I accompany Sandra, a Nigerian woman, and Fatiha, a Moroccan cultural mediator to the free health clinic just down the road from where our office is. Sandra, a 23 year old woman, speaks only English, despite having lived in Italy for over two years. Fatiha explains to me later it is likely that Sandra’s trafficker tightly controls her movements, and does not allow her to learn Italian as a means of keeping her vulnerable.
As Fatiha and I attempt to make conversation, Sandra’s replies are polite, but terse. It is clear that she wants only to go to the clinic and sort out her problem. She complains of an on-and-off again skin rash that she has had since she arrived in Italy. She is only now attending to it.
“How did you hear about TAMPEP?” I ask her.
“Sister Jennifer told me about it last night,” she replies. Jennifer is a Nigerian cultural mediator who works with the Street Unit.
Sandra, Fatiha, and I have some time to kill once we arrive at the clinic. The clinic does not open for another forty minutes, but we arrive early to get a good place in line. The clinic is usually jammed with patients. There are just a few people in the waiting room, including a young Chinese mother of two, who glances just as curiously at me as I do at her. Fatiha spots a Moroccan man whom she knows, and begins a conversation with him.
Meanwhile I sit next to Sandra and briefly consider the merits of trying to start up another conversation with her. I glance at her. She sits sprawled out on her chair, staring disinterestedly off into space.
I took out a report to read instead. The report is an international organization evaluation on existing microcredit projects in Nigeria. As I read the background analysis on Nigeria, it suddenly occurs to me that a potential participant in the project we are planning is sitting right next to me. I put away the report, and make another stab at conversation.
“Sandra, I need your advice,” I say.
She looks at me warily.
I briefly explain the project and ask her about the kind of jobs that are desirable for women in Lagos, Nigeria.
“The problem is not jobs in Nigeria,” Sandra says sharply. “There are plenty of jobs in Nigeria. The problem is the government does not pay the workers.” She leans forward to me, her eyes flashing. “You work three or four months there, and you do not receive your pay from the government. How can you live?
When I ask her what is an ideal job for a Nigerian woman, she replies, “Nigerian women can do any job.”
“If you tell her what to do, she will do it. If you tell a Nigerian woman to walk twelve kilometers, she will do it.”
She continues to speak animatedly in the otherwise silent waiting room. “Why do you think mothers and fathers are sending their children to Europe? They want their children to have better jobs which can pay. They think their children here are working in the fabbrica [factory] or cleaning. My family thinks that I am here working in the fabbrica. They do not know that I am doing this dirty job [prostitution].”
Later others at TAMPEP will tell me that it is unlikely that Nigerian families do not know what their daughters are doing in Europe. They suggest that perhaps it is a defense mechanism for young women like Sandra to believe that their families do not know.
It is almost 1pm now. People begin to queue up for registration. There are no numbers, and no order to the queue. One is simply supposed to remember whom they arrived after. My conversation with Sandra trails off as we take our place in the queue. Sandra returns to her morose silence. Fatiha begins a conversation with another Moroccan man, explaining what TAMPEP does. Their conversation is in French, but one word that Fatiha says is clearly discernible—prostitution. I feel the man glance at us. I look at Sandra to see if she noticed. She looks back at me, and says simply, “It is crowded here.”
As we wait, the people around us argue about who is next in line. Fatiha speaks to the clinic workers in charge of the registration about Sandra. She returns to us and tells me that we should go now. “We go now?” Sandra asks. “No. You stay.” Fatiha explains that Fatiha and I are leaving and that all Sandra must do now is wait to be registered. The clinic worker speaks English.
Sandra looks younger and more vulnerable now, as she listens to the instructions. The people around us are not so kind. They are impatient and make it clear to Sandra through exaggerated hand gestures that she is after them. I smile at Sandra, touch her arm, and wish her good luck. She offers me her first smile and says goodbye.
Posted By Julie Lee
Posted Jul 25th, 2003