In the summer of 2015, I travelled with three representatives from the Presbyterian Foundation to the European nation of Moldova to document the work of Diaconia Connections, and our Moldovan partners CASMED and ProCoRe. Our goal was to produce a video about the work being done to fight hu
Human trafficking is a reprehensible crime. And Moldova, Europe’s poorest country, is ground zero. Cornered between Romania, Ukraine, and the Black Sea, the country has experienced years of economic dysfunction, political corruption, and civil war. For working-age adults and young people, opportunity is often found by seeking employment in Russia or the European Union.
Moldova is rated as a Tier 2 Watch List by the U.S. State Department. It is a primary source of men, women, and children trafficked for sex and forced labor. Victims are sent to Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, Russia, and the European Union. Nearly 80 percent of those trafficked work in the sex industry.
The problem is most egregious in Moldova’s rural communities, where educational and economic opportunities are lacking. Individuals in the countryside are desperate for opportunities. And desperate people without the proper means to acquire work visas, are prime targets for human traffickers. In Moldova, there are plenty of potential victims.
A close view of the problem
We met up with our Moldovan colleagues, Livia and Adrian, early on in our trip and they stayed with us for a few days, driving us around Moldova, where we visited villages and farm communities. But instead of listening to stories of capture, abuse, escape, and healing from individual survivors, we instead visited the damp, musty homes of elderly women suffering from diabetes and hypertension. We came upon the cottage of a 75-year-old man uncontrollably shaking from a neurological disease that rendered him unable to speak or feed himself. The nurse from CASMED that cared for him walked over 7 miles a day to wash his soiled bed linens and slice his bread.
We had lunch with a single mother and her son who was physically disabled and unable to leave the house. We listened intently as she pleaded with local government officials to assist her in rebuilding the foundation of her home. In the middle of the conversation, the mayor of the town leaned over to me and said in English, “Her house is going to be condemned next month. We don’t know what to do. We have no money to help.”
After nearly two hours of travelling, my Moldovan colleagues Adrian and Livia stopped the car in the middle of a gravel road at the top of a long, winding hill. They made their way to a rusted gate that demarcated the property line of a family that lived in a dilapidated house. Turquoise paint peeled away from warped, sun-bleached wooden planks, while the breeze sucked curtains out of broken window panes. The yard was bare, and rusted hulks of farm equipment could be seen through the crushed walls of a collapsed barn. There was no electricity, no running water, and the outhouse door was left ajar.
It was at times like these between Adrian, Livia, and me where our language barrier was most noticeable. I had no idea of their plans, so I just followed. Upon reaching the threshold of the gate, I caught a glimpse of an elderly woman making her way to the door. She walked with a severe bend in her spine — most likely the consequence of years of farm labor and osteoporosis. With her came three children. Their ages varied from 10-16. There were two boys and a young girl. They didn’t speak to us. After some hushed conversation, Adrian turned to me and waved me inside. I hesitated. I made it to the steps leading to the entrance, glanced at the children, and then turned back around. I walked across the yard, back through the gate, and stood by the car. I didn’t leave that spot for an hour.
Hard to see
At some point I couldn’t take it anymore. I felt like a voyeur. The overbearing sense of helplessness began to weigh on me, so I created an alternative reality. I convinced myself that the people we were visiting were acting — perhaps for the camera. I decided to look away, to ignore the problems that were presented before me — which is why, at that stop, I refused to enter the house.
I stood by the car indignant and upset that Adrian and Livia had taken me to the home of an elderly woman, caring for children, who was clearly uncomfortable and in need of some kind of material aid. Once again, I brought nothing. I had no food and no money. And this time, I had little empathy. I don’t know, maybe I was ashamed of my own privilege?
My colleagues from the Presbyterian Foundation, along with Adrian and Livia, returned to the car. None of them asked me about my decision to stay outside. Instead, they recounted another tragic story that had become all too familiar. Six years ago, the children’s mother was lured by work “recruiters” from Russia, promising a job in the hospitality industry in Moscow. Thinking that she would work in a hotel or café, the mother gave money to the recruiters to purchase a work visa. She left. And has never been back. It is now known that she was trafficked into prostitution by an organized crime syndicate. Her children have spoken with her only twice since she’s been gone, and they do not know when or if she will return. The task of caring for her children has fallen to her impoverished and elderly mother — a situation that only continues the cycle of poverty and vulnerability that enables traffickers to take advantage of desperation.
A way to fight back
After some reflection, I thought more critically about my own decision to not enter the house. Livia and Adrian, in the face of problems, never looked away. They listened to the stories of people and actively found ways to help. The work of CASMED and ProCoRe are testaments to the power of the human spirit in the face of overwhelming challenges. The nurses from CASMED provide not only medical assistance, but offer company and conversation, reminding those they care for that they are loved and remembered. Social workers from CASMED and ProCoRe assist elderly caretakers with their expenses, providing educational materials, a living stipend, and food throughout the year. Youth counselors and workers provide job training, therapy sessions, and organize cultural outings to help young survivors of trafficking heal. I began to feel ashamed that I, in my privilege, did not allow the children or the grandmother to tell me their story.
Livia, Adrian, and all the individuals we visited, forced me to realize an often forgotten fact: that a crime like human trafficking affects entire communities in addition to those trafficked. Men who have been sent away to Moscow to work on construction sites as bonded laborers are unable to remain home and attend to their ailing mothers. Women forced into prostitution in Turkey are unable to care for their aging fathers. Bright students desperate for work and educational opportunities drift away to cities and across borders, weakening their communities and impoverishing the life and future of their villages. But the story doesn’t need to stop there.
No matter how insidious the crime trafficking can be, together, survivors and regular people like you and me can fight back. It is why Adrian and Livia continue to care and provide healing for all of those affected — the survivors and those who are left behind. It’s why survivors themselves are often their own best advocates. They are strong, resilient people who have a lot to teach us. It’s why we should never ignore their stories.
It’s why we should actively search for those places in our communities where trafficking is happening, and volunteer, donate to, or work alongside those organizations fighting this terrible crime.
Far away, but close to home
We were about an hour and half north of the capital Chisinau when I saw my final glimpse of the Moldovan countryside. It was awash in an auburn, early-morning light that intensified the dour hues of plowed fields and barren hillsides. Thousands of dried sunflower stalks shuddered in the wind while elderly farmers dressed in loose-fitting cotton overalls lounged under spindly beech trees. Women’s Orthodox head scarves splashed radiant shades of red and blue across the landscape as they slowly herded untethered cows into the irrigation canals for water. It was a bucolic, peaceful scene. For while the land showed signs of serious erosion and the people working the fields conveyed a life bereft of material wealth, it was nevertheless enticing. It was one of the few moments where I really paid attention, when I chose not to look away.
While Moldova might be far away, the trauma of trafficking hits close to home. As citizens of Milwaukee and the United States, we should work to fight injustice and human trafficking here and in places like Moldova. It might be uncomfortable and we might have to learn where we can be of help, but much more is lost when we avert our eyes and stand listlessly by on the roadside.
Jeremy Ault is the Director of Diaconia Connections and an Analyst for Spectrum Nonprofit Services. He lives in Milwaukee. For more information, please visit www.diaconiaconnections.org