In a shelter for victims of human trafficking, ten girls try to start a new life.
From above, these streets in Bucharest seem eager to connect. They dart towards each other, straight ahead, no windings. But less than half a kilometer farther, they end in a larger road. Separated by it, they never get to meet.
On the sidewalks and on the road, children play ball, climb fences, hide behind trees. They rollerblade and ride bikes. The boys tease the girls: “Who wants a candy bar smushed under the wheel?” The girls complain to their parents that boys won’t leave them alone. Lazy dogs watch them with the same indifference as they would strangers.
In the evening, when the outlines of buildings begin to fade, dogs and cats, adults and children, neighbors gather around plastic tables and chairs. Under the moonlight and street lights they share, as the case may be, leftovers, beer, cigarettes, games, and ideas. The street belongs to them all.
Inside one of the more solid buildings on the street, ten girls are learning to live together. It’s their temporary home, where they try to forget what they’ve lost and start laying the groundwork for what could be. For now, it’s “home” — and for many of them it’s more of a home than they’ve ever had. They’re in an emergency shelter for victims of human trafficking, which takes in women who escape their exploiters when they no longer have a family or their family has rejected them. Sometimes the traffickers are family, thus home is the last place they’d want to end up.
Aged 14 to 34, the girls are different from one another in many ways: from their personalities, to interests and backgrounds, their places of birth, families, education or lack thereof, the people they loved and who did them harm. What they have in common is the reality that, at one point, someone sold their bodies and forced them into having sex for money. They share the beatings they took and got used to, the blurred faces they’ve come across, and the wish to carry on. And another thing. They all wish for their lives to truly touch someone else’s, they all dream of roads that eventually meet, they all long to love and be loved.
At the shelter, all paths lead to Moni. Moni is Monica Boseff, who opened the center in 2013, envisioning not just a refuge but also a place where the victims could learn to love again. At 47, she’s the director of the Open Door Foundation, whose mission is to assist trafficking victims at their most vulnerable, as soon as they’re identified by authorities, when traffickers still roam free and the victims’ faith in people is nearly shattered.
A professional nurse, Moni was schooled in Romania and the United States. She worked not only as a nurse but also a translator of English and a secretary, then she worked for a foundation in Bucharest that offered free medical examination to people with low income. It was there she started helping poor children — for whom the foundation had set up a day center — and elderly women without families, brought together in a social club. She then turned her attention to victims of human trafficking and helped an NGO working on such cases. The first victim she met was a teenage girl who had ruined her stomach and esophagus ingesting caustic substances in a suicide attempt. Moni remembers the girl seemed translucent to her, lying on the hospital bed, 1.82 meters tall and weighing just 36 kilos. She raised 7,000 lei for medication that had to be ordered from Switzerland. After the girl was discharged from the hospital, she helped her with grocery shopping and cooking.
Moni has a round face, with a firm chin, framed by earrings of all shapes and sizes, sometimes multicolored, which she buys as souvenirs from her travels. At the shelter she is, as required, director, accountant, project manager, teacher, doctor, friend, mother. With a contagious energy, opinionated, words always at the ready, like a soldier constantly prepared to defend or attack, she dominates and animates any room.
It is around her that the victims, staff, and volunteers at the foundation gather in the kitchen. Every day they sit together at a long wooden table and eat the food the girls cook. This is where Moni commends them for their progress in school or their “outstanding” baked beans and pork casserole, it’s where she restores order when the girls are fighting (“So, tell me about the major disputes and dramas of the day”), but also where, sometimes, simple gestures like tearing a piece of bread from the loaves on the table gives way to childhood memories or existential questions: “I wonder if I could love two people at the same time.”
When she has work to do, Moni gets behind a desk in a room on the first floor, surrounded by receipts, stamps and files. Between her and the keyboard is a calendar where she lists the day’s meetings and things to do. If she has phone calls to make or projects to write, she closes the door and the girls knock before asking her for subway pass money or permission to go walk in the park. But her door is mostly open, especially since in the next room the two-year-old girl of one of the victims cries when her mother isn’t around, and Moni’s voice is the only one that soothes her.
The living room on the ground floor is where Moni holds meetings during which the girls confront each other and settle their conflicts. When everyone finds a seat on the couches, armchairs, and chairs, but they’re still fidgeting like the audience before the start of a show, Moni silences the room with a question:
“What are your grievances today?”
After a few seconds when the girls look at each other without a word, Moni laughs.
“Is everything going that well?”
It’s the cue that makes one of them speak out. She complains she keeps finding the toilet paper roll on the sink or near the toilet. She threatens to hide it if that happens again.
“Why isn’t the toilet paper roll in its holder?” Moni asks.
Everybody looks down. Nobody admits to anything. One of the employees says she’ll put up a note in the bathrooms, as she did on the ground-floor bathroom door about switching off the light. Somebody suggests what the note about the toilet paper should say: “You’ll appreciate me when I’m gone.” After they discuss the following week’s activities, determine what those going to school need, and talk about rearranging the furniture in the bedrooms, the girls admit it’s been a calm period. They finish each other’s sentences: “no arguments,” “no brawls,” “no squabbles.”
The living room is also where, in the evening, when darkness expands time and shortens distances, after most foundation employees go home, the girls lounge on couches in the glow of the TV on the wall and zap between cartoons and soap operas. At the end of the episode, they all huddle around one of the girls, hug her and tell her they love her while she jokingly pushes them aside saying she needs only the love of the leading male character in the soap.
When they get sleepy, they go up to the bedrooms on the two upper floors, some of which have bunk beds, and dream about dividing wads of cash among themselves or accidentally burning cash with cigarettes, climbing houses up to the roof, trying to outrun former attackers through fields, getting scared when they see their own eyes in a mirror.
On her first night at the foundation, one of the girls was scared of Andrada — a blue-eyed 18-year-old girl, her brown hair died rusty red — with whom she was supposed to share a room. Upset that nobody wanted to help her with homework, Andrada yelled during their meeting that she’d fling herself in front of a subway train. Her new roommate asked if she could share a room with someone else. “I was afraid she could push me.” They ended up sharing the room, but didn’t get any sleep that night because a girl in the next room was playing loud music, so, after painting their nails, they started talking. First about their likes — manicures, dancing, going out — then part of the story of how they ended up at the shelter.
What pushed Andrada into the hands of traffickers were the beatings she endured from her stepfather and her mother’s indifference. She grew up in a village in southern Romania and had a nice childhood until the age of seven, when her father died. One week later, her mother remarried. She found it strange but figured maybe it was normal that when one father leaves, a new one takes his place. One of the first times she met him was over Christmas, when her mother sent her over to his house to watch cartoons. She watched cartoons all day. She’d never watched any before because her family had never had a TV.
Shortly after that, she and her mother moved in with her stepfather. She had everything she wanted, but it was only a few months until the beatings started. Her new father would hit her every time she annoyed him, whether she took too long in the bathroom or she went out to the gate. He’d slap her, hit her with sticks, the fire iron, whatever he could get his hands on. One day, he hit and bloodied her head and hurt her leg so badly that something like a thread dangled from her flesh. She got scared and asked her mother if it was a vein. Her mother cleaned the wound with rubbing alcohol and hydrogen peroxide and waited a month for it to heal. She even scolded her for upsetting her father. As far as Andrada knows, he never beat her mother.
The beatings went on until Andrada turned 16, when she couldn’t take it anymore and started running away from home. She would stay with friends for a few days. One time, when she had a boyfriend, she was gone for a few months. When they broke up, she went back home. Every time she came back, her stepfather was nice to her for a while. He’d buy her a phone, cigarettes, whatever she wanted. But two or three months later, the beatings would start again. He had also started throwing her out of the house. One time, she says, she reported him to the police and she was sent to an orphanage, where she stayed for a month.
That’s where sexual abuse started. One day, a teacher put her in a cab and sent her to clean someone’s house for money. Andrada was strapped for cash and she said yes. But when she got there, she found out it wasn’t a cleaning job — she “had to do those things, to pleasure him so to speak.” Because she was on her period, she was forced to have anal sex. She feels uncomfortable talking about “these filthy things.” When she got back to the center, she refused to speak to that teacher again. Two days later, she says, she was taken back home. Her mother said she no longer had a daughter. When she told them what had happened, her parents said it was all her fault, as she should have waited for them to calm down.
A few months later, she fought with her father again and was kicked out. She went over to a friend whose boyfriend sold her for 2,000 euros to someone in Bucharest. Andrada doesn’t understand why. They told her she would be better off. As she tells the story, she adds the details as if she were a mere witness to her own life: “And this other thing happened to me.” Because she complained to clients that she had been kidnapped, the traffickers sent her back home.
She went to stay with a friend her own age, who had taken her in before, but she, too, made her sleep with various men in the house where they lived. Her friend made her wear hot pants and above-the-waist T-shirts. “She made me ask for money. If the person was poorer, she’d say to ask for 30 lei, if the person was richer, 100 lei.” Andrada would take the money, give it to her friend, who then gave it to her 30-year-old husband. She thinks he’s the one who made her do this. “Because she was my friend from when we were little and I don’t think she would have wanted me to do this. Or, who knows?”
Andrada’s life is marked by uncertainties. She has no idea how she made it through this or how she found the courage to run away. It happened one night, after her friend’s husband beat her with brass knuckles and bruised her ribs. Apparently, it all started with a client who had paid too little. They were in the kitchen, the friend’s husband got angry, ripped her T-shirt and pulled her hair, then picked up a pair of scissors to cut her hair. Andrada had very long hair and never let anyone touch it. She managed to take the scissors away from him and threw them to her friend. She remembers he made her take off all her clothes, including her underwear, saying it was all his. When she managed to grab a random T-shirt and a pair of pants, Andrada bolted out the gate as the man was shouting at her to go turn him in to the police. She didn’t understand why and was too scared to go to the police. She ran home, cutting through the schoolyard. She told her parents she’d been kidnapped and beaten. Two or three days later, Moni showed up with officers from the department fighting organized crime and proposed she come stay at the center. (Generally, authorities investigating human trafficking suggest that victims take shelter in centers like Moni’s.)
At first, Andrada didn’t trust Moni. “I was thinking that, with all that’s happened to me so far, if it happens again it won’t be a problem. I’ll get away like I have before.”
What is deeply etched in Moni’s memory of that day is the reaction Andrada’s mother had when she told her that her daughter had been repeatedly anally gang-raped. She shrugged. “Aha. So what am I supposed to do now?” In the meantime, she saw Andrada’s stepfather pinching the girl’s nipples.
For the victims, life in the shelter can be boring. Considering what they’ve been through, routine is sometimes comforting but other times annoying. They’re free but can’t do whatever they want. Every day, they’re assigned chores like cleaning, cooking, or shopping. Some of them went back to school, others started working as cashiers, waitresses, or seamstresses. Many of them are only now discovering interests like cooking or manicuring. The foundation pays for training courses and tries to find them employment. Besides watching soap operas with names like Alone in the World or The Fugitive, they like to play cards and get upset when they lose — as if the stakes were much higher than just a few points. Sometimes, in the evening, they play hide-and-seek.
Three of the girls gave birth recently. Some know who the father of their child is, others don’t. One of them wanted so desperately to have a boy — so he wouldn’t suffer like her and would have an easier life — that she bawled her eyes out when the doctor said it could be a girl. Nevertheless, she stubbornly continued to refer to her unborn child as “my boy.” (It did turn out to be a boy.) Another victim brought her 2-year-old daughter to the shelter with her, leaving another child, of whom she rarely speaks, with her family. More often than not, their families don’t check in to see how they’re doing. It’s usually the girls who call their family, from the foundation’s phone. They want to know how everyone at home is doing, even if they’re distant relatives.
Rules are crucial at the shelter, and one of them is the girls can’t have mobile phones, so traffickers can’t contact them. There have been cases where people at the foundation found recruiters among the victims, who talked about the center on the phone, sending information to their former trafficking network. Moni ousted them from the program. Another rule is the address of the shelter must remain secret. The girls may not bring anyone near the center, and if they do, they have to leave. Other rules: no stealing, no alcohol, no drugs, no violence, no foul language. The girls must say what time they leave and what time they’re coming back. The shelter has surveillance cameras, and only employees can open the gate. Whoever breaks the house rules once gets a warning. But on strike two, they’re out.
Still, they are here voluntarily. When authorities identify victims, they prefer to place them back with their families, reckoning that’s where they’d get the most support. When the victims don’t end up back with their families, they’re directed to social services (such as social assistance and child protection services) or shelters of NGOs. Bucharest doesn’t yet have a state-run shelter for victims of trafficking. A location has been chosen and furbished, but it lacks staff. Apart from Moni’s foundation, other NGOs have opened shelters in Timișoara, Pitești, and Oradea.
At the Open Door Foundation, besides psychological and legal counseling or medical examinations and treatment, victims who are unemployed receive an allowance of 60 lei a week, the bulk of which they spend on cigarettes. They can lose their allowance if they break the rules or their grades in school drop. For instance, each swear word costs 5 lei. On the other hand, if they quit smoking, they get a bonus of 15 lei. Moni gives them extra money when they need school supplies, footwear, or clothes for themselves or their children.
The foundation, which runs on donations — especially from a businesswoman in Scotland — has so far helped over 80 victims, most of them victims of sexual exploitation. Some came in just for counseling, others spent one night or months here. The program is designed to be a year and a half long, but the period isn’t set in stone. Most girls leave the program earlier and then write to Moni or call her to ask for advice when they get into trouble. They tell her the shelter was the only place where they felt they had a family. When they leave, they often go back to traffickers or to an environment where they will likely be trafficked again. Back in the spring, one girl left the center for the fourth time.
The victims waver between obeying the rules and questioning them. The smallest things can set them off: bedtime, washing windows, when one of them sits in someone else’s place in the living room. They can go from hugs to yelling and slamming doors in a matter of seconds. They argue with one another or with the foundation staff. Moni is usually the one who calms them down. She says: “Please, stop using that kind of language,” or “Really? Did I put that in the rules and not know about it?” or “This is what you need to do.”
Moni can come off as harsh, but the girls respect her. One day, Moni saw Andrada dressed in a pair of tight pants that let her underwear show. She was standing in the doorway, pouting, so she asked her what was up with those pants. “They’re just pants,” said Andrada. Moni insisted. She asked if anyone at the foundation had shown her their underwear. After a few sidesteps, Andrada admitted that no, this hadn’t been the case. “Then why do I have to see yours?” Moni went on to say the foundation refuses to pay for indecent clothes that objectify her. She asked Andrada to change and bring her the pants. When she came back, Moni picked up a pair of scissors and cut them to pieces, slowly, as Andrada watched from the door like a child who didn’t fully understand why she was being punished. “OK,” is all she said when Moni promised she could buy new pants but needed to choose them carefully.
In time, Moni learned to be blunt with the girls and not to ask them if they’d been abused by their parents, but rather, when their father touched them for the first time. Until she changed her approach, one of the girls had always said no but then admitted it had happened “once, a long time ago.”
She allows herself to be blunt because not a day goes by when she doesn’t hug the girls — sometimes several of them at once — and tell them she loves them, words that some of them have never heard in their lives. She’s the person they run to when anything happens to them. When they have a tough decision to make, they go to her for advice. In the house, there are days when you hear “Moni!” “Moni!” “Hey, Moni!” from different voices constantly. When asked if they look up to anyone, Moni is the first person they can think of. She cares about them and talks to them in a way they wish their own mothers had talked to them.
For Moni, love in her childhood came from her mother, an engineer who worked day and night to support her, and her grandfather on her mother’s side, who was a dentist and lived in a house in the area that is now part of the garden around the Parliament Palace. Her grandfather made her the hero of all the stories he told her, whether the hero was a pirate or someone fighting for justice. Moni’s favorite story was “The Happy Prince” by Oscar Wilde, about the friendship between a swallow and the statue of a prince; with the help of the swallow, the golden statue — with sapphires for eyes and a ruby on the hilt of his sword — renounces his gold and jewels to help the less fortunate in the village. Moni was touched by the statue’s sacrifice.
In real life, Moni was a different type of hero, one who didn’t think twice about hitting others. Two things made her lose her temper: when she lost at sports (no matter the sport) and when classmates picked on the smaller kids. “My mother came home from parent-teacher meetings baffled by how many boys I had beaten taking justice into my own hands.”
When she didn’t use her fists, she stung with words. This was, to some extent, a reaction to her father’s sarcasm; he was a man who, after divorcing his wife when Moni was three, constantly humiliated them both. She learned then that the best defense was offense. “I was merciless, cold and sharp as a blade.” She remembers how, when she was 12, her father asked her what she planned to be when she grew up. She said she wanted to go to med school, and he laughed in her face. “You? As stupid as you are, how would you ever get into med school?” She stared him down and blurted: “Haven’t you learned so far that stupidity is passed down from the father’s side?” That was the last time they spoke. She knows nothing of him except that he lives somewhere in Bucharest.
Meanwhile, Moni has learned to channel her energy into her work, to which she says she is addicted. She thinks her sharp tongue and straightforwardness help her even today. When a trafficker threatened over the phone he would come over and kill her and other employees at the foundation, she felt a rage coming over her. High on adrenaline, she yelled back at him. “You’re gonna kill me? I’m gonna kill you! Mark my words, this is your last day on earth! I know what happens to me after I die — but you, you’re screwed! I’ll be here, waiting. But do come today!” She says she was in the kitchen at the shelter, her colleagues around her, the phone was on speaker and it suddenly got very quiet. “Bitch, you’re crazier than I am!” the man said and hung up.
Another time, a man from a utility company came by the shelter. Trying to show his compassion for the victims, he told Moni a story of how, while on vacation in Thailand, he had been to a prostitute and had paid her more when he found out she was doing it to support her child. “Congratulations, sir!” said Moni. “If you were feeling so generous, why didn’t you tell her to stay home and you go take a train up the ass? Why didn’t you do that for her?” She asked him to imagine his own daughter in that woman’s shoes. “Ma’am, I can’t talk to you anymore. You scare me,” he said. “Why? Why is it OK to go and treat someone else’s child as a sex object and place your own child above such things?” Moni asked.
Later on, suggesting some women dress provocatively on purpose, he said: “Come on, ma’am, give me a break! Don’t you see how they dress in the summer?” Moni asked if that principle applies the other way around as well, for men who walk around topless or with their shirts unbuttoned. “I have desires and needs, too! So, what you’re saying is that it would be perfectly OK to call my friends, take the guy one night, tie him to a tree in the woods and rape him all night long. That would be OK, wouldn’t it?”
She thinks the perception of women in Romania is also to blame — many think it’s acceptable for men to have mistresses, or that there are mothers who want to raise their children to be bad boys. On the other hand, she loathes the lack of empathy, how people look the other way when they see something they don’t like. “If this were your own child, you’d be plowing through asphalt with your bare hands.”
It’s the distance between people that often gives way to sexual exploitation, which may occur at the junction between the victims’ desire to get close to someone and the capacity of traffickers to distance themselves from people.
For traffickers, this is a very profitable endeavor in which the risk-benefit balance leans towards benefits. If after the 1989 Revolution, taking advantage of Romania’s geographical position, its transition towards a market economy, and the opening of its borders, traffickers often resorted to violence and kidnapping to recruit victims and take them abroad, in recent years they prefer to invest time — usually a few months — to draw them in. Meanwhile, trafficking has increased domestically as well. Traffickers seek vulnerable people, separate them from their families or their community, and cultivate a state of dependency — sometimes mixed with shame. In one of the most frequent scenarios, the “loverboy” approach, the trafficker seduces the victim, promises to marry her, and convinces her to go work abroad. Many victims only find out what the work is when they get there.
Poverty is one of the main factors that make them fall for traffickers’ tricks. Other factors are lack of education and uprootedness. Some victims are exploited by their own families, by parents or spouses; others come from abusive families and seek comfort in the arms of traffickers posing as knights in shining armor. For victims without families, any open door is seen as a chance to make a better living — but it turns into a vicious circle that’s hard to break.
Although statistics show the 18–25 age group is most at risk, last year there were nearly just as many underage victims. Moni says the victims are getting younger and younger. The younger the victim, the bigger the gains, and sexual exploitation prevails. Three quarters of victims of human trafficking identified last year were women.
Distance may make us believe such things don’t happen to the people close to us, that these are isolated cases. When we think about human trafficking we might feel discomfort, like when public transportation is crowded and we’re forced to get close to people we would normally avoid. But beyond the global extent of the phenomenon, with an estimated 20 million people forced into labor, among European countries the largest number of victims have been identified in Romania and Bulgaria.
In Romania, the statistics are drawn by the National Agency against Human Trafficking, and Chief Commissioner Adrian Petrescu says one explanation is that Romania is the seventh largest European country by population. On the other hand, he believes Romania and Bulgaria are more closely monitored than other countries “because of the way in which they integrate into the European Union.” “The real numbers are difficult to pinpoint accurately, but the problem is serious enough to command our attention as well as everyone else’s.”
Moni realized how widespread the phenomenon was in 2010, when an American organization contacted her to put together an event in Bucharest. At the time, she was working for the medical foundation that helped the poor and was surprised to find that hundreds of trafficking victims were identified annually in Romania and that women and children were the most vulnerable, with children forced to beg and women forced into prostitution. Over 1,000 victims were identified that year. The number dropped to 750 in 2014. In discussions with state institutions, Moni found the biggest shortcoming was the lack of an emergency shelter, a place where victims could seek help once they had escaped their traffickers. She said on the spot: “If this is what is needed, this is what we’ll provide.”
In 2012 she bought the house for the shelter and put together a team of volunteers, security guards, a psychologist, and a social worker. In April 2013, with six people beside her, she opened the center. She says even the officials of state institutions attending the opening were surprised at how well everything looked. Someone asked her if she didn’t think it was “a little too good, a bit much.” “For whom?” Moni retorted. “If the daughter or niece of any of you were trafficked, God forbid, you’d bring her here. If it’s not too much and too good for my own child, then it’s not too much and too good for anyone.” The foundation now has nine people on the team, including a lawyer who represents victims in court when they testify against traffickers and try to obtain damage claims. Some traffickers have been convicted.
In 2014, the United States honored Moni as a hero in the fight against human trafficking, an annual distinction the Department of State grants to individuals around the world who have devoted their lives to this cause. She was praised for what she managed to accomplish in a very short time, opening a shelter “in a country where government funding for survivor aftercare is limited.” Moni keeps her diploma and a photograph of her and Secretary of State John Kerry on a bookshelf in her office. If a year ago she hoped the award would determine the government to fund NGOs helping victims of human trafficking, she has since become convinced that she herself has to make this change happen.
One afternoon in late July, when only necessity or vice could drive someone to brave the scorching heat, some of the girls at the foundation gathered around the table in the yard, the designated smoking area. They lit up their cigarettes and suddenly each of them shrank into herself. They dragged on their cigarettes and took turns quietly blowing smoke, eyes on the ground. It could have looked like they were meditating, but instead of calmness, their faces radiated sadness. Their facial expressions were similar, but there was no longer anything between them. Each was alone with her burden. The first to lift her eyes was one girl who had just returned from shopping. She held out her hand to the one next to her and said, feigning joy: “Look! I’m engaged!”
She spread her fingers apart, pointing to a ring she wore as a wedding ring. She marveled that it had only cost 20 lei. She said she’d gotten engaged to another girl at the foundation. Without any explanation, the two started slapping each other on the back of the shoulder. The one who had stayed home asked why she hadn’t bought her a ring as well. The first said she didn’t know her size, during which time the slapping continued. They said they were playing, but it looked like a game of tag where the goal isn’t to touch the other as fast as you can but to hit as hard as you can.
When you’re surrounded by beatings your entire life, violence becomes a part of you, a self-defense mechanism: you hurt to avoid getting hurt. In school, Andrada was the class bully. It was enough for someone to look at her in a certain way and she’d pounce. She didn’t pull hair like other girls. She slapped and threw punches. She once had her grades lowered for beating someone up in the schoolyard. Another time she burned a girl with a cigarette for stealing a friends’ boyfriend.
Traces of violence come up when least expected. At an earring-making workshop, one of the girls hit another over the hand with modeling clay.
“Does it hurt?”
“You took my seat!”
“You want me to cut your head off?”
“I’ll poke your eyes out. Freak!”
Sometimes, aggression is taken as a sign of affection. The girls talk nonchalantly of boyfriends who slapped and kicked them because they didn’t do as they said. “I was partly to blame, too,” is how they justify their aggressors’ actions. The ones who were nice enough to them they remember fondly. Moni says many of them believe love means being beaten. And beatings are just the visible manifestations of aggression, a groove in an already-damaged terrain.
Domestic violence accustoms the victims to abusive relationships and may make them vulnerable. “There are cases where the family is not directly involved in your being trafficked, but they’ve created the perfect conditions to make you want to bolt out the door, the perfect conditions to become a victim of trafficking,” says Moni. She gives the example of the girl who left the shelter for the fourth time: abandoned by her mother, raised by an alcoholic and violent grandmother, physically and sexually assaulted by her own father (from whom she ran away by marrying before the age of 15), later taken abroad, drugged and sexually exploited by her husband. “Who do you marry when your only role model in life was an alcoholic and a very abusive man? Someone just like that.”
Authorities have found that victims tend to come from families with a history of tense relationships, violence, and alcohol or drug abuse. A 2012 study by the Partnership for Equality Center, which interviewed 26 victims, notes the factors that most influenced their path to being exploited were “defective family relations, lack of affection and nurturing.”
In other words, lack of love.
Angela, a tall, slender young woman who looks like she belongs in a romantic comedy, only wants to have a family again, to find someone to love her and accept her child from a previous marriage.
Raised in a large town, Angela was the hard-working student who won school competitions. She went to college and chose a job where she works with children. (She won’t say publicly what she does for fear of being recognized.) She felt fulfilled after she got married and gave birth to a son.
When she found out her husband was having an affair, everything she had built seemed to come crashing down. Her husband only spent time with his mistress and had become violent. One day, when she didn’t want to let him go out, he pulled her hair, banged her head into a wall, then pushed her on the bed in the living room and choked her. “I felt I couldn’t breathe, I scratched his face as hard as I could so he’d let go and I could live.” It was he who called the police — to report her assault on him. Then, one morning, he hit the child. He slapped him and pushed him into the wall. Living together had become impossible. They got divorced and she was granted custody.
When an acquaintance introduced her to a divorced man who was wishing to start over and promising to treat her like a princess for the rest of their lives, Angela hoped she had found her soulmate and a new father for her child. They were making wedding plans and, to save up, they started talking about working abroad. He said he’d put her in touch with a relative to find work as a nanny or as a sort of “escort” to accompany bank clients. It was to be temporary, she would make 1,500 euros a month and still keep her job in Romania, from which she could take a leave of absence. Angela says she didn’t lack money, but he convinced her by saying her child deserved more.
She left the child with her ex-husband and went abroad by herself, where her boyfriend was supposed to join her in a few days. When she got to the house of her boyfriend’s relative, she was shocked. The woman had called a photographer, had her take off her clothes and pose in her bra and panties. She uploaded the photos to two websites and brought her clients that very afternoon. She kept the money Angela made for the online advertisement. Those websites still advertise bare-breasted women — most of them wearing high heels, lying on couches, some with black strips over their eyes or blurred faces — available as escorts, for massages, striptease, or sex, all just a phone call away.
Angela, who is both fragile and stubborn and needs other people’s opinions to make decisions, doesn’t know how she found herself in the game. She remembers that everything was new, she didn’t know the language, she could barely communicate with the customers. She tried not to look at them so she wouldn’t remember their faces. She kept telling the woman there and her boyfriend on the phone that she didn’t like what she was doing, that she wanted to stop. To persuade her, a few days later the man gave her an engagement ring. They set the wedding date a few months away. He asked her to hang in there a bit longer to raise money to start a business in Romania and build a home. “I thought it was worth the sacrifice for my child’s benefit, to fulfill that plan of ours to have our own home and our own family. He said that we’d erase everything afterwards and have a good life.”
Prostitution is legal in the country where Angela went. Before going to the police to ask for a work permit, her boyfriend and his relative forbade her to tell anyone that she had a child and was engaged to be married. “If you have a boyfriend, they’ll ask where he is and whether he’s a pimp.” Angela laughed. “How could he be a pimp?!” She now realizes they manipulated her, that she was subjected to emotional blackmail. Back then, she wasn’t aware she was a victim.
If at first she had three or four clients a day, in time, her boyfriend encouraged her to take on more. He would appeal to her ego. She’d come to have as many as ten clients a day and didn’t even have time to shower after each one. They’d tell her: “You have another one in five minutes!” At night when she went to sleep, they made her put a sheet on the bed where she had received men and told her to be ready at any time for new clients. Ten minutes cost 100 euros, half an hour cost 200, one hour was 300. The boyfriend’s relative took all the money, saying she was sending it to Romania. She was only given money to buy food. Whenever she wanted to buy clothes, books, or newspapers, they’d scold her. “What are you doing here? Instead of raising money for your child…”
A few weeks later, the threats started: she was not to write prayer lists at the church where she went every Sunday, run away, or go to the police. They’d threaten to tell her acquaintances in Romania what she’d been doing, and said if she made any mistakes she’d immediately lose her job.
She stayed there for three months. Gradually, she realized that man didn’t love her. She decided to leave after a fight that pushed her over the edge. She’d been out shopping because she needed winter clothes. She’d missed clients by stepping out, and they reminded her she wouldn’t have made it there on her own. That’s when she decided to go to the police and inquire about her legal status. She left one morning, leaving everything in the apartment but her ID card, phone, and work permit. At the police station, she found out her hosts had been convicted for trafficking before. That’s where she was first told she was a victim. The perfect victim.
After a few months spent at a shelter in that country, she heard about Moni’s foundation through the Romanian Consulate and returned to Romania. Since she returned, she has lost custody of her child, who had been temporarily placed with the father. She also lost her old job, but has found another in the same field. She pays alimony and sees her son about once a month. They no longer live in the same city. Sometimes she wishes she could get back all the money she made while she was away; that would help her make something of herself. On one of those days, talking to Moni in the living room, she asked: “Then for what have I sacrificed? It was money I struggled for.” Moni asked whether she did it willingly. She said no, but it was hard for her to accept that the whole ordeal had been in vain. Now, Moni thinks Angela is the first woman truly ready to leave the shelter, except she has nowhere to go because she can’t afford to pay rent.
Meanwhile, Angela has gone back to her dream after the divorce, that of getting married again. She dreams of a man who isn’t violent or “a bad boy” but she doesn’t know whether she can ever trust anyone anymore.
One day, during a meeting, when one of the victims yelled at Moni that she had no idea what it’s like to grow up surrounded by abuse, Moni interrupted her and, with everyone present, she started telling her own life story.
She told them how, when she was four years old, her grandfather on her father’s side started sexually abusing her. He used to buy her silence with things that weren’t available on the market and with whispers like “our love is special, if you tell anyone they’ll never understand.” Around age 11 she started realizing it wasn’t right and began visiting her grandparents less often. When she got there, on weekends or holidays, she’d lock herself in her room, where he used to visit her at night, and read. She says stories saved her. “I stocked piles and piles of books around the bed and spent my nights reading so I could sleep during the day, when grandma was up and about.” After the death of her grandmother, when Moni was 12, she never visited her grandfather again. She’d speak to him on the phone once a year. She never confronted him.
For a long time she hated herself for not having told anyone what was going on. “There were times when I felt like stabbing my face with a fork because I was so depraved, I could see how dirty I was.” She told her mother about it when she was 17, after she’d been raped at the beach by a man who held her at knifepoint.
Over the years, she had four abortions following relationships and made decisions she now deems disastrous, which left her “vicious scars” and made her an anti-abortionist. She says she encourages victims to make their own decisions. She talks about one girl who was at the shelter when she found out she was pregnant following her sexual exploitation. When she got back from the gynecologist’s, she asked, ashamed, what she’d advise her to do. “What do I think? What do you think?” Moni told her. “I want to keep the baby. I want to be the first person in my family who never abandons their child. I want to show it can be done.” Moni cried tears of joy. She tears up often when she remembers such moments.
Moni is a sucker for children. She’d do anything for them. She picks them up and snuggles them. She mostly speaks English to the babies at the shelter, like she did with her own children, so they can learn a foreign language when they’re little. She has a daughter and a son who now help her at the foundation. Her husband is a pastor at the Church of the Nazarene, an evangelical denomination that emerged in the United States in the early 20th century. They both joined in 1992, when they met a group of missionaries who had come to Romania. Moni was pregnant with her first child and was looking for a second job outside nursing. A friend who knew the missionaries asked her if she wanted to be their translator. She wasn’t attracted by their sermons, but by their friendly and loving demeanor. She told her husband, who at the time feared they might be American spies, that she wanted to have a lifestyle like theirs.
Religion is an important part of Moni’s life and that of the shelter. Before each meal or meeting, they say a prayer asking God to bless their food, open their minds, and help them achieve their goals. This is one of the reasons why Moni asks people to get involved “as they would give unto themselves.” She doesn’t accept clothes that are too worn, which the donors would have thrown out anyway. She asked them if they would accept a dinner invitation if they were told: “We’ve invited you since we were going to throw this food out anyway and we thought it would be a shame.” Many of the foundation employees are part of the same religious community. Some of the victims, too, go to their church, but Moni says she doesn’t make them.
After all she’s been through, Moni understands how a person can make very bad decisions when they’re crushed. “When you look in the mirror and see yourself as insignificant, lacking purpose, you know all the decisions you’ve made so far are bad but you don’t see yourself as capable of getting out of that situation either. What you decide from then on will be at least as bad as before.” She thinks that, had she not lived under communism, had society been more open, she could have fallen into the trap of traffickers. Maybe even after the Revolution, when jobs were hard to find.
“I know I could have had it worse. Had I been young today, when human trafficking is so dramatic and pandemic, I may have ended up in such a situation.”
When they heard her story, the girls at the shelter almost couldn’t believe her. “But Moni, how is that possible? And look at you, you can have a normal life!” Moni also learned how to get back on her feet. Three things helped her: her faith, which led her to forgive; her family, which helped her carry on; and her work with the girls, which gave her a purpose. This is what she tries to teach them, that no matter how winding their road is, how many crossroads they miss, beyond necessities, hardships, and obstacles, they can take their lives into their own hands. That’s why she calls them survivors, not victims. It’s not easy and there’s no recipe for success. But Moni constantly tells them: “Yes, you can!”
Love is the cure Moni found for part of the girls’ suffering. When she arrives at the shelter, she asks them how they are, she calls them “my dear” and tells them “I love you.” When she first heard these words, one of the girls, Giulia, who always had her head down, started crying. Moni apologized for upsetting her. The next day, she hugged her quietly. The third day, she kissed her and saw her eyes for the first time. She asked if she wanted to say anything, and when the girl nodded, she said, “I love you,” again. The next day, as soon as she stepped into the yard of the shelter, Giulia ran towards her and hugged her tightly. Her head on Moni’s shoulder, she whispered: “Moni, I love you. I’ve never said this to anyone before.”
She never had anyone to tell it to. She grew up in an orphanage until she turned 18, then she married the first man who offered her a home. That man then started beating her because she refused to have oral and anal sex. After they separated, she met a taxi driver who took her home and made her sleep with his friends. “He said it was for the household, so we’d have money for food, and I accepted.” When she understood he expected this to be a regular thing, she ran away. She arrived in Bucharest, where, at the train station, an old lady offered to accommodate her. As soon as she walked into that house, she was sequestered. “We’re buying you hair dye, giving you clothes, you’ll take a shower and get to work. What work? You’ll see. Satisfy clients.” She endured two years of beatings, with 20–30 clients a day. “I never slept more than 3–4 hours a night. It went on non-stop, non-stop.” She remembers how, in the summer, the yard filled with men lining up to enter her room or that of the other girl in the house, who was in the same situation. The only money they got was 5 or 10 lei, tips from clients. She escaped one day at four in the morning, when special forces broke down the door and she was advised to come to the shelter.
Giulia is one of the girls who wanted to leave after a few months at the shelter. She can’t explain why. She says she felt “in a different world” and was sorry afterwards. She met a man who got her pregnant and then told her to get an abortion. She didn’t want to and she asked Moni to take her back. Meanwhile, she’s given birth to a daughter, and in the future she hopes to find a job, a home, and a husband. She wouldn’t want to tell a future husband what she’s been through because she is convinced that any man would end up insulting her.
Closeness often leaves the deepest wounds. What we are willing to accept from strangers becomes unforgivable within the family. Distance dims the pain, it neutralizes. Criticism from colleagues or strangers is easier to handle than from the people who love us or who should love us. For trafficking victims, abuse doesn’t necessarily stop when they go back home. Often further abuse takes place at home. Angela, who was about to receive reparations for the time she had been exploited, was looking for a studio flat in her hometown when her own brother told her reproachfully that he too would buy a home if he had the money. She felt very ashamed when he asked, accusingly: “How did you make all that money?” One girl’s grandmother told her she was disgusted and she hadn’t raised her to become a whore, a good-for-nothing. It’s what hurts her the most: that the person she cared for the most pushed her away.
Victims come to believe they are worthless or adopt their traffickers’ perspective in determining their worth. Whenever a new victim arrives at the shelter, one girl is always curious to see if she’s prettier than she is. It’s a vicious circle where beauty means more money, and more money makes them feel beautiful and wanted. Moni tries to change their perception. She tells them they’re amazing. “Do you hear what you’re telling me? You’re such a strong woman that I am in awe. I can’t even imagine how you’ve been through all that and survived.” When another said her worth is measured in money, she asked how much. Because she didn’t answer, Moni insisted: “If somebody comes and says they’d fill this whole kitchen up to the ceiling with money in exchange for you, is it OK to sell you?” At first, the girl was flattered. Moni went on: “If somebody else comes and says they’d fill the living room with money too, what do we do? I sell you to this second person, for more money.” “But it’s not fair,” the girl said. “I’m priceless!”
Moni says the success of the foundation’s program is not about numbers and annual balance sheets. Of course she wants the girls to find jobs and have their own homes, and she wants to see them in wedding dresses. But what matters more is how they leave the foundation — they need to know they’re worthy, they deserve respect, that they feel strong and independent and “don’t believe some jerk’s tall tales.” She constantly tells them they have great potential. “Do you see yourself? Do you see the extraordinary progress you’ve made?” Some see it in the fact that they’ve been in the shelter for a few months, which seemed impossible in the beginning. Others look at old photos of themselves and think they’re more beautiful now. Since arriving at the foundation, Andrada no longer thinks she needs to have very long hair to look good. She agreed to cut it shoulder length and has gotten used to receiving compliments. Her mother only told her she was beautiful once, when she dyed her hair black.
Even the ones who are more confident have moments when they say they’re nobodies, that they have nothing, no future. They feel they’ve lost everything, and it’s hard for them to rebuild: going back to school, taking on poorly paid jobs, being rejected at job interviews because they lack a degree, demanding their rights when employers breach them. Moni says one of the reasons she works mostly with women is that it’s easier for them to admit they need help. She’d like to set up a shelter for men as well, because many men are victims of trafficking — especially for labor — but she doesn’t think they’ll accept to live in such a center. “When you want residency, you admit you’ve reached that point where you have nowhere and no one else to turn to.” The National Agency against Human Trafficking officials also noticed men usually limit themselves to seeking legal and psychological counsel.
Moni and the employees at the foundation are constantly concerned about how much help they can offer, what is truly good for the victims, how to keep them interested in school, how to stop them from going back to traffickers when they say they want to leave. That’s the toughest moment, when a girl looks Moni in the eye and tells her she belongs on the street. “It’s the only thing I know how to do, Moni!” On the one hand, she understands. “When you start to be someone’s sex toy at four years old, and everything that follows is a long series of similar events, when no one’s ever offered you anything but their genitalia, how are you to learn there are other things you can do, other things you can be?” One of the victims once asked her to force her to stay when she wanted to leave, but Moni said she couldn’t do that. Some leave without saying a word. They simply say they’re going for a walk. That’s what Andrada did this fall, after more than a year spent in the shelter, even though she had just started 12th grade and said she wanted to finish high school and become a nurse. When she left, she took the youngest of the girls, a 14 year-old, with her. One day, Andrada’s father called Moni and said they were both at his place. Since then, they haven’t heard anything about the younger one.
There is always the fear at the foundation that a victim could disappear. One day, a girl was driven to a job interview and dropped off across the street from the employer’s address. A few hours later, when the center psychologist called the employer to ask how the interview had gone and when the girl was coming back, with Moni there and the phone on speaker, they froze when they were told the girl had never showed up for the interview. They looked at each other for a few seconds, then at the clock on the wall, watching the seconds go by. It had been hours since the girl had left, and her child remained at the shelter. They wondered if she could have disappeared and left the kid behind. They remembered times when they looked for girls on the streets at midnight, times when they didn’t find them or found them with traffickers. Half an hour later, when the victim in question returned to the center and told them she’d mistaken the address, interviewed at a different company, and brought a stamp and list of documents required for employment, they breathed a sigh of relief. Not because they believed her story, but because she was OK.
Lying and embellishing reality are part of the victims’ lives. In dramatic situations, lying can become a trusted ally. It can save lives. It can soften a client, it can put the trafficker at ease and lower the number or harshness of beatings. The girls learn to adapt, to read people at a glance, they develop survival strategies. Sometimes they say what they must to appease their own situation or what they think others want to hear. Sometimes they lie to themselves to be able to look at themselves in the mirror the next day. The stories we tell about ourselves never reflect the entire truth. They’re more of an expression of who we want to be, of the way we decode what we’ve been through and the path we’re trying to carve for ourselves in the future.
People who work with trafficking victims say their stories changed them. Their stories convinced Moni that each person is worthy and “nothing and no one can take that away.” “Labeling people is the easiest thing in the world. You can’t realize that until you’ve talked to that person and heard the terrible stories they’ve been through since early childhood.” The foundation’s lawyer, Mirela Podoiu, is now more tolerant and no longer judges by appearances. “Every time I meet someone, I immediately think of what might be behind the image I’m seeing.” She says she’s never met a victim who had chosen prostitution willingly. Mihai Cazacu, a former organized crime officer who worked in the human trafficking field for 12 years, says the same thing. “They all have very sad stories and would have chosen differently if they’d had a choice.”
At dawn, when the sound of crickets foretold yet another hot summer day and a sleepless dog was barking in the distance, the sleepy girls went out to the yard to smoke. Before they knew it, their whispering turned into laughter and pokes. They were getting ready to go to the seaside. Three of them, including Giulia, had never seen the sea.
One of the girls started singing. She stopped suddenly when she saw Moni running out of the house, asking them to be quiet so as not to disturb the neighbors. They gathered in the living room, around Moni, who started praying.
“Dear Lord, we thank you with all our hearts for this new day that lies ahead of us. Thank you, Lord, for keeping us safe while we slept. Lord, you have let us wake up healthy and on our own feet and have given us this blessed day. Help us live beautifully before your eyes, Lord, to have that love for each other and unity that is pleasing to you, Lord.”
They all said “Amen” and moved on to practical things.
“Has everyone been assigned to cars?” Moni asked. “Who did it? No, the drivers do that.”
On the street, before getting into the car, one of the girls realized it had been six months since she’d arrived at the shelter. “I can’t believe I was able to stand it considering how crazy I was.” She remembered how she swore on the phone on her first day and apologized: “I’d just arrived.” Another girl calculated she’d been there for a year.
The fast drive on the highway and seeing the tourist-filled beach at eight in the morning erased the nostalgia. To the swinging rhythms of beach bars, a mix of Oriental, Latino, folk and pop music, vendors were calling for people to buy crossword puzzles, bracelets, pens, berries, and corn on the cob. The girls rented lounge chairs but abandoned them quickly. They inflated inner tubes and disappeared with them among the waves.
In the water, they splashed and spun around until they got dizzy and became the same as all the other tourists frolicking in the sea. For the time being, the road that had brought them there no longer mattered. There were no more obstacles, constraints, or distances. They no longer needed words. Their squeals of laughter were enough.
Giulia didn’t dare go too far. She stopped when the water reached a little above her knees and flinched when the big waves crashed against her legs. Tense, she spread out her arms and fingers, as if preparing for flight. After a few minutes, she went back to the lounge chair and told Moni with surprise that the water was salty.
Before leaving, the girls strolled on the boardwalk towards stores to shop for dresses. The entire way, Giulia held Moni’s hand. In the green neon light of the shop, the girls darted from the racks to the dressing rooms, then back to Moni to ask her opinion. For many of them, it was the highlight of the day. At the end, after an hour of trying on dresses, they all embraced Moni, kissed her, and thanked her.
In that long embrace, in those seconds when the joy of the present and the promise of the future where they’d wear their new dresses temporarily erased the shadows of the past, Moni had become the girls’ anchor. She was the one who made that moment of happiness real and not just a dream. It was evidence that getting close to someone doesn’t have to be painful, that, despite obstacles, roads may meet, and love can be unconditional.
As the sun was setting over the sea, Giulia started towards home in an airy, brightly colored summer dress that had an imprint of a large butterfly on the chest, wings wide open.
The names of the victims in this story are aliases they chose so they wouldn’t be recognized. Researching this story was possible due to Superscrieri/AVON grants on domestic violence, offered by the Friends For Friends Foundation.