TED talk

To be trusted is a greater compliment than being loved ~ George MacDonald

To see the patterns is to see the solutions

How can we break open closed-up communities all around the world and protect children from hurt? Listen to Dina-Perla Portnaar’s heartfelt personal story on child abuse, harmful traditional practices, healing, and empowerment. She states that to see the patterns is to see the solutions. She shares a couple of calls to action with us: for all of us, for the closed-up communities, and for governmental bodies.

We need to solve problems within closed-up communities worldwide. Problems that do not concern personal suffering only, but become collective risks if we do not intervene. If we solve the issues within the closed-up communities, the collective issues will be easier to manage.

Transcript TED talk Dina-Perla Portnaar

Did you know that there are 54 children’s rights, defined by the United Nations? I wish I had known that as a child. Those rights are in place because children cannot stand up for themselves in times of need.

Sometimes, it is hard to know if a child needs help. To spot a child in need in a closed-up community is even harder. I know that…. Because I was that child.

I believe that we should break open closed-up communities, so we can protect all children from hurt. First, let me take you back to my childhood.

I grew up in a house pre-internet and with one phone. It had a lock on it and was kept in my mother’s room. Radio and television were forbidden. For example, pop culture was seen as ‘unkosher’. All rooms, apart from my room and the bathrooms, were locked. I wasn’t safe. At times, I screamed my lungs out for help. Yet, no one came. I even begged to be placed out of the home. Yet, no one did.

One day, I looked out of the window onto my garden. Opposite my house, I saw my neighbors laughing, eating at candlelight, playing the piano, singing, dancing, and decorating the Christmas tree. I sat there in fear on the cold floor near my window for hours. The contrast between the light in my neighbors’ home and the dark in mine couldn’t have been bigger.

“I am worth that kind of love too,” I thought. Someday, life is going to get better. They won’t break me. I will be able to offer the finest to my children. I will do something with this for others.

Sure, there were moments of love and enjoying art in my youth. Sure, I grew up having enough toys and clothes, but I didn’t care about material stuff too much. Sure, I lived in a safe and privileged neighborhood of Amsterdam.

Yet, I grew up isolated, with a completely different set of rules. Also, I was dealing with little to unhealthy nutrition. Moreover, I was taking care of my physically handicapped and mentally ill mother – as if being an adult servant instead of a child.

I was also dealing with severe forms of coercion, namely physical violence and different forms of mental violence. Other forms of coercion were dogmas and brainwashing of the closed-up community.

Slamming hands, fists, kicking legs, a rolling pin, and my mother’s crutches: I’ve experienced it all. If I was lucky, I was able to finally flee the house and run to the warm arms of my neighbors.

I realize that these details of abuse might not be easy for you to hear. Know that I was able to build a life of my own, despite where I come from. Let me go on with some words that have had a huge impact, till today.

I would hear: You’re the worst existence. “Yimakh shema,” literally translated as “may her name be erased”. You will end up as a prostitute behind glass. I will follow you wherever you go. No one will believe you.

Scared of honor crimes, I walked around with pepper spray until the age of 28. See, the ‘invisible’ bruises stay for a long time.

Let me also share an example of brainwashing. I would hear: we are right and they are wrong. There is only one true path. Or at school, I would hear this dogma: every single time a woman uncovers parts of her body that should stay covered; one of us gets killed.

At sixteen, I was sent to an ultraorthodox neighborhood in New York, to be placed back on ‘the righteous path’. I was on my way to not finishing high school, not receiving a diploma, and being married off. Forced and arranged marriages are one of the most well-known harmful traditional practices worldwide.

It was around that time that I started working on leaving the closed-up community. Meanwhile, some of my stuff was destroyed or taken away. Like the main character of the movie The Shawshank Redemption, I had to plan my exodus from that house with patience and precision.

Fast-forward, I can assure you that we all have the potential to heal fully from everything that was done to us and to forgive if we open up to the path of personal growth and do the work. We can make it on our own. Though, we do need at least one grown-up to truly see us as a child, to make it. You could be that person.

The misfortune of my story though is that I don’t have biological children due to my past. As a teenager, I was refused access to contraception to regulate this woman’s condition called endometriosis. Contraception was perceived as forbidden sex and even prostitution. The consequences of that decision are irreversible. However, childlessness as in “may her name be erased”?  No. I.am. here.

Today, my family members are not the ones connected to me biologically, but the ones who support me unconditionally and love me exactly for who I am. And those Christmas lights? They shine bright on my balcony – all. year. long.

What happened to me is not an exception. Different forms of child abuse happen outside closed-up communities as well. But when those cases come to light, at least they will rarely be kept from current laws.

Harmful traditional practices take place in union with collective ideologies within closed-up communities. There is nothing wrong with traditions in themselves. However, they will be harmful if they interfere with children’s and human rights.

So, we’ve got to rethink our communal lives. We’ve got to reboot the way communities are structured. We’ve got to know that there is always something that we can do. And we’ve got to act, especially to protect children – all children. It’s time for the next level of global civilization with humanity, integrity, and grace.

We need vital tools to unchain us from patterns, such as hiding matters and looking away. Patterns that can be found in every closed-up community worldwide, up to today. Harmful patterns that are passed on from one generation to the next. To see the patterns is to see the solutions.

I’m going to be honest with you. There are no quick fixes. Yet, I do see possibilities for change. We can start by breaking taboos much more. We don’t talk – not in the closed-up communities, not enough in society, and especially not in the business world!

When we talk, oftentimes we meet this attitude of: are you OK? Can you have endured all of that and still be that sane and happy? There must be something wrong with you. Also: why would you want to share that and risk your status in society?

I believe that there are no taboos and that speaking up is a great strength and duty because shared knowledge can prevent future forms of coercion.

To governmental bodies: you can support children who want to live differently or leave closed-up communities, to do so safely. Oftentimes, children are worked against, or influenced to stay or return to the community. Also, previous members of the community, who understand the culture and codes, can consult in educational programs. Moreover, we have integration courses, but why haven’t we implemented mandatory courses for closed-up communities to check that laws are being kept?

To the closed-up communities: we need courageous people from within your community to demand change, to keep that shared identity. You who dare to speak up and who can withstand pressure from others. You can be clear and unapologetic about human rights, hate speech, and the exclusion of people. You can hold a safe context to keep conversations going. You can be an ally.

To all of us: I believe that children belong to all of us. Children from closed-up communities are being abused in our streets and neighborhoods. It’s closer than you think.

Allow your children to play with the children from closed-up communities. Give children in need a roof over their heads. Dare to protect children if you feel that they are not safe. Make that phone call to the specialized organization, so they can intervene. However small your action may seem, for a child it may very well be a lifeline. Your tiny intervention can break that harmful chain.

If people want to step out of the shadows of their lives and turn their faces towards the sun, carry them.

Thank you.