Tuesday, July 20, 2010

I Kidnap Girls

“I kidnap girls from their traffickers. Their pimps never know it until the girls are in the car with me, speeding toward the safe house. This is my biggest pleasure.”
I often get calls from traffickers, demanding that I give the girls back or they’ll kill me. I never do it. I’m still alive and a few of them are in jail.
Once I got a call from the police. They confronted me. “Did you take one of Bucu’s girls? He wants her back.” I just about had a heart attack. With this statement, they let me know whose side they were on if he carried out his threat.
This is the easy part of my job. The hard part begins once the girl is safe and attempts her journey toward a stable life.  Romanian society says: “All of this is your own fault. You went with bad people and look what happened. You shouldn’t be so stupid.”
           My book, Unstoppable Redeemer, describes how I got involved with victims of human trafficking. It also portrays some very courageous girls as they move forward into health, healing, and self-sustainability.
           Included in this post is a portion of the first chapter from Unstoppable Redeemer. Keep in mind when reading, I thought the police officer was calling about adult prostitutes.

Happy Reading!


Pitesti Romania 1998

            So many things in life start with a phone call...

            “Iana, I’ve got three prostitutes here at the police station. They’ve been working in Macedonia. Now they’re back in Romania. They have no identification documents, no visas, and they need a place to stay. We need some clothes to take them to the doctor to get tested for syphilis…”
            I rolled my eyes. What day aren’t there a few prostitutes at the police station?
            “That’s unfortunate, Alex, but why are you calling me? I don’t work with prostitutes. I work with children. Children in the streets. Children in the orphanage.”
            “I know, Iana, but what am I supposed to do, lock them up or put them in the streets? Or, should I let the guys here have some time alone with them?”
            I shifted in my chair. “You want me to drop everything to come and get three prostitutes?  Even through they’ve probably just had a fight with their pimp and run off? You want me to find them a place to stay, knowing their pimp wants his property back? That he’s probably right behind them!”
            “I’m in a tight spot, Iana.” He let out a deep sigh. “I promised them protection if they testified against their pimp.”
            “And, I’m their protection?”
            “We’ll provide an apartment and police surveillance. Come on, Iana. I just need my brilliant, beautiful, blonde psychologist friend to come down here and offer me her expertise.”
            “Stop trying to manipulate me, Alex. You don’t have what it takes.”
            “OO-ch, Iana! Do that again! I feel such pleasure when you hurt me. OHHh,” he moaned.
            Sicko clown. Can’t he ever be serious?  “Alex, nu am prost! (I’m not stupid.) My voice sped up like a record out of sync. “Remember the aid worker from England who took in a couple of prostitutes? Remember the headlines in The Bucharesti? “ENGLISH AID WORKER KEEPS WOMEN LOCKED IN APARTMENT IN EXCHANGE FOR SEXUAL FAVORS.”
            Although the allegations proved false, the newspaper never printed a retraction and the pimps beat him up.
            I started to slam the phone down when I heard a man hollering in the background.
            “Are you whores back in Romania because you already screwed all the men in Macedonia? Now you’re back for real Romanian men, so you can infect us with your diseases?”
            I kept listening. A high, thin voice pleaded, “No, no you don’t understand.”
            The man interrupted. “I understand perfectly. The pimps gave you the right price. You went with them to Macedonia. End of story. All three of you are just another bunch of filthy, stinking, whores. Why did you come back? No one wants you here!”
            Alex remained silent so I could hear what was going on.
            Finally he said, “Iana, the yelling--that guy, he’s my boss. As you can hear, he’s an idiot. These are young prostitutes. He plans to put them back into the street where their pimp will retaliate.”
             I started to remind him that I just came to Romania from Australia on a one-year assignment and my year was almost over. I couldn’t take on anything else.
            “By the way, Iana, their pimp? He’s one of the worst. The girls who escape him--the ones who cost him money to retrieve--they get his full attention. When he finds them, he beats them, knocks their teeth out, and scars their faces until they’re not even fit for prostitution.
            He waited before continuing. “When they reenter Romania, they don’t have identification documents. You know our law. Without documentation, they don’t exist. It’s impossible to commit a crime against a person who doesn’t exist.”
            Alex took a deep breath. “I’ve been working for two years to try to get this Bucu (the pimp) convicted. When we get close, he drags the witnesses over the border and shoots them.” He paused, allowing what he had just said to sink in. 
             Finally he went on. “I’m in charge of the investigation. Come here and take them before Mr. Dimwit kicks them out into the streets and Bucu comes for them.”
            “Alex, are you asking me to do this to help the prostitutes, or to protect your reputation as a vice cop?”
            There was silence on his end. Finally he spoke.
            “I don’t know, Iana...Just come, OK?”
            “Alex, all of this is sad. I feel bad for these women. I feel bad for you.”
            “Come on, Iana, I need a place for them to go tonight. We told them there would be protection.
            My voice rose. “That’s your problem.”
            I heard more shouting in the background. “Alex, are you asking me to do this to try to keep me in Romania? Because if you are, I’m sure there is a law against it somewhere and I’ll find it.” Alex had continually tried to strike up a relationship with me. Although born in Romania I’d spent the better part of the 1980‘s trying to escape. I'd lived the past last 10 years in Australia, making a life for my young son and myself.
            Things had gone well there until a tragedy struck so deep that I felt ruined. As a psychologist, I had often encouraged others in similar situations not to wallow in self-pity, but to reach out beyond themselves. In an attempt to follow my own advice, I had accepted the invitation of an acquaintance to come back to Romania and work with street children. My decision came easier knowing my young son would get to know his grandmother and see where I grew up. Even so, I had no intentions of remaining permanently in the place I’d put so much effort into escaping.
            There was no denying that Alex’s bulging biceps and crooked smile that implied mischief and good times ahead had made me look twice (OK, three times maybe) and that these could have gone a long way in persuading me. Except, I didn’t want a relationship with a man in Romania. That would only sabotage my plan to return to Australia. Alex was out of the question and I let him know it. In a few months, I’d be gone.
            I didn’t need to get involved in something as nasty as prostitution either. Trying to solve these kinds of problems could suck the life out of me and hold me hostage in Romania forever.
            “Bye, Alex. Thanks for thinking of me.” Again, I started to hang up but I heard the shouting in the background. “You are all just a bunch of whores. I’ll get my guys and we’ll pay you a visit.”
            I sucked in my breath and held it for a long moment.  “I’ll be there in an hour.” 
            “That’s great, Iana! I’ll marry you on the courthouse steps tomorrow. You want that too, don’t you Iana?”
            I hung up on him. Sicko Clown! Every time he calls, I have to ignore half of what he says to find out what he wants.

            My stomach tightened and my breath quickened. The conversation had taken me back to what I’d spent years trying to forget. Ignoring it proved impossible. I knew I needed to get moving to pull some things together if I were to be at the police station in an hour. Instead, I sat and rubbed my temples.
            It was 1978. I was 17. Huge flakes of snow settled on our shoulders as my father and I showed up at the Romanian Embassy...

Monday, July 12, 2010

When Success And Reality Collide

     It’s been said, that I have a big mouth that never stops talking. So far, I’ve avoided trouble because there’s no written proof of what I’ve actually said. If I utter anything too far over the top, when confronted it’s easy to feign ignorance. This blog robs me of the ability to do so as it shares my thoughts with you. Welcome anyway…and, here it goes!
     The other day someone asked, “Iana, with all the honors that you’ve been awarded, you must feel like a real success. What’s it like being you?”
     After 12 years of running the safe house and offering a trafficking prevention program, there are more girls trafficked out of Romania than when I started. I’m a success because this doesn’t overwhelm me. It doesn’t cause me to shrug my shoulders and say, “Yeah, it’s awful, but what am I supposed to do about it?” I’m a success because it just makes me want to fight harder.
     A few days ago the police from Bucharest called and asked me to start a new shelter and a trafficking prevention program in Constanta, a Black Sea port town.  “Girls are disappearing from here as if down a black hole,” they said.
   “I’ll help. But I need to raise funds first.”
     “Hurry,” they said. This made me want to fight harder. It caused me to want to encourage you to fight too.
      When the electricity got cut off at the shelter the same month I was awarded an Abolitionist award, some questions arose about success. Yet, I knew I was fighting for the right thing. It would get sorted out.
     Recently, prison officials released the same traffickers that girls from the shelter had risked their lives to put away in 2003. Their pimps were released several years early for “good behavior” although they continued to run their trafficking ring from a prison cell. I’ve seen new girls come to the shelter in 2010 who were trafficked by the same men the other girls and I worked so hard to put away. If the traffickers had remained in prison for the length of their terms, these girls could have been saved from the experiences they struggle with today.
     I’m not fond of laws that give a tax evader more jail time than a trafficker of minor aged girls. Someone’s sending an upside-down message to these guys. “Evade your taxes and we’ll send investigators out to find you and you’ll get put away for a long time. Sell young girls into forced prostitution and you’ll just get your hand slapped.” No wonder pimps trying to make a quick buck do so at the expense of vulnerable girls and young women. It doesn’t cost them enough. This makes me want to fight harder. I want you to fight with me.
     You may say this doesn’t affect me. The country I live in already has legislation addressing human trafficking. Think again. Girls from Eastern Europe are shipped all over the world and into every country. It’s people in the countries they are shipped to who create the demand. We not only need anti-trafficking legislation, we need enforced anti-trafficking legislation.
     When one of the girls from the shelter passed the entrance exams for a Christian high school but got turned away by the administration because she's a former prostitute, I fought down frustration, and continued on to find a good school for her. While she's happy now in a school for Environmental Studies, the experience left me wondering. Did those who refused this girl’s entrance application realize what kind of message they sent her? How could they turn away a girl who wanted to come and learn from them?
      I've lived just long enough to know that questions such as these are better directed at myself. What am I doing in the face of 5,000,000 children sold into sexual servitude and labor slavery? Am I willing to let it go? No! I want to do all I can to fight for these children. I know there are others who will join me in this fight.
     This is why I open my world to you—so that you will respond with whatever weapon you have. If you are a praying person, pray for five minutes each day about these children. If not, meditate five minutes each day about these girls. If you do this, it’s my guess you will discover you possess other weapons to use against child prostitution and forced labor. If you have finances, give them. If you possess the gift of gab or know how to write letters, contact your government officials.
     Over the next few months I’ll post a weekly blog. Log on and ask your friends to log on to read and share their own thoughts and anti-trafficking messages. Each time someone makes a comment, it informs publishers and lawmakers that people care. It says that you are interested in what happens to children forced into labor and prostitution.
     Success means pulling together to allow girls entrance into a safe place and raising our voices to lawmakers. I know we can do it.
     Join me next week when I’ll post an excerpt from the first chapter of my book, Unstoppable Redeemer, describing how I ended up running a safe house, and being called an abolitionist. (Proceeds from the book, will go to a trafficking prevention program for at-risk girls in Romania.)