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Sep28MonFighting human trafficking from coast to coast. September 28, 2020 By Leigha Vegh
"I was being held captive in a farmhouse with a bunch of other kids and we were in a dark basement. We were being sexually abused. Somehow, I escaped. Outside, it was bright, warm and sunny. I went back to the farmhouse. I opened the basement window and it was pitch black in there. I reached in, grabbed a hand and, one by one, pulled each child out of the darkness.”
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This was the dream Jackie McLennan had when she was 17 years old. It wouldn’t be until her mid 40s that she would understand what that dream meant.
Jackie was only two years old when her father began sexually abusing her. When she was six, Jackie’s parents separated and her father transported Jackie to Sudbury, Ont., where he moved for work. In this way, he was able to isolate her from loved ones. There was no one to identify her and help her escape the exploitation and abuse she was living through.
During this time, Jackie’s father brought her fishing, along with her new puppy. Once there, her father harmed the dog as a demonstration that he could hurt her mother if she ever revealed the abuse that was happening to her. Out of fear for her mother’s life, Jackie was coerced into submission.
Over time, the abuse increased and began to include sexual exploitation as Jackie was trafficked to others. “My dad would take me to hotels and leave me in a room with a sex buyer,” she recalls. “He also drugged my food or drinks and gave me alcohol on a regular basis when he abused or sold me.”
Though Jackie moved back with her biological mother at the age of seven, she would still visit her father and the trafficking continued.
When she was 11, a new trafficker entered Jackie’s life—a woman who eventually became her stepmother. “She immediately started sexually abusing me as well,” says Jackie. “She would set up dates for me to be sold and would drug me before she sent me off with a sex buyer.”
As a teenager, Jackie blocked out these memories. “This can be a defence mechanism where individuals experiencing trauma do not remember or inadvertently block their traumatic experiences,” notes Major Rachele Lamont, territorial modern slavery and human trafficking co-ordinator. “It’s about surviving.”
“As a teenager, I didn’t have the memories and I was acting out of control,” Jackie recalls. She drank every day, started using drugs and ended up in situations where she was sexually assaulted.
She continued blocking out the traumatic memories until she was 24. “When I walked past a certain area of trees, I would feel sick to my stomach—I thought it was déjà vu,” says Jackie. But she later realized that it was a place where her father would pick her up for the purpose of abusing her and then would drop her off there after so she could return home.
When the memories eventually flooded back, Jackie resolved to never see her father again. She started going to trauma counselling, which helped her healing process. “It’s important to talk about it; you really can’t deal with it on your own,” she says. Professional emotional trauma care is critical to the healing process for survivors of human trafficking. Her relationship with her biological mother, no matter how turbulent, was also a huge support. She knew her mother loved her very much. “I know it’s why I turned out as resilient as I am,” says Jackie. It is these types of support systems that help survivors to heal.
Jackie struggled for a long time with the anger and her feelings towards her father. Many victims never find peace when it comes to their exploiters. But Jackie was able to find that place of forgiveness because of her understanding and relationship with Jesus. “I was overwhelmed with anger for my father,” she says. “I could not forgive my father until I did it through Jesus—I don’t think I ever would have got to that point without Jesus.”
It wasn’t until her mid 40s that Jackie finally realized what her dream of pulling the children out of the basement of the farmhouse meant. She was being called to help other survivors of human trafficking. “I realized that’s the calling of my life, to help pull others out of that same darkness that I had been in,” she says. “I felt Jesus speak to me. He told me I was important and that I was going to help a lot of people. I knew I was going to need a lot of strength for it, which was scary.”
Jackie had yet another dream that would encourage her on this path to helping other survivors of human trafficking. “I woke up from another horrible dream that my daughter, who was 12 at the time, had been kidnapped and sex trafficked,” she recalls. After waking up, Jackie was scrolling through Facebook when a post for a Christian band she liked caught her eye. When she clicked on it, the link took her to a charity group that was raising money to help children who had been sex trafficked in Cambodia. “I thought, OK, that’s strange in light of the dream that I just had,” she says.
The next morning, the calling was louder than ever. When Jackie went to church, a guest speaker spoke about his upcoming trip to Turkey to help fight sex trafficking. “I thought, This is really weird. And I thought I was being called to help, but I still wasn’t entirely sure,” she says.
A few weeks later, a final sign gave Jackie the certainty that this was God’s plan for her life. She was picking up her daughter from an overnight church camp and was excited to hear the children perform a song they had learned. Jackie had her camera in hand ready to videotape her daughter, but as soon the singing started, a young girl stood up in front of her blocking her view. “I noticed the back of her shirt said Stop Traffick in big letters,” she remembers. “I didn’t know what I’d be doing or where I’d be going, but I knew then that this is what I was called for.”
Jackie now works with The Salvation Army’s correctional and justice services in London, Ont., as a peer support worker, helping other survivors with such things as emergency clothing, rides to medical or legal appointments and simply talking to them about their shared experience. “Because I’m a survivor, they know I understand how they’re feeling and I’m not judging them,” she says. It’s also a safe place where survivors can share a meal together and get away from whatever they’re dealing with in their lives.
The group has fun, too. They go on day trips for activities such as goat yoga and overnight camping excursions. “One of the girls was 27 and had never been camping in her life. It was a funny story because we had to deal with a skunk all night—terrifying, but a great memory,” Jackie jokes.
“It’s been an amazing journey and healing for me, too,” she says. “I wouldn’t have been able to tell my story a year ago; I was painfully shy. But now, I’m stronger, more confident.” One of the ways in which Jackie is helping other survivors is by sharing her story. “If my story can help even just one person, then it’s worth telling,” she says.
Jackie is also sharing the love of Jesus with others ever since she experienced it in her own life. “He showed me how much I am loved and the fear in my heart has been replaced with hope.” Jackie’s purpose now is to help others out of the same darkness she had lived in for years. “I want anyone else that is suffering to know that there is hope; there is life after trauma, and you are loved,” she says.
Combatting Human Trafficking
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand for sexual services and exploitive labour has continued unabated.
The Salvation Army’s correctional and justice services in London, Ont., works to provide support to survivors of human trafficking on a personal level. Among its programs is Cornerstone Dignity, a weekly drop-in group to help survivors to transition back into mainstream society by building positive relationships.
Other support includes an on-site nurse, therapy dogs and community outings, which will resume after the pandemic subsides. The centre also has peer support workers who mentor survivors and provide crisis support.
A training program is employing women and helping them become leaders. Regular community information sessions are held to educate the general public about trafficking.
Deborah’s Gate in the British Columbia Division saw an influx of new referrals during the COVID-19 crisis as other agencies closed their doors. The services, which include case management, rehabilitation programs, a 24-7 crisis line and a live-in safe house, have been accessed at a much higher frequency, especially in remote regions and Indigenous communities.
Staff members at Deborah’s Gate provide clients with several options for support, including psychosocial assessments, educational programs, life-skills development workshops and assistance during court appearances.
Partnerships with other anti-human trafficking agencies allow for safety planning and policy to ensure the well-being of survivors. One such partnership is a flight program to transport clients to their hometown or to other programs that may aid their safety and recovery.
Correctional and justice services in Winnipeg works in partnership with external agencies to provide legal advocacy, emotional and spiritual care, travel accommodations and an emergency shelter.
The Women Seeking Alternatives program focuses on the relational component of women involved in the sex industry. Through an emphasis on relationship building, many survivors have helped others through their journey of recovery. Correctional and justice services also raise awareness through presentations and discussions about human trafficking, both within The Salvation Army and externally. The training equips people to recognize the signs of trafficking and how to help.
If you or someone you know may be a victim of human trafficking, call Canada’s National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-833-900-1010.
Photo: D-Keine/iStock via Getty Images Plus