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My teenage years on the streets of Vancouver

Rebekah Demirel survived the mean streets of Canada's big metropolis. It wasn't easy. This is her story.
"I learned early on to ignore my feelings of fear and danger because I didn't know how to express them."

"I learned early on to ignore my feelings of fear and danger because I didn't know how to express them." Photo credit: Allyce Andrew

When I was 13, I was living on the street in downtown Vancouver’s lower east side, home of many heroin addicts, prostitutes and some of the most down-and-out streets in North America. Though it was scary and dangerous and no place for a young girl, I still felt lucky to be alive and free from where I’d been.

I grew up in East Van, with my father and my older brother. My father drove a cab and was co-pastor of our local Pentecostal church. My mother fled the violence of our home years earlier, when I was three and my brother was six. She tried to take us with her, but my father forcibly took us back and I didn’t see her again until I was 12.

My dad and my brother shared a bedroom across the hall from mine. Most nights, I’d hear sounds coming from their room. I didn’t really understand the sounds, but they made my throat feel like it was full of concrete, so I’d cover my head with a pillow and try to sing myself to sleep.

It was my job to wash clothes on the ringer washer downstairs. I saw my brother’s bloodstained underwear and did my best to scrub them clean on a washboard in the concrete sink. But I never said anything about it. I didn’t know what to say and my silence earned me preferential treatment: Unlike Robert, I wasn’t beaten or sexually abused.

I struggled with feelings of guilt, shame, loyalty to and a deep unspoken fear of my father. I had no way to communicate what was going on in our house or make sense of what I felt. So I ran.

Russell, my boyfriend, was older than I was. He told me he’d take care of me, that he loved me. Instead, he brought friends to the abandoned house where we were hiding and said it was time for me to earn some money by having sex with them. When I objected and threatened to leave, he punched me hard in the face, breaking my nose. I screamed. He grabbed a knife. Instead of attacking me, he stabbed himself in the abdomen, to prove his “love.”

The ambulance arrived at the same time as the police. One officer carried me to the squad car. Russell said I had stabbed him, but the officer didn’t believe him.  

The officers drove me to a big old house in Kitsilano, a neighborhood on the opposite side of town. As we pulled up a man on the porch with a mop of curly black hair and a quiet voice called out, “Hello! You must be Rebekah. My name is John. Welcome.”

There were a dozen teens living inside the house, including a girl named Rochelle, who became my best friend. We could stay at this emergency shelter for one month. During that time, we were not allowed to go outside. Everyone complained about that, but I didn’t mind because for the first time in my life I actually felt safe.

When my time at the emergency shelter was up, I had no idea who to call or what to do. I ended up downtown, wandering around trying to find someone to buy me a meal.

Once I was hitchhiking and got into a car with a group of drunken men. I could feel inside that this was a dangerous thing to do. But I had learned early on to ignore or numb my feelings of fear and danger because I didn't know how to express them.  I was so used to pushing away uncomfortable feelings that I ignored my own gut and went ahead.

The men took me to a party. The place was wall-to-wall beds with everyone stoned on coke, booze and heroin. I managed to sneak out and walked for hours in the dark until I finally just slept in a park under a tree.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Jan 24, 12:18 p.m. Inappropriate

Highest praise to Rebekah Demirel for surviving and having the courage to tell her story; equal praise to Crosscut for publishing it. Thank you.

Posted Fri, Jan 24, 12:50 p.m. Inappropriate

One of the best stories you've ever published.

Especially appreciate a story beyond Seattle.

Posted Fri, Jan 24, 2:29 p.m. Inappropriate

What a courageous and powerful story; it brings tears to my eyes, of sadness and deep appreciation for Rebekah Demirel's resilience, and her generous willingness to share her personal experiences to help us all recognize a need in our community today. One of the most moving elements of this story is the crucial difference made by even just one trustworthy, dependable relationship--the one between the social worker and Rebekah, who despite everything found a way to trust and heal.

Posted Fri, Jan 24, 4:31 p.m. Inappropriate

Good story. However editor's sub headline "Canada's big metropolis" is not accurate. That's Toronto.

louploup

Posted Tue, Jan 28, 8:15 a.m. Inappropriate

Terrific story, Rebekah. Congratulations on being able to lift yourself up...John and Petra both gave you hope and guidance, but the change in your life could only come from you. Hopefully your experience will reach someone who is presently at the same place you were years ago so they'll know they possess the power to lift themselves up, too. It's a hackneyed phrase in most of its uses, but you're living proof that we really can "be the change you seek."

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