It could have been any of us.
This time last year I was in Moldova—one of the poorest countries in Eastern Europe.
I spent my days there with socially vulnerable teenagers—orphans—who are statistically shown to be more susceptible to human trafficking, because of a lack of resources and a stable support system.
Teenagers who were just like me—just like us.
Who love to dance, to braid one another’s hair, paint their nails, listen to music and make jokes.
Who dream of becoming a nurse, a mother, a teacher.
Who aspire to travel the world, move to another city, have a home of their own, fall in love.
Just like me—just like us.
And here’s the heartbreaking truth: there’s a high likelihood that some of those girls I sat with, played with, and laughed with, will be lured by strangers (or even trusted elders) and stripped of their identities to become only one thing—a body to be used.
All because they wanted an opportunity for a better life. They wanted to be loved. They wanted to belong.
Just like me—just like us.
I remember returning home with a newfound sense of gratitude that I was blessed with a family who provided me with my basic needs of food, clothing and shelter.
I remember feeling so thankful for having a family who gave me unconditional love and support.
Who tucked me in at night, kissed me on the forehead and told me they loved me. Who put me in dance classes because they knew how much I loved it. Who paid for my private school education.
And even as an adult, after years of a strained relationship, welcomed me home with open arms when I flew back from California with only a suitcase and a broken heart.
When my world and my identity as I knew it was destroyed, they loved me and supported me—I belonged.
This gave me hope.
And it was because of this hope that I was able to heal the wounds of that situation and start building a new life—full of joy and growth and purpose.
For this, I will be forever grateful.
I was reminded of this experience while I was scrolling through my Instagram on July 30th—World Day Against the Trafficking in Persons.
Today is World Day against Trafficking in Persons. In #Albania, scarce economic opportunities leave women and girls especially vulnerable to #humantrafficking. Our project, funded by the @europeancommission, works to support survivors of trafficking and raise awareness among #journalists and the public. #unwomen #WDTiP #endhumantrafficking 📸: @undp in #Moldova
A photo posted by UN Women (@unwomen) on
This post led to me read about a woman in Albania named Linda who, while looking for job opportunities to financially support her struggling family, ended up being lured into sex trafficking by a trusted neighbor.
After months of being beaten, raped and imprisoned, she was rescued and brought to a shelter where she was given an opportunity to learn the skills to become a chef through a UN Women-Supported program called “Different but Equal.”
She gained confidence and became empowered to start over, and now has a stable income as she works toward opening her own restaurant—all because she was given love, support and a place to belong.
Because she was given hope.
But Linda’s situation is not an isolated event, happening in isolated areas.
About a year ago I sat in on a private meeting with members of a local Human Trafficking Coalition, and had the opportunity to meet and listen to Theresa Flores tell her story of sex slavery and survival, as well as how we can cultivate awareness and promote prevention by educating our community about human trafficking.
She grew up in a middle-class suburb in Michigan. She was a teenage girl, just looking for love. She met a guy who charmed her with sweet compliments and showered her with extravagant gifts. She fell in love, and she would do anything to preserve this relationship.
She was just like me—just like us.
But for two years, she was working as a sex slave during the night, while living at home and going to school during the day.
Years later, Theresa became the founder of S.O.A.P. (Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution)—a program that places a National Human Trafficking hotline number on bars of soap in hotel bathrooms—something that could have provided an escape route for her, as it was the only time she was alone.
She has written books about her experience, she is traveling the country to speak to local communities, and she is working with politicians to implement and change laws to protect victims.
She is a beacon of hope.
Pittacus Lore said, “When you have lost hope, you have lost everything. And when you think all is lost, when all is dire and bleak, there is always hope.”
When we donate our time and our resources to local coalitions, national organizations, or global movements, we offer one another gifts of love, support and hope.
When we educate ourselves about this epidemic, and play a part in cultivating awareness and promoting prevention in others, we offer one another gifts of love, support and hope.
When we honor the women in our lives, we offer one another gifts of love, support and hope.
We all deserve love and a place to belong. We all deserve safety and shelter. And we all deserve to have opportunities to thrive in the world and contribute in the special way that only they can.
So let’s be one another’s voice. Let’s be one another’s support system. Let’s be one another’s sister—because even though we are different, we are equal—and we belong to one another.
And it could have been any of us.
So today, and every day, let’s choose to give love, support and hope to all of our sisters—near and far.
Author: Brianna Miller
Image: Author’s Own; @unwomen
Editor: Emily Bartran