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  • Oct17Thu

    The Phoenix Project

    Human trafficking survivor helps other women find a way out. October 17, 2019 by Giselle Randall
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    Look for burns and scars. That’s one of the signs Caroline tells people to watch out for to identify human trafficking—traffickers will often use a heated coat hanger to burn women who don’t meet their quotas.

    She knows. Caroline was trafficked for eight years, by a man she thought was her boyfriend. Sharing her story with the community, health and social service providers and law enforcement is part of her work with the Phoenix Project, a peer support program run by The Salvation Army’s correctional and justice services in London, Ont., in partnership with the London Abused Women’s Centre.

    For Ashley, the scars are on the inside. She was 13 when she was invited to a “party” and then gang-raped and exploited. As she got older, shame led to work in the sex trade. Even though she’s no longer working in “the game,” she carries the burden of trauma and often faces stigma.

    After hearing Caroline speak, she began attending the drop-in program she leads. “Coming here really helped— it feels good to be around people who understand what you’ve been through,” she says. “I don’t think I’d be where I am without this group. But I wouldn’t have come if Caroline wasn’t also a survivor.”

    Caroline’s Story

    Born in South Africa, Caroline speaks several languages and has travelled all over the world. At 35, she was married and living in Woodstock, Ont. Then tragedy struck—in the space of six months, she lost her husband, mother and two friends. So she was grieving and vulnerable when a friend introduced her to “John.” At first, he was kind and showered her with gifts.

    “It was the lover boy/Romeo scenario,” she says. “And it worked. I thought I was in love.” When he asked her to move in with him, she said yes. But one day, there was a knock at the door. They were being evicted. “He told me it was my turn to take care of the family—and that I was going to work in a strip bar.”

    She was expected to dance onstage and work in the back. “You have to do what you need to do to bring home that money, or you’re in trouble,” she says.

    It wasn’t long before she was trapped. He took away her identification, isolated her from her friends and pushed a crack pipe in her face, threatening to never let her sleep again unless she took a hit. “It’s not like the pictures of human trafficking you see in the media, of women in chains—the chains are invisible,” she says.

    When Caroline told him she wanted to stop, he broke all her toes so she couldn’t walk and removed all the doors on the inside of the house so she couldn’t hide. 

    Things kept getting worse. For three years, she was homeless. For six months, he made her live and work out of a car. “By this stage, all I had left was some clothing, my mother’s ashes and an addiction,” she says. 

    The day he flew into a rage and took her mother’s ashes, Caroline went to a women’s shelter, but when she got there, they had no room. Another time, they said her presence was endangering the other women. Still another, she lost her place after being admitted to the hospital. “I was discharged from the hospital with the clothes on my back and a quarter,” she says. “There was only one person in the world I could call. So I went back, and it started all over again.”

    "All I had left was some clothing, my mother’s ashes and an addiction.”
    It took Caroline two years to escape. Twice she came to The Salvation Army’s Centre of Hope, but her trafficker found her. The third time, the staff kept her behind a locked door and then formed a human shield so she could get into a taxi to go to a shelter. “The Salvation Army saved my life,” she says.

    This time, she was able to stay at the shelter long enough to find housing. When she got the keys to her own apartment, she wept. “I didn’t own a pillow or a blanket. There was no carpeting and I slept on the ceramic floor,” she says. “But I had keys that were mine and no one could take them from me.”

    Slowly, Caroline started to rebuild her life. She completed high school, graduated from college with a social service worker diploma and got involved at the Centre of Hope, where she met Aura Burditt, an outreach worker. “She gave me back my voice,” says Caroline. “She showed me that I still have dignity, that I have courage. I had completely lost my faith in humanity and she worked with me so gently to get it back—to see that there is goodness in the world.”

    For the next eight years, Caroline volunteered with other women who had been prostituted, trafficked or sexually exploited. In 2018, she was hired as a full-time peer support worker under the Phoenix Project, to provide practical assistance and help encourage healing and recovery. “Now I know why I was born,” she says. “It’s to do this.”

    A Different World

    It starts with meeting women where they are. “The ultimate goal is to help them exit, but they’re not all at that point,” says Julia Parker, executive director, correctional and justice services. “We support them wherever they are on their journey.”

    Caroline is on call to respond to emergencies, and receives referrals from law enforcement, hospitals and social service agencies. She accompanies women to legal and medical appointments, helps with the search for safe housing, promotes education and collaborates with other organizations that offer job training and work experience.

    At the drop-in program, they share a meal and discuss a variety of topics, such as addiction and healthy boundaries. They also have access to a trauma-informed nurse practitioner. Many of the women have complex mental and physical health concerns, but often don’t trust doctors. The nurse provides on-site health care, including specialty services such as testing and treatment for hepatitis C and preventive HIV medicine, and works to build trust to reconnect them to primary care.

    Positive recreational experiences are another important aspect of the program. “For some of these women, being trafficked is all they’ve ever known,” says Caroline. “My goal is to build transformational relationships and broaden their horizons—to show them there’s more.”

    She has taken women bowling, rope climbing and to a farm to experience goat yoga. “We went to the butterfly conservatory in Cambridge, Ont., and they loved it,” says Caroline. “They saw it as symbolic—the caterpillar transforming into a butterfly.”

    The transition to mainstream society isn’t quick or easy. “It’s one thing to get a woman out, but unless you keep supporting her, she’s going to go back,” says Caroline. “We don’t tell somebody you have to leave—they have to recognize something’s not right. When they’re ready to get out, we help them get there.”

    Caroline knows of four women who have exited since she began her role. “It’s just walking beside them,” says Caroline. “One of the most profound things I ever heard from a participant was, ‘You believe me.’

    “I can help in a way others can’t. I’m not under the influence of addiction, and I’m not working, but they see me as one of them. And I am living proof that not only is there life after, but that you can flourish."

    New Territorial Strategy

    The Phoenix Project is one way that The Salvation Army in Canada and Bermuda is working to fight human trafficking. In 2018, people from across the territory engaged in similar ministries or who wanted to become more involved gathered together to share about their work, identify gaps and sketch a new strategic response.

    “It was encouraging to hear what is already taking place regarding anti-human trafficking efforts,” says Major Glenda Davis, social services secretary. “We shared a common urgency to increase our involvement in addressing this social justice issue, which affects women, men and children around the world, and even in our territory.”

    The result was a new territorial strategy against modern slavery, human trafficking and exploitation, launched this September, in conjunction with The Salvation Army’s international day of prayer in support of victims.

    The strategy is informed by the framework set by International Headquarters, with the intended outcome of a strong and sustainable response to modern slavery and human trafficking in every territory, command and region, and embedded within Salvation Army structures.

    “In the coming months, a group of representatives from each of the divisions and from territorial headquarters will be connecting regularly to implement this strategy,” says Major Davis. “It is important for The Salvation Army to continue to combat modern-day slavery.”

    Photo: filadendron/iStock via Getty

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