Not Without Hope: Healed and Free
*By Judith Santiago
All she wanted was a good paying job. Instead, Anna (not her real name), from Yerevan, Armenia, ended up working for her captors and enduring a traumatic five-month ordeal of forced prostitution in Dubai.
After divorcing her husband of two years, Anna returned home to live with her parents. While she had a close relationship with her mother, her relationship with her father was strained. Because of this, Anna was eager to find work and move on with her life.
One of her neighbors visited her parent’s home to discuss a promising job opportunity. They were told that she could do housework in Greece or work in a sewing factory there. Anna’s mother naively agreed and encouraged her daughter to take the opportunity. After some thought, Anna was excited about going because her grandmother was originally from Greece and she was happy to have the opportunity to visit.
In what was to be a temporary stay in Moscow while her papers were being put in order to enter Greece, her experience turned into one of despair. Anna’s chances of going to Greece seemed to dim with each passing day.
“It took me months to finally tell my mother that I wasn’t in Greece,” said Anna, who stayed in Moscow several months before being taken to Dubai.
“I barely survived…”
In Dubai, all of her documentation was taken from her and she was forcibly told what to do. For the next few months, Anna and others like her were confined to a small room during the day. They were to work to repay a debt to their captors for their travel and living expenses. Each meal they consumed added to their debt. In the evenings, she performed sexual favors for about five clients each night. The clients would pay to have the girls for several hours or sometimes several days.
“I barely survived the months in Dubai with what they were asking me to do,” says Anna. “Some of the girls I met said they had been living this way for four to five years!”
Anna learned that some of the clients harshly abused the girls. She says, “God was here with me. I knew I was not in such a bad situation, as compared to other stories I had heard,” continued Anna. “But I did feel worthless, shifting sexually from one person to another.”
Anna’s only goal during her ordeal was to pay her debt and return home. One day, Anna went out to meet a client. When the police came, she was arrested for prostitution. Anna was held for 10 months in immigration and another five months in detention. She could not return home to Armenia until her identity was confirmed, which was complicated because she possessed a Russian citizen passport that was under a false name other than her own.
It was Christmas Eve; Ana was out of police detention and back with her captors. She again found herself confined to a small room. Anna threatened her chief captor with exposing the trafficking operation if her original passport was not returned. Her captor, a Muslim woman, surprisingly returned the passport as a Ramadan offering.
“She had small portion of charity in her and gave me some money and clothes too,” said Anna.
Healed at an UMCOR shelter
When the local Armenian police learned about this situation they contacted the UMCOR shelter for trafficked survivors in Armenia. Anna stayed at the shelter for several months, and continued visiting the shelter psychologist for five more months.
“At first, when I was told I could talk to a psychologist, I didn’t understand that concept,” says Anna. “The psychologist instilled trust in me again. Otherwise, I would have had difficulty overcoming this nightmare,” she said.
Anna was surrounded by much love from the UMCOR Armenia shelter staff. She shared with other women her experiences and learned that she was not alone.
“I’m thankful to UMCOR that I have found myself again,” says Anna. “I lost trust and faith in people and I thought I’d never marry again. Thanks to UMCOR, I have a husband and a wonderful son.”
Anna’s husband, a taxi driver and migrant worker in Russia, learned about her traumatic past during their second week of dating. He accepted the truth and gave her all the love and attention she deserved. Later, she agreed to marry him. What’s more, Anna’s friend at the UMCOR shelter married her husbands’ brother.
“When a woman leaves the shelter, marries and has a child, the survivors know it’s a positive outcome,” says Liudmila Badalyan, staff psychologist for UMCOR Armenia’s shelter. “We help make the person understand that they deserve a better life. This is not only the work of psychologist but the whole staff,” continued Badalyan.
During her stay at the shelter, Anna learned skills like floral and table designs as well as sewing. All of these skills have helped her earn an income after she left the shelter. Whenever Anna experiences income gaps, UMCOR allocates a small stipend of about $80 to help see her through. UMCOR also supplies Anna with bedding supplies, sheets, pillowcases, children’s clothes and elderly clothes for the sewing orders she receives.
“UMCOR became part of me and my life,” says Anna. “I’ve never met such considerate and loving staff.
“I’m not afraid now.”
How You Can Help
Human Trafficking Awareness Day is observed January 11. You can observe this day with your gifts to help survivors like Anna receive the love and rehabilitation services available at the UMCOR Armenia shelter. Give now to Anti—Human trafficking Project, UMCOR Advance #333615.
You can also download and share this Human Trafficking Awareness poster with your local church community to raise awareness about human trafficking.
*Santiago is the Media Communications Associate for UMCOR