of the therapies and the classes aimed at getting her caught up on school work.
“I liked the equine therapy,” said Azariah, noting that taking care of and riding the horses “helped me clear my mind.” Living Water for Girls, she said, “helped me be a better person.”
To Khadeeja, Living Water for Girls saved Azariah and gave the family the first peace it had experienced in years.
“I was able to sleep again,” she said. “I knew where she was.”
Azariah has been home about a year now. She is doing great.
“It was pins and needles when she first came back,” her mother said. “I wasn’t sure she would stay. I felt if she got upset she would leave. But she said, ‘I’m not leaving again.’ I think she feels better about herself. She has a clearer idea of what she wants to do. She writes really good poetry. She is more open to talk about what is going on with her.”
Azariah is attending school, getting good grades and wants to go to college to become a nurse “because it helps people and it’s a good job with good pay.
“I want other girls to know that the streets is not home,” said Azariah. “There are people out there who are going to hurt you and not care about you. If you aren’t happy, get someone to help you. The streets is not going to help you at all.”