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The International Ogranization for Migrations estimates that about one million human beings are victims of trafficking every year – 500,000 of them in Europe.Regarding human trafficking for sexual purposes in Italy – even if it is difficult to obtain certain data on this very illegal and hidden business – the presence of foreign prostitutes is estimated between 19,000 and 26,000. Since the end of the 1980s, up to this day, this problem has involved mostly women from Nigeria as well as women from Eastern Europe.

The International Ogranization for Migrations estimates that about one million human beings are victims of trafficking every year – 500,000 of them in Europe. Regarding human trafficking for sexual purposes in Italy – even if it is difficult to obtain certain data on this very illegal and hidden business – the presence of foreign prostitutes is estimated between 19,000 and 26,000. Since the end of the 1980s, up to this day, this problem has involved mostly women from Nigeria as well as women from Eastern Europe.

This dramatic reality could not leave us indifferent: as Franciscan Sisters of the Poor, we felt challenged to respond from our hearts, or rather, from our very own charism. Since the beginning of our Congregation, our founder and her first companions used to share their home with young women coming from prostitution, who wanted to change their lives. For the past ten years, in co-operation with the Dioceses of Padua and Pistoia, we too – like Mother Frances – have been active in a ministry to offer these women a safe shelter, where they can begin to be protected and prepare to go back into society and become self-sufficient. The journeys of hope for these women include many different features – health and legal consultations, legalization of their status in Italy, learning the Italian language, working in a creative workshop and acquisition of job skills. All this happens thanks to constant encouragement, mutual trust, and quite a bit of courage!

A community feast. In the photo Sr. Loredana Giugliano, Sr. Monica Stasi and Sr. Wilma Molinari with guests and a volunteerA community feast. In the photo Sr. Loredana Giugliano, Sr. Monica Stasi and Sr. Wilma Molinari with guests and a volunteer Throughout the years, we also sheltered pregnant women, mothers with their babies, Italian and foreign women in extreme situations. We shared in their suffering and deep wounds, and in their difficult regaining of their dignity and self-respect, along with the joys in small and great achievements and the strength to face the future with new hope. In this ministry, we never felt alone: we experienced the support of so many friends, who helped in many ways and we also worked alongside with other Religious families and Institutions.

Together, we continue caring for these women, giving them a real opportunity to begin a new life.

My name is Joy. I am 23 years old and come from Nigeria. My parents are peasants. I am the eldest of 5 siblings. In order to help my family, I used to go to the village market square to sell our produce. One day, a woman came and told me that if I wanted to work in Europe, she could help me leave and find me a job as a nanny. I talked with my parents and, since we were very poor, they gave me permission to leave.

Throughout the years, we also sheltered pregnant women, mothers with their babies, Italian and foreign women in extreme situations. We shared in their suffering and deep wounds, and in their difficult regaining of their dignity and self-respect, along with the joys in small and great achievements and the strength to face the future with new hope. In this ministry, we never felt alone: we experienced the support of so many friends, who helped in many ways and we also worked alongside with other Religious families and Institutions.

Together, we continue caring for these women, giving them a real opportunity to begin a new life.My name is Joy. I am 23 years old and come from Nigeria. My parents are peasants. I am the eldest of 5 siblings. In order to help my family, I used to go to the village market square to sell our produce. One day, a woman came and told me that if I wanted to work in Europe, she could help me leave and find me a job as a nanny. I talked with my parents and, since we were very poor, they gave me permission to leave.

Before leaving, that woman took me to a native doctor. They did a voodoo rite on me, to make me swear that I would have to pay 45 thousand euros. I had no idea how much money that was, but I had to promise, because otherwise something horrible would have happened to my family. After an interminable journey, we arrived in Paris and then, by train, to Padua. The lady took me to her house and that very same night she told me that in order to pay her back I would have to work on the streets. I began to cry, telling her that I did not come to Italy in order to become a prostitute, but she beat me and threatened to hurt my parents. I did not know anyone and did not speak Italian, so I was forced to do what she wanted, even if I was desperate.I spent two years working on the streets as a prostitute, charging 10-15 euros per service and giving much of what I made to the lady who had taken me to Italy. The fear that she could hurt my family was stronger than anything else.

A volunteer teaches Italian to a guestA volunteer teaches Italian to a guest

Then, one day, I could not take it any more. Someone had told me that I could find help at Catholic Charities, so I went there and began telling them my story. They told me that for Italian law, a person who is forced into prostitution has to be protected and loved. I was so desperate that I accepted to press charges against my “madam” at the Police station, even though I was still afraid she would find me. I was welcomed into a community by the Franciscan Sisters of the Poor, and began the program of Social Protection. It was not easy for me to get accustomed to a lifestyle that was completely different and learning the language.

I had been living in Italy for two years but, besides my clients, I had not had contacts with Italians, therefore I had continued to speak my language. In the community, there were other women who had had my same experience. Living together was often difficult, because I do not trust anyone. Little by little, the Sisters helped me obtain the legal papers and for the first time since I was in Italy, I began to go out without being afraid that the Police would stop me.

The most difficult part of this Program was finding a job. I did an internship with a housecleaning agency but in the end, they did not hire me. We found a few small jobs until one day a friend of the Sisters took me on probation to work in a storage facility. I tried my best to learn the job, even though it was really hard work, because this was my only way to become self-sufficient and begin a new life. In the end, I was hired and this was truly a new beginning for me. I was able to rent an apartment, which the Sisters helped me furnish, and I hope sooner or later to get my driver’s license.When Joy came to us, we tried to make her feel at home.

She had been abused and taken advantage of for years and did not easily accept the rules of our community. We encouraged her to learn Italian as it is essential in order to live in our country. At the beginning, it was very difficult, because she had to adapt to a schedule, sharing housekeeping chores, and living with other women who were also wounded and diffident. There were moments of tension, because Joy was often moody and did not trust anyone. Since she had left Nigeria, she had encountered only people who had taken advantage of her, therefore she found it impossible to believe that there was someone ready to help her without expecting anything in return. Her luck was the strength with which she had decided to change her lifestyle, and run away from her madam.

Sr. Tina Ventimiglia with a woman who received the permit of stay in ItalySr. Tina Ventimiglia with a woman who received the permit of stay in Italy

That same determination is what kept her going during the months she spent with us with the goal of beginning a new life in our country. We saw that she was determined to become self-sufficient and free, and aware that she would need to work hard in order to become integrated in the country. When her papers came, she was in the hospital because she had been sick. We went to visit her and give her the good news. Together we celebrated her first step toward freedom, and took pictures to remember the occasion.

When a job was found for her, we shared in her joy and saw that she really gave it her all, in spite of the language barrier. Now she still comes to visit us. She shares her achievements and tells us that she wishes to get married soon.

It is great to know that she made it! Thinking back to the many months we spent together, one can really see how much more peaceful and mature she has become. Her courage was rewarded and she is finally free.