Sex trafficking is a horrible but thriving business. Survivors who have been able to escape are often suffering from continued pain and trauma.
Some of the women have offered to share their story with you, as painful as it is - to go back to those places, those memories. They'd like you to understand their history and the circumstances that forced them into this spiral of violence and exploitation.
We invite all to listen to what these brave women have to say. We hope that some of you will be moved to engage with them and with IF more deeply to help put an end to this crime against humanity.
Please be aware that names and locations have been changed for security reasons.
I searched for Marwa at the airport. Where was she? I could feel the panic rising in me as I scanned the sea of faces for the kind lady who had arranged my new job overseas on the island of Cyprus. She must be here somewhere. I did not hear anyone speaking Arabic. I had to make a plan. Where would we go if I could not find Marwa? I looked over at my young niece Selma. She had not stopped crying the whole way here. She did not want to come with me to Cyprus to work, but my family forced her to come. She wanted to stay home in Morocco with her fiancée. They were soon to be married.
Everyone rushed by. No one seemed to notice us. I shuddered. “This will all turn out ok”, I told myself.
A short, fat woman with a man’s haircut walked up to me and showed me a piece of paper with my name written on it in Arabic. I started speaking to her in my native language. She understood nothing. She said, “Passports”. I showed her our passports and she took them immediately. I felt sick. Selma was silent.
I spoke to the lady in Arabic, asking her for Marwa. I spoke fast and I did not care what she thought. I just wanted Marwa. She replied, “Yes, Yes. Marwa. Come. Come with me.” She grabbed my hand and pulled me to the car. She never told me her name. In our culture, this is rude.
The night outside seemed especially dark as we drove through the city. When we arrived at a building about an hour later, the woman gave our passports to an old, fat man. He wanted to shake my hand. I tentatively put out my hand, although I did not want to shake his hand. He looked sleazy. Selma stayed hidden behind me.
He asked me if I spoke English. “Little”, I replied. Selma said nothing.
He brought us to a room and closed the door behind us. There was not much furniture in the small room. I walked through a nearby door into a smaller room with a toilet and shower. Whew, it was hot. I went to open the window, but it did not seem to open. I fiddled with the lock with no success. I went to open the door to see if there was someone to help, but the door was locked. I was worried, but tried to pretend everything was okay for Selma’s sake.
I looked over at her. She was curled up in a ball on one of the beds. I lay down on the other bed and tried to keep the fear from taking over. I drifted off into a dark sleep. I woke up, startled, as Selma was shaking me and telling me that I was having a bad dream.
Finally, the door opened and Marwa walked in. Relief flooded my body. I did not know if I wanted to cry or hug her more. She took us out to a local coffee shop. I was so glad that there was finally someone who understood Arabic.
I looked around the coffee shop. I wondered if this was where we would be working. We ordered tea. I looked at the pretty flowers. Thoughts ran through my head that maybe everything was going to turn out alright after all. I could work here. I knew how to waitress. The weather was nice. We could return to Morocco in three months, as planned, with money for our family.
It was here that Marwa began to explain that we owed her for the plane tickets from Morocco, the visas, and the work permits. She showed us the total. It was enormous. It would take many years to earn that amount back in Morocco, where salaries were often around 100 dollars a month. I felt like I was going to pass out. Selma started to cry again. I quickly asked Marwa why she did not tell us this back in Morocco. We would not have come! There was no way we had that kind of money. I panicked.
Marwa looked at me calmly and quietly explained that we could earn the money working in a bar. We would serve drinks to customers and entertain them. I asked her what she meant. Without so much as a flinch, she explained that we would be given the equivalent of 40 dollars for every customer we had sex with each day. I started screaming in the coffee shop. I yelled that we would never do such a thing. I begged her. I pleaded. I cried. I thought about hitting her. I looked around and considered running away. I don’t know why I did not run. I just sat there, frozen, crying, pleading in the name of Allah. I don’t know why I followed her back to the room. I felt like I was in a daze. My head was fuzzy.
The door closed and locked again behind us, and the beatings, rape, and torture began.
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People ask me how I could put my child in an orphanage…my own child. They do not understand what it is like to see your own child hungry and have no food to feed her. People may want to ask me how I could sell my body on the street. They do not understand how it was in Bulgaria….how I searched for a good job day after day. Everyone else was searching too. Everyone else was trying to feed their kids too. They do not understand what it was like to be abducted by the mafia and trafficked all across Europe, night after night, month after month. So many men. So many beatings. Others judge me, but they have not been stabbed and beaten and forced to do the unimaginable. They do not bear the scars on their body like I do.
The day finally came when I escaped. I was brought to a secret shelter called a safehouse where I was hidden away from the mafia. The Bulgarian mafia don’t just let their property go. They mark them. They hunt them down. They own them.
For several weeks, I stayed hidden in the secret safehouse. I could not stand it anymore: the loss of freedom, the loss of life. One day, I was told by the police that I could go out on a visit with a worker. I was so excited. I spent all morning getting ready. We went to McDonalds. I love McDonalds. My brother used to take me there when I was a child. Those were good memories. I felt happy. I felt free.
Then, I noticed the men following us at a distance. I thought maybe they liked me. Maybe they wanted sex. I told the worker with me that I thought the men were following us. We walked down the street of the busy outdoor mall. They were still behind us. We turned corners. They followed. I felt scared by then. The worker led me to a nearby police station and explained what was happening. The police showed us a poster with pictures of many men. The worker clearly identified the men who were following us. The police told the worker that the men following us were dangerous Bulgarian mafia members. The police escorted us back to the safehouse. I was not allowed to go out in public after that.
My trial against my trafficker finally happened after 6 months of waiting in the safehouse. I had to go and face him in court for several days while I told my story. His lawyer tried to make me look bad, but I had too much information…too much truth. The police told me that I testified very well. The verdict did not come for a number of days. There were other women who would testify also. Women just like me.
Many people told me that traffickers often get off with no penalty. I wanted him to pay for what he had taken from me. I wanted him to pay for the times he had stabbed me and beaten me. I waited. During this time, the police told me I would never be safe if I stayed here. They moved me to another safehouse in a different European country. They told me I had to move. I have started a new life again. I am learning a new language. Still, I wonder if I will see them waiting around the corner for me here too.
After several months, the court verdict came back as guilty. I couldn’t believe it. My trafficker was sentenced to 8 years in prison for what he had done to me. I was so happy. I was happy until Interpol contacted my new safehouse to say that the mafia has been seen outside my daughter’s orphanage in Bulgaria. They did not take the judgment lightly. They wanted revenge. They wanted my little 8 year old daughter if they could not have me. Interpol told me that they were working to protect my daughter and to bring her here. They said things take time. Everything takes time. They stalk my daughter while time passes. My life was not enough for them. They always want more.
Many people still judge me. They do not know what it is like to feel hunted. They do not understand.