“The word ‘empower’ literally means ‘to put power into.” Diffusing Dignity, p. 68
From a very young age all sense of power I had over myself and my situation was taken from me. The first time I was physically abused was at four years old. As a child I could not cognitively understand why someone would hurt me. You listen to them as they tell you, “It’s your fault” and “You did this to yourself.” As much as my mother tried to combat the words spoken over me, the darkness prevailed.
At ten years old my hero–my everything–was diagnosed with cancer. My mother was raising three girls alone and the cancer did not allow her to take care of us as she did before. I remember vividly walking into her room before school hearing her groaning and curled up from the pain of the chemotherapy. My best friend–my mom–no longer was able to play with me, spend time with me or be there for me like she wanted to. From that moment, I made an internal vow to myself that I would become a doctor and find the cure for cancer.
I did very well in school not because I was smarter than anyone else but because I put all my effort into it. At age 15 I was dual enrolled in high School and college and was granted the opportunity to be in a pre-med program at NYU. Everything was looking up. It seemed as though the darkness had parted and I was finally seeing light in the world. Until…
My aunt was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer and passed away, and shortly after that, my yiayia (grandmother) was diagnosed with cancer. I come from a big greek family and my yiayia was the head of the family and the glue that kept us all together. She passed away the night before my birthday, leaving me with a gaping hole in my heart. Cancer had stolen so much from me and I wasn’t able to fulfil my vow and save my family in time. I was ready to give up.
I did not deal with the grief from my yiayia’s passing well. As a sixteen year old, the concept of death was something I tried to stuff away like my past traumas, but it was too strong to forget. A girl from my math class told me of these little pink pills that would take all my pain away. That was all I needed to hear. I took them and was immediately hooked. Finally, I found something to ease the pain, I found something to take away the gut wrenching feeling of shame and depression.
Before long, I was hanging out with a rebellious crowd, people who wouldn’t judge me or tell me I was hurting myself. Within a month of hanging with this new crowd, I was sexually assaulted and raped. While I suppressed my childhood trauma and the pain of loss, I was coming to the realization that I don’t own my body. I was a commodity for anyone who wanted a taking. I wasn’t strong enough to defend myself and I had no one to defend me. I felt alone and powerless.
This was when my addiction skyrocketed. I went from taking drugs to take the edge off to taking them so I could black out and escape all reality. This only lasted a short time before I overdosed. The secret was out, my scholarships were pulled, I was expelled from school and any concept of me having a future was taken away in that split moment.
My mother tried anything and everything to get me into recovery. I would go to appease her but I subconsciously knew I would go back to my addiction because there were secrets I was unwilling to deal with. It was my fault I was beaten when I was a child, it was my fault I was molested by my best friend’s uncle, it was my fault I was raped at a party. And while no one could change those things, the drugs made the pain go away.
This was when I met my first trafficker. He promised me he would give me all the drugs I wanted if I would drive a package to wherever he told me to. I was moving heroin and crack from New York to Connecticut to Maine. I thought I had it good. “I don’t need anything else,” I told myself. That was until my mom intervened again and begged me to get sober.
I told my trafficker that if he let me go to rehab then we would make more money. My own drug habit was over $1,200 a day so he jumped at the opportunity and allowed me to go. We didn’t know, however, that my opioid to blood levels were too high for any rehab facility in Maine to safely detox me, so they arranged to send me to Florida.
It seemed like the perfect escape. I went to Florida but after only two weeks in rehab, I thought I was ready to do it on my own. “You know how to be sober. You don’t need this program to teach you how. Just leave. You can make it on your own.” So I did. I found myself homeless in Florida–a place I had never been before–walking the streets. I was scared. I knew I could not defend myself. I knew I needed to find a way to protect myself since I wasn’t capable of doing that on my own. I remembered a website my old trafficker had told me about. He said most of his clients came from it. It was called Backpage.com.
I went on Backpage.com and found an ad of a girl I thought wasn’t on drugs and called. Before she had the chance to hang up on me I said in desperation, “Please don’t hang up. I just need help for the night to make enough money for a hotel, then I’ll leave you alone.” She began to listen and ask me questions like, “What do you look like? Send me your Facebook and Instagram profiles.” Me being naive, I sent her pictures. She sent me an Uber that took me to the hotel she was staying at.
Upon arrival I saw a shiny, new Cadillac CTS pull up and a beautiful woman with red bottoms and designer clothes step out. She was absolutely stunning! She stopped out of the car, looked at me and said, “Wow, you are so beautiful!” I thought to myself, “This woman who is clearly a model is telling me I am beautiful?” This gave me a sense of worth. She told me about the magnificent life of luxury she was living. She told me about the man who made it all possible, who loved his women and never hit them. She said that she had been through horrible relationships and trauma like I had but this man was different. She then asked me if I wanted to meet him. I said sure, so I spent the night at that hotel, and the next day got in the Cadillac and she drove me three hours north.
He was everything she explained to me. Handsome. Wealthy. Charismatic. Romantic. He told me he wanted to make my dreams come true, that what those people and men had done to me was wrong and horrible. He would never treat a woman like that. He told me he used to have an addiction to alcohol so he understood where I was coming from and he would help me to stay sober to be the best version of myself. I would show all the people that had hurt me that I was worth something, that I could make it in this world.
I spent two days with him where he showered me with clothes, gifts, shoes, money and love. I finally found a place where I was accepted for who I was. I was finally appreciated and cared for in a way I hadn’t been before. My perception at the time was that I was dropped off in heaven where my “angel” was going to take care of me forever.
After those two days, I was flown to South Carolina where I was sold for the first time to a stranger for $200. I remember how disgusting I felt. I wanted every second of it to be over, for the man to say he didn’t want me and to leave. But that was not the case. I knew what I had to do in order to make my trafficker happy. I knew what had been done couldn’t be taken back.
That commenced three years of being bought and sold by strangers all across the United States. I was brainwashed to believe that if I was loyal and did everything my trafficker asked of me, I would make a great life for myself, and he would help me because he loved me. The “clients” would beat me, rape me, pepper spray me, try to kidnap me but I always had in the back of my mind, “This is what I have to do for now. Eventually, the two of us will get out of this and have a life for ourselves.” It wasn’t until three years later after a night of going to the club to celebrate a birthday that everything changed.
We had just gotten home from the club and another one of the trafficker’s women went to get something out of her car. Three masked men held her at gunpoint and dragged her back into the house demanding she tell them where the trafficker was. Her brainwashing kicked in and loyalty was all she could speak. She said they were crazy, she doesn’t know who they’re talking about. My trafficker heard what was going on so he ran out the back door. As she tried to escape the gunmen, they shot her.
Two days later, another one of my trafficker’s young girls came to my room saying she was sick and needed to go to the hospital. She said my trafficker said it was ok, so I ordered an Uber to pick her up. Something in my gut told me I needed to give her my work phone. It was an overwhelming feeling of urgency to give it to her so I did. She then went to the hospital and told them that she had been trafficked. My cell phone was the first piece of evidence against my trafficker. It was the beginning of the end….
Six months later I was finally “rescued” though not in a conventional way. With five other women and my trafficker, I was arrested with three felony charges that could potentially keep me in prison for the rest of my life. While most people wouldn’t consider being arrested and sent to jail “freedom” or “rescue”, for me, it was because it was the first time in three years I was free from his voice, his lies, and his constant reiteration that this was the only way to a good life. I started to realize that his words and his actions didn’t align. The whole time I was with him I never knew I was being trafficked. I thought it was my choice and my actions that led me to this place in life. It wasn’t until the silence of that jail cell that everything started to unfold.
I cried out to God, “Please show me that you are real!” and little miracles began to happen. I started to see light in one of the darkest places. I started to have hope again and see that I had a future. I decided in that jail cell I would devote my life to God and abandon my loyalty to my trafficker. I had reached out to my lawyer and begged him to find me a place to go that would “teach me how to be a human” (that’s literally what I said), and that’s exactly what he did.
After serving some time in jail, I came to an organization called Valiant Hearts. I was shy and scared of humans. I didn’t want to open up because I was convinced they would find a way to hurt me. My perception of life at that point was so twisted from the things my trafficker had engraved in my brain, so it took me a while to see beauty in the world. I went through extensive therapy and trauma counseling. I began to hear other testimonies of women who had gone through similar experiences and realized I was not alone.
After about a year of intensive healing, Valiant Hearts got a call from Vanessa saying that she would be honored to have one of the survivors from their program work for Savhera. My case manager asked me if I wanted to take the next step of restoration and I remember the excitement and joy that came over me. Two years prior, I was told I will never amount to anything, that no professional employer would ever want to hire a dirty “prostitute.” But now was the opportunity!
When I started working for Savhera. the grace that was extended to me was unexplainable. I was so ill-equipped for the job, but they took the time and the patience to walk me step-by-step through everything. They taught me how to use a spreadsheet and how to use gmail and write proper emails. They taught me things about using computers that are second nature to most people my age, but that I had never done or seen.
Not only that, but they never condemned me for my lack of knowledge. I would say sorry and they would respond, “There’s no reason to say sorry!” They would let me know how I was a valuable member to the team and that my voice mattered in all endeavors of what was going on. They gave me creative freedom to be able to write notes to everyone who orders. They saw my strengths and taught me to excel in those circumstances. The passion I had they encouraged and came alongside me.
Even on the days when my outside world seemed to be crashing down or I was triggered, they would help me through that. I remember one day during our meditation I completely broke down and felt as though the world was caving in on me. I expressed to them how living a “normal” life was scary and extremely overwhelming. Vanessa affirmed my feelings, walked me through my triggers and helped me not only in that moment but through that whole season. To me this is not just a job. I have found people who truly care for me and love me unconditionally. They have empowered me and let me know my strengths. Every single day Noel is in the office he says, “Good work, Ava,” and I know he means it! They have let me know my intelligence and listened to me when I speak. I now have the courage to attend college in the fall! They have truly given of themselves and poured out into me a power that was taken from me.
I am now empowered. I know my identity, my strengths, and my worth. For the first time in my life, I have reclaimed the power of which I was robbed as a child and am committed to empowering others the same way I have been!