Tales from abroad: Padua

Padua, located just outside Venice, houses a safe haven for women who were sex slaves.  (credit: Courtesy of Aurelia Henderson) Padua, located just outside Venice, houses a safe haven for women who were sex slaves. (credit: Courtesy of Aurelia Henderson)

“Aurelia, how would you say ‘Stefano has a fever and a stomach ache’?” inquired my Italian professor Janice Vairo during class as we discussed the proper ways to ask for medical care in a foreign land. Nine in the morning always made me sad and flustered.

Why does she always use that name for her examples? So what if I can’t express Stefano’s diagnosis? I had already learned a lot more on my own trip to Italy than the formalities of the language.

I spent three weeks in Padua, just outside of Venice, during the summer of 2008. Despite its distance in my memory, it is still my most leaned-on topic of discussion. Some say that everyone has a moment in life that defines time for them: before 9/11, after the JFK assassination, before their children were born, and so on. For me, I say it was when I went to Italy and lived with nuns and sex slaves.

My high school offered many opportunities for adding to one’s college résumé. One opportunity was the Parkin Fellowship, a selective grant for students who desired to carry out environmental or service projects around the globe. This truly is a wonderful program; it brought me to the most life-changing and mind-altering place I have ever known. Until you live in hiding, until you see hope among the most tormented souls, you can never truly know yourself.

My Parkin Fellowship was a rather unique project. I desired more than anything to work with victims of human trafficking. Having done extensive research on this industry that earns $9 billion annually, an economy overlooked and unnoticed by the American populace, I felt compelled to have my hand in seeing an end to this injustice, or at least bring some happiness to the lives of these tortured young women.

I was scared, petrified even, when I was informed by the Franciscan Sisters of the Poor, who were graciously hosting me, that I would be living in a safe house patrolled on the hour by police officers guaranteeing that the women living there would not be abducted again. All I kept thinking was that Liam Neeson would not be coming to rescue me, that I would be lost in this web of red lights for the rest of my bound-to-be-brief life, if anything were to happen.

But my fear subsided as I entered the tram at the Pittsburgh airport, no longer able to see my mother. I imagined her, Au Bon Pain in hand, frightened, watching her 17-year-old daughter prepare to traverse an ocean to live the life of a foreign prostitute. If a mother can trust her daughter, I should trust myself, I thought.

I had huge plans to change the world. I wanted to patrol the streets at two in the morning, handing out condoms and brochures on STD and AIDS testing. I wanted to counsel the women in the safe house on self-esteem and post-traumatic stress. I wanted to babysit their children and teach them English. I wanted to see every aspect of the legal system that oppressed them and inform the masses of these injustices. I wanted to feed the people who were homeless as a result of this industry. Most of all, I wanted to put faces to the issue and humanize them in my mind. But while I was able to achieve almost all of these — the nuns actually helped me pass out condoms to the street hookers, which was especially incredible considering that strict Catholics object to birth control — I was unable to bring them joy. They had found it themselves.

My education in human trafficking started the instant I exited the plane. Sister Wilma, in her habit so I could find her easily, stood waiting for me in the airport in Venice. She took my luggage, led me to a Volvo, and drove down the highway at hair-raising speeds. The women I would be living with were mostly Nigerian, Wilma told me, taken from their tribes and homes after pimps came into their villages disguised as foreign travelers. These pimps would build trust and offer jobs to the oldest daughters in each home. Nigeria, being a poor nation, is a very easy target for this form of attack, seeing as the families are willing to give up one child in an effort to build financial stability for the rest. Once smuggled into Italy, these supposedly trustworthy men sell the girls to madams for staggering profits, leaving their promises for brighter futures and busying finance in the dust.

It was hard for me not to cry when I met these girls. Knowing the torment they have been through — being beaten by captors, forced to have sex with endless numbers of patrons while starved and sedated — I could not help but feel their happiness was a cover. But they truly were happy people. The more I talked to them, the more I saw that all the hope they needed was in the escape. Even just hearing the girls describe what they had been through brought me to tears. I soon understood that life was only bound to get better for them, that the future was blindingly brighter than their pasts and therefore they rejoiced in the most mundane things.

They bought me a soccer ball, calling me a stupid American for not having brought one with me, and we played in the vineyard for hours. I quickly realized that the maturity I expected from these girls was not there. They longed for the time they missed, clung to me like flies to honey for my youthful exuberance and “normal” childhood. My friendship was all they wanted, not my help or my pity. Through that bond of mutual respect and love, we found a common ground, an understanding, unlike any I have ever known. I saw the other side, and I loved myself more because of it.

I served in a way that is beautiful in its rawest form. I served myself by finding out who I am, by learning the true meaning of hope, by experiencing self-sacrificing love, by putting my life on the line for a cause worth fighting for. I am a new woman, and always will be. And that is one thing that no Italian class can give me. So I may not know how to say Stefano has a headache and needs to see a doctor, but I know a lot more. That has changed my life.