17-year-old: How I Escaped an International Trafficking Ring

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“Are you being held here in Moscow against your will?” the stoic Russian judge asked each of nine young women as he called them up one by one. “Show me your passport and papers.”

Just hours prior, their apartment—a suspected brothel—had been raided by police after we supplied them with evidence of trafficking and got the media involved. Now as each girl was called to stand before the judge, all eyes bore into these girls, including the pimp and madam, his wife.

I was aghast—of course no girl would publicly testify against her traffickers in that setting! I took an officer aside and asked if I could have one-on-one interviews with every girl privately, in a separate area. They said I could talk to them in the corridor.

I called each girl outside to speak with me. Some of the girls that we had been meeting up with over the previous weeks were included in this group, their eyes looking fearful. We had found them advertised for sex on internet websites and met with a few of them undercover in local Moscow hotels during the previous weeks.

It was not supposed to have turned out this way.

Our plan had been to gather enough evidence of trafficking so that the pimps could be immediately arrested while the girls would be taken directly to a safe place. However, according to Russian legal protocol, this required at least one girl to confront the pimp/madam and record this conversation for evidence. When it came down to it, the girls had felt too scared to go through with this in case they were found out.

…one girl in the group stood out to me. Destiny was clearly the youngest there. She was tiny and the thought of older men buying her made my stomach turn.

At the police station, one girl in the group stood out to me. Destiny* was clearly the youngest there. She was tiny and the thought of older men buying her made my stomach turn. I motioned her to come outside. Like each of the others she recited her speech nervously: “I’m here for the World Cup football… because I love football… there’s a mistake… I’m not in prostitution.”

The pimp poked his head around the door and shouted something angrily, which I guessed was a threat. I took Destiny further away by the window. I needed to think fast and approach the conversation from a different angle.

“Listen,” I leaned forward and said quietly to her, “You say they aren’t forcing you to be in prostitution. Ok. Fine. But you need to know that they have forced some of the other girls to do this and so I know they have a plan to make you do this as well. If this happens, in the future I mean, can I give you a number to call for help? Just in case.”

I could see her mind processing. By accepting the number she wasn’t acknowledging it was currently happening (even though I knew it was), so she slowly nodded, her eyes serious and wide. I scribbled down the number on a scrap of paper and she hid it in her undergarments so it wouldn’t be found. “If you ever call the number there will be someone who will help. We aren’t here to hurt you, we care about each of you and want you to be in a safe place.” I could feel that she believed me and trusted me.

Unfortunately, on the day of the raid, without any of the young women testifying against their traffickers, and with the pimp and madam providing temporary World Cup visas to the judge, no arrests were made and they all returned to the apartment.

But that wasn’t the end of the story.

In the days following, I kept thinking of all the girls, and especially Destiny. I prayed so much that she would reach out and God would rescue her from what must be her living hell.

In her own words, here’s what Destiny had to say about her experience…

In Destiny’s Own Words: How I Was Trafficked to Russia

Note: Destiny’s words are mostly unedited to maintain the essence of her voice. The bracketed text has been added for clarity.

I traveled to Moscow from Nigeria last year in June [at the beginning of the World Cup] not long after I turned 17. I never knew that I was going there for trafficking. At first [the Nigerian madam] who sponsored me, she was so nice to me, so kind. I was thinking that I’m here to help with her African food business.

One week after I arrived [the madam] told me the reason why I’m here—that there’s no business here except prostitution… that I have to be in prostitution to earn money if I want to survive in this country. At first I refused, I said, “This is not what you told me back in Nigeria! You told me I would come here to serve African food in an African shop!” She had lied to me just to get me here and now tells me there’s no shop, and that the only work here is prostitution, [and that I owed her $70,000].

She told me if I will not do prostitution I will not eat and I will sleep on the cold bare floor. I was so frustrated. What could I do? I told myself, “Ok I will just do this.” So I started bringing money for her, going to different places, different men. The men would beat me, drag my hair, do all sorts of things to me.

He wanted to throw me down from the 5-story building. The other one said to him “No you should not do that, you should just lock her inside a room.”

There was a time when I went out and two men were there. I said no, I can’t sleep with both these men and we started arguing. One of them got angry and he beat me. He wanted to throw me down from the 5-story building. The other one said to him, “No you should not do that, you should just lock her inside a room.”

The next morning they came to release me. I was so thankful that they did not push me down a 5-story building–it was the intervention of God that made them not push me down.

On that fateful day [of the raid] the police came to our house and they took us to court. That’s the day I saw Helen.

Helen gave me her number, she talked to me, she encouraged me, advised me, she [shared with me] a lot of things. I collected her number.

She was expecting my call, but due to my boss checking us all I was scared to call her at that moment, because they didn’t want us to call anybody or do anything. During that time I was so frustrated, I was so tired. But after I had that conversation with Helen and when I got home, I was thinking about what Helen said to me…

I told my boss that I want to go back to Nigeria, I can’t continue suffering here and I want to go back to Nigeria. She refused and refused to let me go back to Nigeria even though I paid her the money.

I was so confused and frustrated. I kept praying at that time that God would locate me with a helper… that God would give me that chance to overcome all this.

One day my boss sent me out [to see a client] and I said to myself, “This is the last day that she is going to see me.” I encouraged myself, I prayed, “God, direct my footsteps. If it is Your will for me to go back to Nigeria protect me and let me locate my helper.” I just prayed that prayer and I went out.

I prayed, “God, direct my footsteps. If it is Your will for me to go back to Nigeria protect me and let me locate my helper.”

When I went out, I located the nearest police station and I talked to the police that this is what I’ve been doing but I want to go back to my country. The police asked me where is my passport and I said my passport is with my boss. They said without my passport, I can’t go home. So they took me to the Nigerian embassy and when I got there I met with [Mr. K] who I recognized from the police raid with Helen. He could be trusted.

I told him everything, the house address, the name of my boss, I showed him pictures, everything. So [Mr. K] helped me get back my passport and bought me my ticket back to Nigeria.

In Helen’s Words: Assisting Destiny After Her Escape

When I heard from our Russian contacts that Destiny had reached out to them and they were assisting her in getting back to Nigeria safely, I was overjoyed. A few months later I saw a friend request from her on Facebook and I called her immediately. What an incredible moment it was to see her smiling face through the pixelated screen, telling me how she had managed to get away.

A screenshot from Helen and Destiny’s video chat.

After the raid and the media attention it garnered, the male pimp was put in prison in Nigeria and the female madam was ordered by Russian authorities to leave Russia and is back there too. The trafficking operation they had been running for several years in Moscow is no more. You can learn more of that story in this post.

I ended my call with Destiny feeling ecstatic for her, but also quite concerned. She was staying with a friend, had little money, and no job. She was extremely vulnerable to being re-trafficked.

After seeing the viral In The Now video from the raid on Facebook, a director of an incredible aftercare program in Nigeria called me to let me know about their services for trafficked girls. I was so inspired by her and remember thinking “I just spoke to the female William Wilberforce of Africa!”

I contacted Destiny and encouraged her to apply for the program, but her response was “I don’t trust any organizations here.” This was understandable after what she had just been through in Russia. She would not be persuaded.

We kept in regular contact and I continued encouraging her to at least meet with their staff and see the shelter where she could stay during her reintegration. One day, three months later, she decided to give it a chance and was accepted into the program!

Today, just over a year after that fateful raid, Destiny is thriving in the best aftercare program in Nigeria, studying and learning job skills, and working towards good career opportunities. She receives counseling for her trauma, has made many friends, and is growing in her faith. She has just been accepted onto a university course and I am so proud of her.

It’s for girls like Destiny, ones who are still caught in this heinous industry, that we’ll never stop fighting.

Until every person is free.

In Destiny’s Words: “God used you to transform my life”

When I came back… to Nigeria from Russia things were very difficult for me. I was so tired… I could hardly eat.

One day I was on Facebook and I was searching for Helen typing her name and I saw her picture and sent her a friend request. She accepted my friend request and we started talking. I explained to her what happened in Russia and how I got back to Nigeria. I was so so excited to see her on Facebook, I was so happy.

She encouraged me, she kept on encouraging me and giving me courage and praying for me… telling me that I can do it, that this is my second chance and I should not give up, that I should keep on praying to God and that God will help me.

She gave me the program’s email address and I emailed them and they asked me to come down to their office so I went to their office. Now they accommodate me, they help me with classes, they pay my bills, they are doing everything for me. Thank you for the privilege, for the opportunity, and the helping hand that they give to me. I am so happy I will go to university next year.

I never expected this but thanks to God and thanks to Helen. She is indeed a sister. She is a godsend and a sister. I appreciate her time, her effort, and everything she did for me from Moscow to now, she never turned her back on me, she was there for me. I also want to thank God for the second chance, for the opportunity to live again. God used you to transform my life.

This is all I have to say. Thank you Helen, I love you.

There are many more girls like Destiny, both in the US and across the globe, and you can help them find freedom! Give now to be the bridge to freedom for young women who’ve been victimized by the commercial sex industry.

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Helen Taylor is Exodus Cry’s Director of Outreach and Intervention.

*Name changed to protect privacy

Header Photo Credit: unsplash-logoSuad Kamardeen Note: This is not a photo of Destiny

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