On Wednesday this week, I accompanied the Street Unit on one of its trips. Our team consisted of Sonya, the “operator” or social worker; Dyshe, our matronly cultural mediator from Albania; Philine, a young, blonde German expatriate worker; and myself, the green Chinese-American summer intern. This was no ordinary street unit. Usually the team consists only of two people—the operator, and the cultural mediator whose function is to better relate and communicate with the sex worker on the basis of a common cultural and linguistic background.
This time we were truly an international team. I wondered how we would appear to the sex workers. I glanced at Philine who was seated beside me. She was dressed in high heels and an expensive looking summer dress. She looked as if she were coming from a cocktail hour at a fancy restaurant. I looked down at my own somber business-casual attire. How does one dress for street work?
At 2:00 in the afternoon, we all piled into an old white van, armed with two plastic trays crammed with brochures and health/hygiene related items. We had brochures for every native language that the sex workers in Turin might speak—Italian, Russian, Hungarian, Spanish, Albanian, English, Romanian, Serbian, Moroccan, etc. The brochures were self-help guides on topics ranging from the prevention of HIV/AIDS and other STDs, to protection against violent clients, to instructions on the use of condoms. The little “kits” we offered the sex workers consisted of items for the practice of safer sex.
Sonya, our Italian social worker, doubled as our madcap driver. She has a heavy foot. Our journey throughout the city was punctuated by hairpin turns, screeching halts, and the cries of “Mio Dio!” (My God!) from us passengers, after particularly harrowing close encounters with other cars. Our trip went something like this: As we zoomed around the city, we would be on constant look-out for sex workers. When we spotted one, Sonya would bring the van to a screaming halt a discreet distance away from the prostitutes. Then Dyshe and another one of us would grab some kits and some brochures, and approach the prostitutes.
Our first encounter was with an Albanian woman by the side of a major road. Dyshe spotted her and moments later our van came bouncing past her and stopped a few feet away. Dyshe and I got out of the van, and approached the woman— Dyshe with a huge, friendly smile and confident gait, and me, trailing somewhat uncertainly, slightly behind. Dyshe called out in Italian, “Buon giorno!” to which the woman responded in turn. “Come va?” Dyshe asked. This time the woman responded with a skeptical look and the question, “Where are you from?” Dyshe responded that she was from Albania. It seemed to be the magic word, and the expression of woman immediately transformed to a huge smile and a sudden relaxation of demeanor. I observed as Dyshe established a quick rapport with this complete stranger, introducing ourselves and the organization, explaining in a matter-of-fact way about the items in the kit, and cracking a joke that had the woman laughing in surprise at the words that came out of the mouth of an older, maternal-looking woman. The exchange took no more than five minutes, including satisfying the curiosity of the woman about me—where I was from, how old I was, and how long I had been in Italy. At the end, we all shook hands and exchanged friendly good-byes. I was very much impressed with Dyshe’s manner and ability to create an instant rapport with the woman.
The rest of the afternoon we saw prostitutes of other backgrounds—seven women from Nigeria, and one older Italian woman. For one of the Nigerian women, it was her first day on the job. She said that she was 24 years old but she looked more like 16 or 17 years old. Some of these women sat on folding chairs along the road. An abandoned folding chair signified that the prostitute had been collected by a client.
I was told by the cultural mediators that usually the unit sees more women than the number we saw that afternoon. However, the prostitutes were no longer at their usual haunts. Every so often, the sex workers change their locations.
Posted By Julie Lee
Posted Jun 15th, 2003