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Reaching out for a shelter

© UNICEF Romania 0034/Bivol
Turning her back to the road, clinging to the fence

By Camelia Teodosiu


The following stories are painfully true and I prefer not to disclose the names of those who had the courage to open up their hearts to make their sorrow known. They have been lied to so often, abused, stigmatized, and trafficked within the prostitution networks.  And this is what the following story is about.

A four-year-old boy opens the door, running back quickly to his mother when he sees us.  Several young girls are sitting on a sofa and the armchairs in the room. Some are very pretty, very young and each has her own story, that could easily be turned into a novel. These girls have all found shelter here. A most extraordinary woman came up with the idea of building a small house for them, a shelter. Each girl has her own nice and colorful room, with bedspreads and curtains made by the girls themselves.  This place provides them with a home, heat, food, and social workers who offer advice and make them feel that they are not abandoned.

They were initially reluctant to talk, but it soon became clear that their stories could help people understand and become involved, and contribute to the stopping of trafficking of women and, especially, children.  In the friendly privacy of the small apartment, we listened to their powerful confessions, picking two of the most extreme examples. One story is that of a mature woman, lacking experience, and forced to raise her child on her own. The other girl sits before me, seeming less communicative when we met in the living-room. She is pretty, very sensitive, has a tremble in her voice, and her eyes are sad. She stares at some point and begins to talk. She had never opened her heart before. She is in fact the youngest in the group, only 15, as she announces with a sorrowful voice.  She has had a “veritable career”.

“My story is a simple one.  I got pregnant and was on my own. I have a child. Shortly after giving birth, a friend took care of the baby, and I got a job. I found a place to live, but the rent made my financial situation very difficult.  I was unable to cope…  At that point I met some friends who told me to try to go abroad… I was thinking that I would have a job… something I can do for a time… to make ends meet moneywise… I never imagined that I would have to be a prostitute… So I ran escaped and arrived here…  My child stayed with the same friend who helped me before I left.  My choice to leave was a painful one, but even with a job here, I was living in a basement, which was once a laundry room, there were no facilities…”

She had told me everything in a single breath, as if she wanted to unburden her heart. The real dialog was now to begin.

“Are you feeling better now that you succeeded to return?”

“Yes, because at least I can hope to raise my baby.”

“What is it like there?  Did you make friends?”

“I was locked in a room, because this profession is not tolerated in Austria and I had no ID. I cried all day, and the girls in the club felt sorry for me; they collected 200 euro which they gave me to get back home. When they took me to have my medical tests I ran away.”

“Did you try to go to the authorities there?”

“Yes, the police came and searched the house; they knew that there were more of us in a single room…”

“Did you have a difficult situation at home, in your family?”

 “My parents are separated… I haven’t seen my father for 17 years and my mother … I can’t even look her in the eyes…”

“You are very sad…”

‘Yes, I am mad at myself for having allowed myself to be fooled by all kind of promises; I believed all kind of lies. Now I try be calm, and I tell myself that I did what I did because I was desperate.  When I look around here in the shelter I realize I am the oldest, as the other girls are under 20, and I should have been more mature. I should not let myself be fooled by all these promises made by strangers. But people see only what is on the surface … They start talking to you, treating you like a rotten apple, and they have no idea what actually happened. But I still think I’m courageous, because I managed to get out of there.  It still makes me mad that I let myself be fooled. No one comes to you for generosity’s sake and says ‘I want to give you this’.  Nobody offers you something for free.’

Virtually every sentence was left hanging.  Each was uttered with pain, but also with a kind of relief. It is a bit like when you are a child, when you are feeling embarrassed and ashamed about something you have done, and you are waiting to be punished. And as soon as you realize what the punishment will be, you feel better.

“What about the other girls who were there?  Do you think they were happy doing what they were doing??

Her response came instantly, with no hesitation:

“They were not happy! But their situation was the same, they had a bad situation at home, and kept lying to themselves… They said, I want to do this only for a time, to earn money.  But none of them did this, they never saved any money. They had entered a vicious circle and when they had a little money they went to buy all kinds of fancy trinkets, jewelry… And they could not go with the clients unless they were drunk, to be able to do it…”

“Are you afraid of the future?”

“Yes, I am, because I know what it is like to pay rent for many years, and let’s be honest, in Romania rents are equal to one’s salary, and I was left with nothing. Before I went to Austria I tried to go to the Municipality for help.  My child was only one year old, and I thought maybe I could put him in a maternal center, so he would at least have something to eat… But they told me he was too old, that they only take babies under one… The laws are made to make you crazy!”

“Do you think you can rebuild your life, find a man and get along with him?”

“This would be the last resort, to get married only to get out of this situation.”

“You don’t trust men anymore.”

“Yes, and my baby comes first. Although I realize that if I meet a man whom I could trust, I could offer my baby a male model, a father, and I could also have some help.”

I hesitate to convey the pain I am feeling as I write these lines, but perhaps we should take a moment to consider how much humiliation a human being can be subjected to?

What can one say about a 15-year old girl? The room is full of toys, stuffed animals. She still has an air of innocence about her, which she had not lost, in spite of the nightmare she has endured for the past three years. She has rings in her ears, here nose and her navel. She said she had one in her tongue as well, but she got rid of it because it was painful.

She also showed me a tattoo on her back, a night butterfly with wide open wings, resting on her waist. She is a little older than my daughter, and she was explaining some facts of life to me that I could never have imagined before. She does not seem to have understood very well what has happened to her. She tried to smile from time to time, but then she would choke, and the smile would turn into a painful grimace. I blamed myself thinking that our discussion was causing her this pain.  I did not dare ask many questions.  I even made an attempt to get her mind off things she most likely wants to forget. But she would always come back to her story, as if she were reading a novel she could not bear to put down.

“I am 15,” she says. “I came back from Spain, but before that I had already had a whole career behind me.  I left home when I was 12.”

“Because of your family?”

“‘Well, in fact, because of myself.  My parents were always fighting, and I thought it was because of me. One day I could not take any more and left home. But not right away, and this was not the first time. I went to my grandmother’s house first, but returned home a few days later.  They had not been looking for me as I had hoped. They scolded me, beat me, but I hoped they would stop fighting. The next day I left again, and did not return. I know that my parents never even bothered to look for me. I don’t think it is because they don’t love me, but… well, I don’t know. I think I was a burden to them, but it’s not about money, because they both had jobs and worked…”

“And where did you stay? Where did you sleep?”

“In the stairwell of the apartment building.”

“‘Didn’t you cry, weren’t you afraid?”

“No, I didn’t cry, I did what I wanted, I ate what I found… I was lucky because it was summer and it was not cold outside. But 4 months later I started looking for help. I met a woman who took me home; I did not ask myself if she was a decent person or not.  I was happy that I was no longer living on the streets. Well, this woman was a trafficker of girls.  I had no idea at the time what this meant, and six months later she took me out to work. This is a profession which demands that you bend your will to the wishes of the client; it can never be fully mastered …’

I could feel the pain and shame that overwhelmed her, but I realized that she wanted to talk to me, to make her voice heard.

“At first I used to drink, to take drugs… I did not want to know what was happening to me.”

Her eyes are full of tears and I realize that she does not want to remember. And then she started talking again, quickly summarizing the last stages of her life.

“When I turned 14, I got my ID and a passport, and they sent me to Turkey, where I spent nine months. There I was caught by the police, because I was too young. They sent me back home, where my pimp was waiting for me, and not long after that she sent me to Spain.”

“Was someone waiting for you there?”

“Yes, there is a whole network there. They took me to a club, and I could not leave there. I was locked up in the house. We rested during the day, and spent the night with clients. Finally I met a good man who helped me get out of there. He said it was my life and I had to choose what I wanted to do. I could not stay there, as I was under age, had no right to work, and had a fake passport.”

“Were you afraid that people would condemn you for what you did when you came home?”

“I don’t care what people say about me or about what I did. I am not ashamed of myself,” she said bravely, and went on: “In the long run it is not difficult to me to speak about this, but the details… well, I cannot tell you the details… because what I endured every day was very difficult for a child.”

This is a child whose room is full of toys, a bear, dolls, fairy tales books.  She is a child in search of her lost childhood.  One cannot help asking how someone could do such a thing to a child? Could it be indifference? Could it be a lack of education, poverty and toughness that leads one to kill the innocence of a child? I cannot find an answer to this question, but together we might find a way to support UNICEF activities and projects to stop the trafficking of human beings.

Reaching Out is a shelter where trafficked girls can heal their wounds and go on with their lives. Here they receive advice, learn to regain their self-esteem and confidence. They go to the market, cook, learn to sew, paint, build a way of life which they can cover with dignity and hope to make their dreams come true. “It is not easy,” says the shelter manager. “We have to learn how to cope with expenditures: maintenance, food, medication, school, travel, and clothes… everything has to be paid for. We started producing bed sheets, but it will take time until we start this business.” The UNICEF Office in Romania knows that this is the only shelter that meets the optimal standards, and that this needs support. It will provide technical assistance to develop a realistic, effective and efficient business plan. Then these girls here will benefit from all the necessary conditions to help them become integrated into society. Then they will no longer be regarded as victims, stigmatized and labelled. Then they will be able to look into your eyes and say: ‘Thank you for understanding me!’”

Project funded by UNICEF Romania with funds provided through the UK National Committee for UNICEF by Vodafone.



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