I blame Tony Campolo for first opening my eyes to human trafficking. He was the one I first heard talking what happens to young women trafficked into New Jersey during the Superbowl in the States. Then I found out that this doesn’t just happen at sports events, or in the States, but virtually everywhere. Right on our back doorsteps.
Next, I blame my friend Naomi, who one day called me up and asked if I’d like to get involved in a new project she was starting. It was a confidence and employability programme for women who’d been trafficked, run from the safe houses around London where they were currently living. It was called the Day 46 programme, part of the charity she runs – the Sophie Hayes Foundation – and she thought I might be interested in being a facilitator. Much to my surprise, I found myself saying yes. Not just because Naomi is persuasive – although she is – but because something was telling me that this was an important thing to say yes to.
Finally, I’d like to blame Sophie Hayes herself, who wrote a book called Trafficked which had me crying from almost the very first chapter. It tells the story of a very ordinary young girl from Leeds who is eventually kidnapped and held prisoner by her best friend while visiting him in Europe, and then forced into prostitution. It’s absolutely, hair-raisingly scary to read.
It’s hard sometimes when you’re constantly bombarded with stories of terrible things going on around the world, to retain your empathy. To put yourself in someone else’s shoes for just a minute, no matter how imperfectly, and be moved to action as a result. But by the time I read that book, the empathy switch was on – partly because, although I’ve never experienced anything like the pain and terror of Sophie’s experience, I’m a survivor of an abusive relationship. I recognised all too well some of the manipulation and nightmarish control exhibited by her captor. I knew what it was like to be genuinely scared of someone’s shadow, their temper, their violent and erratic behaviour. And it broke my heart to realise that this terror and degradation is what thousands of people live with every day, coupled with the indignities and dangers of their work. I began to wonder how anyone could truly survive the nightmare of human trafficking.
So yes, I’m using the language of blame, because I was totally unprepared for something like this to find me; totally satisfied and content with my naïve worldview and the neatly compartmentalised “out there” where all the bad things happen. I wasn’t prepared at all for the enormous issue of human trafficking to be placed irrevocably in my line of sight, so that I would no longer be able to ignore it. And it ruptured my comfort zone completely. Inconveniently.
I was also completely unprepared for what the survivors I met through the programme would be like. I wondered if they would trust me, a stranger. I wondered if they would be suspicious, or fearful. I wondered most of all if they would be, after so many years of living in fear, able to laugh again.
Well, I was totally wrong. The women I met in that safe house every week were feisty, funny and opinionated, with huge dreams and take-no-prisoners mentalities. Yes, there were moments of sadness and tears, there were days when life was more difficult than others; but through it all – through their waiting for legal aid, visas, or news from family members; through their highs and lows – they were present, they were thankful, and they were ALIVE.
During the few weeks we spent together on the Day 46 programme, we ate snacks, talked about our dreams and hopes for the future, shared funny stories (one woman’s account of trying to find a husband in the elevator at Harrods was the crowd favourite), and even had time for the serious work of interview techniques and CVs. It was one of the warmest, most authentic communities I’ve ever been privileged to be part of.
People are talking a lot about resilience at the moment. It’s a bit of a buzz-word, I guess. Sometimes in the past I’ve wondered if I’m as resilient as I would like to be, or if I would really know when I saw it in someone else; but I don’t think I need to wonder about that anymore. Because what will always stand out to me when I think of that word now, is one woman, Sarah*.
She was asked to choose a picture to represent who she was and who she hoped to be. She searched through the stacks of magazine cuttings in front of her to find the perfect one, and after some deliberation, she picked out a photo and showed it to the group – a runner about to start her race, toned and tanned in perfectly fitted, cobalt blue sports gear. “This is me,” she said, pointing to the strong, athletic figure poised on the running track. “She’s a winner. And I’m a winner too. That’s what people are going to say about me.”
*Not her real name.
By Christine Gilland
Day 46 Facilitator
Day 46 is an innovative eight-week learning programme designed to support survivors of trafficking and modern day slavery beyond their ‘45 days’ of statutory emergency care. It’s a unique blend of eight face-to-face confidence, identity and employability workshops that comprise of group sessions, one-to-one coaching and mentoring and where possible, a bespoke voluntary work placement or training opportunity. This comprehensive package helps survivors develop greater resilience, independent living and employability skills.