In a recent New York Times article titled “Nuns Intercede for Victims of Sex Trafficking in Italy,” Elisabetta Povoledo takes a closer look at the escalating human trafficking market in Italy and the steps being taken to address it. Povoledo’s article begins with the tale of a Nigerian woman who fled the poverty of her homeland for the promise of employment in Europe. Upon completing the perilous journey across the Mediterranean, the traffickers took her documents and told her that she owed them an additional 50,000 euros (roughly $56,000). With no way to pay such a large sum and with no one else to help, she was forced into prostitution on the streets of Palermo.
Sadly, her story is far from unique. As waves of immigrants continue to pour across the Mediterranean in search of a better life, their numbers and relative anonymity are creating an increasingly fertile ground for those seeking to take advantage of their helpless state. While it is not only women that are in danger, their plight is perhaps the easiest to exploit. As Povoledo notes, the human trafficking market is a multi-billion-dollar industry with an estimated 20.9 million people “in forced labor worldwide; of these, 22 percent are trafficked for sexual exploitation.”
While the task of helping those caught in this web of slavery might seem daunting, it is not hopeless. A group of nuns in Italy have established several shelters around the country for those caught in sex trafficking that choose to escape. The woman described above was trapped in prostitution for three years before she “summoned the courage to rebel, coaxed by a nun in Palermo who volunteered with a street unit that provides medical and psychological support for prostitutes.” The nun gave her the address of a safe house in Caserta, a town just north of Naples, where she was able to find shelter and hide from her handlers.
The women at the shelter work together in a sewing cooperative called Newhope. The goal of Newhope is to help the women establish a new sense of identity from the one engrained in them by the traffickers. As Sister Rita Giaretta, one of the nuns at the Caserta safe house, describes, “The cooperative is important because it shows them that they can produce, that they can make money not with their bodies, but through their creativity…It is highly liberating.”
Over the past 20 years, the Caserta house has provided a home for roughly 370 women, most from Nigeria. There the nuns, in conjunction with social workers, local institutions, and embassies, work to get the women the new documents needed to be able to create a life for themselves outside the safe house. However, such places of refuge are not intended to be permanent dwellings but rather, as Sister Giaretta put it, to give the women “a hand in the most difficult phase and then help them take flight.”
Sister Gabriella Bottani, who coordinates the International Network of Consecrated Life Against Trafficking in Persons (known as Talitha Kum) speaks to the motivation behind the sisters’ actions when she says, “For us, it’s an important question of spirituality and theology…To speak of human trafficking is to listen to the cry of anguish of humanity, it’s to speak of freedom and life and respect for others. It helps us reconsider the importance of life in its entirety.”
When was the last time you stopped to consider the importance of life in its entirety? When was the last time you stopped to consider your worth on God’s terms rather than your own? One of the most important aspects of the sisters’ work in these shelters is helping those in their care realize that they are more than their past, that they are worthy of a better life.
Do you need to be reminded of that same truth today? In reading Psalm 103, you get the sense that David was intimately acquainted with this need to not let our past define our present. There, in verses 11-13, he says of our identity in the Lord, “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.”
Our heavenly Father offers us an identity in him that is not defined by who we were so much as what he can help us become. It is an identity that is defined not by our sins but by his grace, not by our past but by his presence. There is great freedom in that but ultimately we must choose whether we will embrace it. So the next time you stop to think about your life in its entirety, where will your focus fall? Will you define yourself by your past or embrace the freedom of a future that only God can give? The choice is yours. Choose wisely.