Every July 4th, we celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence with raucous celebrations across the country. Celebrating milestones is a critical part of LifeWay Network’s ethos, so we talked to one of our safe house alumnae about how she is declaring her independence. It is easy to get wrapped up in human trafficking’s magnitude and forget about the individuals whose lives have been upended by it. Our conversation with Helen* not only reminded us of the very personal cost behind human trafficking, but of our hope that it will someday be eradicated entirely.
Helen has been part of the LifeWay Network family for almost two years and is quickly becoming a strong voice about her experience as a trafficking survivor. She’s quick to disabuse the notion that there’s a standard profile of someone who has been trafficked, since she herself has two degrees and had a steady job as a fashion textile designer before coming to the States. She unflinchingly described her experience at this year’s Event Towards New Life: “I came here from a third world country to be with my husband, but I didn’t know he would be my abuser and captor…I somehow managed to escape….which I consider myself very, very lucky. Not everyone has the chance to escape. I thought I was free, but that was not the case. The abusers are powerful. My embassy was not able to help me.” Her abuser found her and the first shelter she entered refused to admit her any longer.
She was frank about her struggles when she first entered the LifeWay Network safe house, explaining, “When I started at LifeWay, the first six months, I was unable to do anything. I was really depressed, and, to be honest, I was suicidal… I was even in a psychiatric unit for more than half a month. I did not see anything ahead of me. I thought my life had ended. I didn’t have any purpose. I could not relate myself to the world. I was so scared to talk to people. I was totally terrified. I would not trust anyone, except the sisters in the community. And I knew, I could not be here forever, so where would I go? Nowhere. So maybe my time on this planet is just over.”
With the help of her LifeWay Network family, Helen pulled herself out of her depression and began to find meaning in life again. She was effusive in her love and gratitude for her host community and the support they’ve provided. This friendship and encouragement not only helped her to heal but also prepared her for independent living. “Being around the host community and having frequent interactions with them including our weekly dinners gave me the opportunity to understand and adjust to American society…I feel confident when interacting with my colleagues because of my experience at the [safe house]. I made some very good friends while I was at LifeWay, some of them are the residents who were living with me and some are from the host and volunteer community and so despite the fact I don’t have family in the United States I don’t feel alone.”
Despite her sadness at no longer living with the people she considers family, Helen is embracing her independence and building up dreams for the future. She’s working part-time at a tech company and as a website developer for a prestigious museum, as well as starting her own web design business. She’s eager to help women with similar stories: “I am actively working with multiple organisations who run rehabilitation projects in New York City for survivors of human trafficking, organ trafficking, gender abuse and domestic violence.” Helen credits LifeWay Network’s safe house programming with giving her the boost she needed to begin all these ventures: “They provided me with everything I needed. The education. The support. Every time I would achieve something, they would just cheer me up so passionately. I would think, oh my gosh, I have really done something wonderful, that really means something.”
*not her real name