Valerie Navarrete

“It is the women who decide what they want. We are not here to force anyone. We are not here to impose what we think it best. We are here to help. And to do that, we need to first listen.”

That was my first introduction to Sicar, the organization I worked for this past summer which focuses on providing care and assistance to former victims of human trafficking in Barcelona, Spain. This advice was given to me by the regional director who, in outlining the organization, its responsibilities and my place in it, prioritized the agency of the individual women above all else.

No one is forced to attend medical appointments here. No one is pressured to meet with social workers, attend Spanish classes or even recount her experience. Most importantly, while there are plenty of resources for women to stay in Spain or to be relocated to another country that they feel they will be more safe in, the organization has one core rule: the second someone asks to leave, or even to go back to a possibly risky situation, they have every right to do so. If the ‘adoratrices,’ as the workers call themselves, think the woman’s plan is perilous, they will express their fear and concern.

I have to admit that, on my first day this mission statement made me uncomfortable. To me, nongovernmental organizations working on human trafficking had an obligation to protect former victims, to offer a safe space and to act as their guardians. Allowing people to return to dangerous situations seemed contradictory to that duty.

Upon meeting the women, however, I realized the value of this approach. The women that receive the care and assistance that this organization provides are not broken, helpless and scared. They come from different backgrounds, have immensely different stories and individualized needs. Yes, some of them have been through hardship. Some of them are more vulnerable and need closer attention. But they all have one thing in common: each and every one of the women I met is brave, strong and determined to rebuild her life.

The women I encountered defy every single preconceived stereotype that exists about victims of human trafficking because they are not victims. They are people, girls and women with families, goals, dreams and aspirations.

If there is one thing I learned from being around them, it is that they do not need to be sheltered, protected and defended. They do not need others to speak for them. If the world can just assume the same approach the adoratrices have, we will learn a valuable lesson: these women have a lot to say. All we need to do is give them the floor and then shut up and listen.

They are not all alike.

One of them is a bull, diving into any adversity head first, led by her passion, her strength and her loyalty to her own. She appears terrifying — a large, strong woman, whose eyes peer through all your pretenses and see you for what you truly are. As soon as she sets foot in a room, she establishes her dominance, her voice deep and loud, her movement strong and determined. But then, once you lower the threatening red blanket, once her eyes adjust to the light and she realizes you are not a threat, the dam subsides and her laughter, loudness and selfless offers abound, so many that you fear you may get lost in them.

Another is a mountain. Standing quietly in the background, she barely makes a sound and is easy to miss for a passive observer. She moves through the space like a summer wind, delicately, gently caressing each and every one of us, providing refuge from the scorching sun and burning heat without asking for anything in return. When she talks, her voice is soft as a rose petal, her words convoluted, hurried, as if she won’t have a chance to get them all out, to express what it is she desires. She doesn’t speak the tongue of the land, but she understands each of us better than anyone.

Yet another is a young child. Laughing, playing, joking around, always dreaming and forever believing that the future is hers and can only bring her happiness. She trusts unequivocally, talks in muddled words that mix different languages, cannot sit still for a minute and loves fairy tales and happy endings. Her scars run deep and sometimes hurt. They rouse her from her sleep and bind her from venturing out and claiming the world she believes to be hers. But beyond it all, she has a naive, irreproachable desire to love and be loved, to open herself up as widely as possible and to charm whoever comes her way with her radiant smile and soulful laugh.

One of them is a chameleon. Observant, adaptable, creative. She reads people the second they set foot near her and adapts her disposition to suit their particular needs. She is brilliant, funny, menacing, imposing. She knows how to defend herself, she knows what she needs and how to get it. Her true colors are the only veritable mystery, for who can know who she truly is behind the myriads of masks she wears every day, to present herself as we want to see her? No, her true identity she keeps to herself, buried inside, safely tucked away where no one can hurt or touch her, unless she decides to pull back the curtain and reveal herself.

One of them is the sea. An unpredictable, erratic force. When the sun goes up she is peaceful and tranquil, facilitating the voyage of sailors to distant lands, tentative, inviting, patient. But at night, when her demons come back, tap her on her shoulder and remind her of what had been, she is furious, unapproachable and hostile. She trusts no one and, if you try to approach her, she will summon waves, the likes of which you have never imagined. They will rise to heights equal to the tallest of buildings, fed by her fury, her rage and her deep-seated fear towards anything that’s strange and unfamiliar.

All of them share one similarity. They are all survivors. They have walked across fiery coals, seen the worst this world has to offer, experienced deception, pain and endless suffering, separated from their loved ones, miles away from the place they call home. And yet, they laugh, they joke, they trust, they love.

They do not fear anything, or anyone. Yes, maybe some of them are broken, but they are mending the walls that hold them up, piece by piece pulling themselves back together, each at her own pace, each in her own way. Every day, when the nightmare seeps into reality, when the darkness returns to consume them, they fight back. And every day, they win.

How do they accomplish it? They succeed because they are shaped by their guardian angels — the women who take them in, who wash the blood and the mood from their bodies and their minds alike. Who hold them when they wake up in agony, drenched in sweat and dripping tears. Who stand up and fight for them in a world that is out to get them. Who make them believe in a tomorrow, even after all they’ve known is disappointment and deceit.

The guardians of Sicar are ghosts with great intentions. Saints who walk unassumingly among us, while we brush past them and fail to notice. They are the ones who deserve the homage we offer to some unnamed, unseen deity.

They are angels we do not deserve. A long way from paradise, wandering among us, willing to forgive even after we’ve done our worse to bring them down. Never forgetting, always waiting, forever persevering.

We often praise the phoenix, the magnificent, magical creature that is reborn from its ashes. Rarely, however, do we pause to think of the caring maiden who attends to the infant bird when the flames go out, when it lies with its body aching and its beautiful feathers burned away, falling on the earth and turning to ash. It is them who make the phoenix what he is. Who nurture him back to health, who tend to his wounds until they’re fully healed, who fend off any aggressor who might try to take advantage of his vulnerable state.

I believe in angels now. I have seen them. I know that they are real. And I hope that someday, we will all manage to comport ourselves and treat those among us with a fraction of the kindness, respect, wisdom and selflessness that these women exude so naturally.

Sophia Catsambi | sophia.catsambi@yale.edu