Vatican City, Oct 15, 2021 / 10:06 am (CNA).
When a 26-year-old Nigerian girl was first forced out on the streets of Italy by her traffickers, she was told: “You have to start smiling.”
Blessing Okaedion still thinks back on that moment in 2013 as a turning point in her life.
“I can remember the shame. I can remember covering my face,” Okaedion said at an event in Rome on Oct. 14.
Her traffickers told her to smile for the clients, and Okaedion thought: “How can I just stop crying and start smiling?”
She said that that was the moment that she realized that she was a slave without the freedom even to express her own emotions.
“You can no longer prove your emotions because it doesn’t matter anymore because you are a slave,” she said.
“You have to present yourself to the buyers that you are a product, that you chose to be there. You have to present yourself to the buyer, that this is your desire … because that is what the buyer sees on your face and through your actions.”
“No one really understood that those girls on the streets, they are not smiling, they are crying,” she said.
Okaedion described the dehumanizing experience of sex slavery at an event co-hosted by the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See and the Embassy of Ireland to the Holy See entitled: “Empowering a New Generation to Fight Modern Slavery.”
She shared how Catholic religious sisters helped her to regain her freedom, recognize her dignity, and be empowered to advocate for other sex trafficking victims through an NGO which she founded.
“I will not stop this speech without appreciating the role that the sisters played in our lives,” she said.
Okaedion said that the sisters showed her “what it means to be autonomous and to be free,” and helped her “not only to regain her dignity, but to have a voice and to have eyes to look profoundly for those social injustices.”
Sisters on the frontlines
A network of more than 2,000 Catholic religious sisters serve on the frontlines of the fight against sex trafficking, helping survivors heal and find true freedom.
Among these sisters dedicating their lives to serving human trafficking victims is Sister Imelda Poole, who works with trafficking victims in Albania.
Sister Imelda was invited to come from Albania to Italy by the American and Irish embassies to the Holy See to receive the 2021 Trafficking in Persons Hero Award at the event.
“Survivors in our shelters in Albania are nearly all minors today,” Sister Imelda said in her speech.
“And they have come back from countries which have abused them beyond any of your imagination.”
She said that the religious sisters help these women through “human empowerment to bring them through the trauma” using art therapy.
Sister Imelda is a member of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary congregation and serves as the president of Religious in Europe Networking Against Trafficking and Exploitation.
Sister Monica Chikwe, a member of the Hospitaller Sisters of Mercy from Nigeria and the vice president of Slaves No More, and Sister Gabriella Bottani, a Comboni Missionary who leads the “Talitha Kum” network, also spoke at the panel and shared their strategies for how to combat human trafficking.
Talitha Kum is a network of religious sisters present in 77 countries. Members of the network have served 10,000 trafficking survivors by accompanying them to shelters and other residential communities, engaging in international collaboration, and aiding survivors’ return home.
At the highest levels of the Church, the Migrants and Refugees Section of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development is working on anti-trafficking issues and coordinating different agencies, including the anti-trafficking network Talitha Kum.
The name “Talitha Kum” is Aramaic, from Jesus Christ’s words in the Gospel of Mark’s fifth chapter. There he spoke to the 12-year-old daughter of Jairus, who had just died: “Young girl, I say to you, arise!” Jesus then took the girl by the hand and she got up and walked.
The network sees its name as an expression of “the transformative power of compassion and mercy” for those who have been wounded by “the many forms of exploitation.” The network grew out of efforts in the 1990s and is a collaborative effort with the International Union of Superiors General. It was formally established in 2009.
Empowering the next generation
Sister Imelda said that she has great hope that younger generations will join their efforts to “to eliminate the world of this heinous crime of human trafficking.”
In an interview with EWTN, she shared the story of a Norwegian young man who was studying at the Polish Film Academy in Warsaw and who was assigned to do a film on erotica.
“He chose not to do that, but to make a film against human trafficking to express the horror of erotica, and what it can do to enslave a young woman who without her will is being abused in this way,” she said.
At first, the film was critiqued by his professors who told him he did not fulfill the assignment, but later this short film was given a distinction, she explained. The award winning video was shown at the BAFTA center in Piccadilly Square in London.
Sister Imelda said that she believes education has a key role to play in empowering the next generation in the fight against human trafficking.
“ I feel that they [young people] are the future … not I feel, I know,” Sister Imelda said.
“We have a responsibility to the next generation. But our main responsibility is to listen and support them, so that they can be given all possibilities and skills to lead,” she said.
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