Healing the Natashas: Observations on Trafficking Aftercare in Moldova
Editor’s note: The first portion of this article was published in the previous issue of the East-West Church
and Ministry Report 18 (Summer 2010): 16-15.
We did not expect the number of children who have entered the Home of Hope with their mothers. Children bring an entirely different dynamic to aftercare, making the efforts of social workers all the more challenging. Daily we have to deal with who has the right to discipline children, how children will be disciplined, how to handle jealousy among mothers, and how to enroll children in schools. On the positive side, women with children have shown greater stability than other women, nearly always overcoming the temptation to run. Most mothers possess an innate desire to see their children have a better life. Perhaps having a child or children keeps them from returning to their old lifestyle. We are very committed to keeping mothers and children together, teaching parenting skills to the women as best we can. One resident’s referring agency recommended placing a child in a state orphanage because of the expectation that the child’s mother was incapable of becoming a responsible parent. We refused to accept the mother without her child and now we are pleased to see that she is slowly learning how to be a wonderful mother.
We were surprised by the minimal prior education f girls entering Home of Hope. Nearly all have low literacy levels, some with no reading ability. Our initial plans for job training, English lessons, and computer work have had to take second place to basic reading and writing. One of the early additions to our staff was a teacher who gives the girls Romanian or Russian lessons. Some of the girls came to us labeled mentally handicapped, but a more accurate description would be traumatized with minimal education. Most of the girls are intelligent, with great sensitivity to reading people’s body language. For years their survival depended upon their ability to perceive other’s emotions. Thus, though they may be challenged in math or language arts, they score off the charts in reading other people’ emotions.
Attachments to “Boyfriends”
Even after all the demeaning treatment endured by the women we serve, they continue to hold deep attachments to “boyfriends.” The women cling to false assumptions of love, frequently overlooking the indignities perpetrated against them by their pimps. We have established a policy of no cell phones in Home of Hope. We also have no visits from men and limit any outside contacts, especially in the first weeks.
Stress on Staff
We have faced large staff turnover because aftercare for trafficked women is very intense work, and no amount of training can fully prepare one for it. Theoretical training does not always translate into practical ministry skills, with on-the-job training being the best teacher. We work hard to make sure each staff ember has time away from the home. Because they need a respite, staff is not allowed to stay at Home of Hope on their days off.
Within East European culture, shame is the mode of correction, yet most of the girls in Home of Hope have been shamed everywhere they have gone. Therefore, our center needs to be a place of love and acceptance, mercy and grace. In a shame-based culture it is a challenge to teach staff to not shame, but to understand.
It is hard for any of us to understand the depths of trauma that trafficked women have experienced. Our counselor knows more than anyone what they have suffered, but that information, of course, is private. Home of Hope workers have to realize the trauma the women have faced and respond with patience and understanding. We must accept that the rage the women feel stems not from personality defects or ingratitude, but from the deep trauma they have experienced. As their stories begin to emerge, emotions come to the surface in the form of hostility toward staff and other residents. We have had to learn not to respond in kind.
Issues of Privacy
We are very selective about non-residents entering the home, but we have come to realize that occasional visitors are not nearly as invasive and traumatic as we thought they would be. We were surprised by the degree of openness within Moldovan culture. Homes of Hope in India do not allow cameras on site because the girls are afraid of them. Girls in Moldova, however, are much more open about their past, sometimes even showing us their photos taken in brothels.
Still, we are very careful not to take advantage of the girls, their stories, or their images. Even for fund raising purposes, we refuse to show individual photos or share names of our residents. They already have been exploited for money, and we refuse to do the same. We want to avoid sensationalism for the sake of profit or recognition.
A Long-Term Process
Aftercare for trafficked women is not a short-term process. Ministry to their needs can very well last a decade, even though women will not be staying at Home of Hope nearly that long. The healing process is not something that can be accomplished quickly. The best we can do is to become a new family for our residents, providing healthy models for dealing with conflict and giving them consistent encouragement and support as they begin their new lives.
Even in the secular realm, people often describe trafficking as the greatest evil they have ever seen. Likewise, in our efforts to reclaim lives, we have experienced intense months of spiritual battles, and we have needed concentrated times of prayer and fasting.
We are grateful to have numerous individuals around the world praying for our ministry, for the staff, and for the women and children in our care. This prayer support is critical because of the opposition we face. We need great sensitivity to God’s leading. Because Home of Hope is a holistic ministry, we desire to help each woman with her physical, emotional, and spiritual healing.
● We confiscate cell phones the first day so that “boyfriends” will have no ongoing control or influence.
- • We do not force anyone to convert to Christianity and are very careful not to manipulate the girls into belief. However. fro m the outset we share with each girl that we function as a Christian home with high moral standards. We do not allow our residents to return to bars or to drink because we want to separate them from past negative influences. Since all of our residents are part of our home, we all attend Sunday services together at a small, local evangelical church. This community loves and accepts the girls without reservation. Church members also serve as volunteers at Home of Hope. In addition, we see that God is the one who starts the greatest healing. Each girl needs a miracle in her life, which is more critical to her recovery than the counseling or care she receives at Home of Hope.
We strive for honesty in Home of Hope. In contrast, dishonesty has been a way of life for our residents; to break the pattern is a major challenge. Until they can face the truth in their lives, they cannot distinguish truth from falsehood. As a result, for our staff healthy skepticism is necessary. One staff member grew up in a family of falsehoods, which gives her an uncanny gift for detecting lies. Unfortunately, our charges have a great capacity to deceive and we need to be able to uncover deception before lives of truthfulness can become a reality.
- • Our residents face a huge temptation to hoard. In the past, when we received donations of clothing, the girls would take whatever they wanted for themselves—and we would then subsequently find it under their beds. We now have one staff member sort and distribute donated items as needed. We have had to clarify that as children grow, their donated clothes are to be given to younger children—that clothing is not the permanent possession of one mother and her child.
Strong Families—The Best Protection Against Traffickers
Although many factors contribute to the evil of trafficking, poverty and a poor home environment are major causes. Even so, girls in many poor families are in no danger of trafficking simply because they grow up in a healthy family structure. Other factors behind trafficking include corruption, poor education, and a lack of respect for women’s rights. While these issues do contribute to trafficking, I am convinced that a girl’s greatest safeguard against the lies of a trafficker is a solid family.
Moldova’s future is not bright in terms of healthy families able to withstand the false promises of traffickers. The majority of children in Moldova do not live with both parents, often not even with one. With one or both parents working outside the country, children do not have sufficient parental guidance and do not have the example of a healthy marriage. Other families are broken apart by divorce or the death of a spouse. And for the girls who do have parents in Moldova, too often they have experienced sexual or physical abuse. Many of the rest of our residents come from alcoholic homes or from state-run orphanages.
If the Church in Moldova is to combat trafficking effectively, it must step forward and become fathers to the fatherless and parents to the parentless. We need churches that will volunteer to be mentors in every state orphanage, that will be good neighbors to street kids, and that will provide examples of healthy marriages.
Each church must preach against physical and sexual abuse, proclaim the value of girls as well as boys, and invest time and love in the children in their village or city. Churches need to set aside denominational barriers in order to work together, tearing down the protective walls of individual ministries for the sake of coordinated combat against the tragedy of trafficking.
It is time for churches to stand up collectively against the scourge of trafficking. We must remember that these are our girls, our daughters. It is not the time to judge the victims of trafficking, but to reach out to the women who have never known real love. To stand against trafficking, we must take action. It will cost us energy, time, and money as we care for children in our towns. It will be uncomfortable as we try lovingly to parent children who have no discipline. It will be costly as we support and minister in places like Home of Hope. And it will be dangerous as we stand against those who profit richly from the trade.
Could it be that ten years from now Victor Malarek’s The Natashas may be read as history, rather than as an ongoing evil? Could we see the potential Natashas in each village loved and protected by believers from every church? Could we see Home of Hope Moldova closed because the need for such a program no longer exists? I pray it may be so. ♦
Andrew Raatz and his wife, Nancy, are missionaries with Harvest Moldova, an Assemblies of God ministry in Chisinau, Moldova.