Sally looks at her feet and continuously plays with a plastic bag in her lap. She has a shock of hair that stands straight up and a green dress with little flowers printed on it. In fact, she looks much like any other teenage girl you might see walking down the street. But Sally has a different story: she was trafficked into the United Kingdom a year ago to work as a prostitute, a “career” she has had most of her young life.
Born in West Africa, her mother died when Sally was just a few months old. She went to live with an aunt, who may or may not be a blood relation at all, Sally doesn’t know. When she was only five, a man came up to her at the market and took her by the hand and promised her a better life. That better life turned out to be child prostitution in East Africa. From that time on, she was raped by several clients each day. When she got to be “too old” for the taste of the men her trafficker brought her, Sally was sold to another man and trafficked into the United Kingdom, again forced into prostitution. Several months ago, Sally ran away and was identified by the police as a trafficking victim and brought to the safe house where she currently lives.
Once Sally had left the room, the director asked us how old we thought Sally was. I guessed 16 or 17. The director of the safe house has told us that women must be 18 years old to be accepted to this CHASTE coordinated safe house but, as a youth worker for most of her career, believes Sally to be no older than 17. She had a false passport, arranged by her trafficker, that claimed her age as 23, a falsehood so clear that it is amazing she was able to enter the country.
Apparently, today was one of Sally’s good days, no fits, no tantrums, no screaming for hours on end. Despite not ever being taught to read and write, on her good days she can reason about her outbursts, understanding that she was taking her anguish out on others. If anyone has a reason to scream, Sally does. Here was the moment that I had been anticipating and dreading at the same time. I was finally speaking with someone that had gone through such a horrendous ordeal and I didn’t know if I would be able to hold it together. What got me through the meeting was listening to her complain about her 10 PM curfew – she had the same concerns as any normal teenager. She wanted to go out, to have fun, to be with friends. Something she had been denied her entire life.
There are some wounds that I wonder if any amount of time will ever heal. How can a person recover from such a trauma? When Sally should have been playing with dolls, she was being raped by grown men. Where she should have had a mother to love and nourish her, she had a trafficker who used and exploited her for money. Her search for a mother continues today – she calls the director of the safe house Mum even though she has been told not to because the safe house should give Sally the skills to eventually live on her own, not create dependency.
I have changed Sally’s name from the one given to her at the safe house to protect her identity. No one knows what Sally’s real name is, not even Sally. How basic to human dignity to be afforded a name, how cruel that Sally never received this small confirmation that she mattered. What is even sadder to realize is that in the United Kingdom alone, there are an estimated 4,000-10,000 women and children with their own stories who are trafficked into the country for sexual exploitation each year. All of these girls had families at one point in time, all of them had dreams. In my time in the UK so far, I am increasingly reminded of a poem by the great Langston Hughes, “What happens to a dream deferred?…Does it stink like rotten meat?…Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?” What happens to ten thousand unanswered dreams?
Posted By Jennifer Hollinger
Posted Jun 18th, 2007