What It Takes For Trafficking Victims to Become Survivors

Rescue:Freedom | June 2016


Elena travels to Spain from Bolivia for a cleaning job. She accepts the position after interviewing with a recruiter back home. With four little mouths to feed, she finds herself desperate for work. The opportunity to send money home from Europe seems promising.

The recruiter, of course, sells it brilliantly. “You don’t need to bring anything. We’ll provide a uniform and have a furnished apartment for you with the other lady cleaners.” She travels with no luggage.

As promised, a lady from the company meets her at the airport. They head straight to a clothing shop, and the woman picks out a short leather skirt and a pair of steep heels. Elena mentions politely that she wouldn’t wear those things, but the lady waves her off and insists, “No, no, it’s Spain. You’ll need this, trust me.”

The lady takes Elena to the apartment and shows her to her room. It’s bare but livable, with a cot-like bed, nightstand, toilet and sink. The woman says, “Get settled. I’ll come back to check on you soon.” The lock turns and the "breaking" begins.

​"Breaking" is what they call three days of beatings and rape.

Elena pleads and pleads, “You have the wrong person! You don’t understand—I interviewed for a cleaning job. Please, it’s not me. There has to be someone you can call!” Resistance does her no favors. The breaking is brutal. And standard process.

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The madame has her passport and all of her personal information. They know she has children—Elena was a strategic target. They use the kids as leverage to keep her submissive: “Doesn’t Nadia go to this school? And plays with Mayra at this playground? You know what will happen to her if you refuse to work?”

Elena sits across from me now: “I will never forget the one phrase. The madame, she said…” her lip trembles. Barely audible, “Get dressed. You start work tonight.” 

Her uniform, of course: a short skirt and heels. 


The competing voices of past, present, and future are both deafening, and silent at the same time. Her innocence can be stolen, but not her resilience.

Brandon Bray

Based on actual events. A young woman is lured to Spain from her home in Bolivia with a job opportunity at a cleaning company. The promise of a stable job, and the possibility to send money back home was too much to pass up. However, what she encounters is a dark connected world in the global trade of buying and selling people. 

How does one journey from victim to survivor? Those working in the anti-trafficking space know that question is not a quick and easy fix, but long-term marathon commitment to fight.

Freed but not Free

Elena tries to escape twice. The second time she is beaten so badly it takes her an entire day to get up off the floor of the motel room. It is five years before rescue comes.

Her controller pulls the car into the parking lot of a liquor store. He hands her a credit card and tells her to buy as much as she can carry. Arms filled, she goes to check out. The clerk runs the credit card—denied. He recognizes it as stolen and calls the police. Elena, in her short skirt and high-heels, is arrested and brought to the detention center for questioning. 

She’s already been there a few days—in the same clothes—by the time we meet her. We enter a long narrow room divided lengthwise into a half dozen cubicles. I am there to observe the Rescue:Freedom partners in their thrice weekly routine. We sit side-by-side in a cubicle, while opposite us on the other side of the window, guards escort the detainees to visit with us one at a time. 

Skilled, trained and very practiced, my guide gently asks Elena about her story.  The classic identifier: Did she come to Spain promised something different than what she found when she arrived? Yes.What sort of job did she come for? Cleaning. And what sort of job did it end up being? …una prostituta. Tears. Uncontrollable tears. 

My guide has heard this story a hundred times. She softly coaches Elena through options and next steps. There will be more meetings before we can know whether Elena might be able to join the safe home. There are many factors and dynamics to consider. For now, it’s important for Elena to know she is not alone, and there is help available. We let her know we will meet again in a couple of days and leave her with a change of clothes, clean undergarments and a toiletry kit. 

The stolen credit card and the detention center are the best things that could’ve happened to her at this point. Imagine that.

After further conversation and consideration, Elena will need to make a choice. On the day of her release, her traffickers will be sitting in the waiting room, unless she chooses freedom and the tremendously difficult path of healing.

The fight for these girls is fierce. We need to be as smart, as strategic and as relentless as the mafia.

Initially, I had such a hard time understanding why anyone would choose to go back to their trafficker. But fear is powerful. For years, these women and girls have been threatened with the well-being of their children and families back home. Escape will almost certainly trigger repercussions. One girl, proving uncooperative, was shown a photo on her controller’s mobile phone of her father shot dead in the head while on his motorbike back home. The threats are real. 

And no one understands that better than Rescue:Freedom’s partners on the ground, who have received death threats themselves. Anyone interrupting the supply chain of a sophisticated organized crime network in one of the most lucrative criminal industries in the world has reason for fear. 

But fear you will not find.

This is a story about victims becoming survivors. That journey. That process. And the myriad of fearless people, skills and supports that need to exist for that transformation to take place.

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Where to?

Far from home, having endured tremendous trauma, and on the run from the mafia: Where do we go from here?

Globally, there are more safe homes closing than opening each year, even while there are more women and girls being rescued from sex trafficking than ever before. Rescue:Freedom is working to reverse that trend, ensuring the safe homes necessary for these girls are available—that there’s a place for them to go, besides back to their traffickers. 

Restoration is a long, complex process involving sustained support in every area of life: Physical, psychological, spiritual, relational and professional. 

‘Aftercare’ is a complete misnomer. What’s a better word to describe the daily reality of going head-to-head with the mafia?

As you might imagine, the mafia don’t let their assets walk away easily. They pursue aggressively, strategizing recapture and continued control. These homes are sanctuaries and safe havens—little fortresses meant to keep the girls obscured from searching traffickers. Safe home staff work around the clock, 24/7 to restore the battered girl-shells they’ve rescued. Words of life, purpose, value, worth, belonging and hope are a lifeline. Without these words and the caring actions that accompany them, these women and girls remain shells—fragile, with a broken and fragmented soul.

It takes tremendous tenacity for the girls to keep choosing freedom. An odd thought, perhaps, but the physical rescue is only one dimension of freedom.

The fight for emotional, psychological and spiritual freedom is equally hard, much longer…and entirely personal. Through its local partners, Rescue:Freedom has impacted more than 32,000 women and children over the past 20 years. Currently in eight countries, these partner sites provide holistic care, including education, health care, vocational training, counseling services, spiritual development and a family atmosphere that cultivates healthy relationships and social reintegration.

This is where healing happens. Safe homes provide: 

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This is the hard work. The long work. The vital effort to create space for victims to become survivors. There are no shortcuts, but there are a number of ways you can help.

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Support + Scale

Invest in restoration and empower survivors to become the most powerful agents of systemic change.

The issue and industry of sex trafficking can be tremendously overwhelming, and the organized crime network supporting it seems utterly pervasive and impenetrable. But when considering personal engagement, we need to zoom in to one person, one whole life, one Elena.

Ask yourself this: Without a safe house, where does Elena go? Without a Rescue:Freedom, to whom does she turn? Without a support network, how does she heal?

While we are improving justice systems to prosecute traffickers and eradicating poverty to eliminate the source contexts, we must also invest in a next generation of overcomers—of knowledgeable survivors who can inform future initiatives and inspire those still trapped to choose freedom when and if they are ever given the chance. 

If you are compelled to give financially, Rescue:Freedom has a unique model allowing you (or your company, church, school) to sponsor a safe home. This is such a practical and tangible way to combat trafficking—a long-term approach to long-term change.

That said, there are innumerable ways to engage and we all have a part to play. 

As Executive Director Jeremy Vallerand asserts in this TED talk, "The world needs the very best of who you are." What are you good at? What do you enjoy doing? How can those skills and interests be leveraged for such an important cause as abolishing slavery? 

As the president of the non-profit organization, Rescue Freedom International and the founder of Climb for Captives, Jeremy Vallerand challenges us to volunteer differently.

As a BitterSweet family, we are committed to understanding and supporting difficult work in the darkest of circumstances. Rescue:Freedom gives us the opportunity to create home spaces that literally restore souls. We sincerely hope you'll support this important work.

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Editor's Note

I want so badly to think of healing and restoration as products I can manufacture—outcomes I can guarantee to donors and supporters with predictable certainty and milestones mapped on a timeline.

Clear inputs and outputs: Raw material enters, sits flatly on a conveyor belt through complex processing, packaged-and-pretty produced on the other end. Investors wanting a behind-the-scenes look stand in the wings and watch. They try to follow one product the whole way through, concerned for which stage it’s at, what it looks like now, how near the end it is—when it will be theirs to hold up in triumph.

Those working in the anti-trafficking space know that’s the process donors want to see. That’s the reality we’d all prefer. But, as I’m sure you know, the process of healing and restoration isn’t like that at all.

Still I want to systematize healing. I want to mass-produce safe places for women and girls who have been exploited beyond the horrors even my Hollywood trained mind can fathom.

Wouldn’t that be nice? Nice and clean? A clear answer: Real estate. Just open more safe homes so every rescued girl has somewhere to heal—so she can breathe freely far from torment.

Of course, real estate is part of the need—but only a part. Within the home, how does restoration of soul happen? How does one journey from victim to survivor? And how can we help that continue to happen? Rescue:Freedom champions these questions – not with a quick and easy fix, but with a long-term commitment and marathon fight. For justice. For healing. For each and every one.

I hope you will join with me in supporting their essential work.

Kate Schmidgall 2022 color
Kate Sig

Kate Schmidgall

Editor-in-Chief, BitterSweet Monthly

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