The first time Sr. Patricia Ebegbulem traveled to Italy from Nigeria, she had never heard the term “human trafficking.”
Today, Sr. Patricia, a member of the Sisters of St. Louis, is one of the foremost experts working against the practice in Africa. She and two other religious were honored for their work with the first Sisters Against Trafficking Awards, at a ceremony in London October 31.
It was 1996, and Sr. Patricia was president of the Nigeria Conference of Women Religious. She and several colleagues traveled to Italy at the invitation of Sr. Eugenia Bonetti, a Consolata Missionary Sister who was working among women who were being trafficked for sex work in Europe. Sr. Eugenia had been a missionary in Africa, and she noticed a disproportionate number of African women walking the streets of Turin, Italy.
“Fornicators will go to hell”
Sr. Patricia was shocked to see what she saw in Turin.
“One of them called out to me, ‘Sister, don’t come close to me, because I’m a fornicator, and all fornicators will go to hell,’” she recalled in an interview this week. “I said, ‘God forbid!’ And at that point all of us started crying. And the girl started crying.”
Sr. Patricia knew from that interaction that the young women they found on the streets didn’t like what they were doing.
“We went back to Nigeria, and I went and reported to the bishops of Nigeria and told them that we had to do something as Church,” Sr. Patricia said. “The Church had to do something. And then we also reported it to the state. Fortunately, at that time we had the wife of the vice president of Nigeria, Titi Atiku, who is still working very closely with us. She was also trying to tackle human trafficking and get the government to legislate against it.”
The nun established a shelter for victims of human trafficking and organized support services for returning survivors of sex trafficking.
“You try to get at them, to heal, to overcome their hurt, to reconcile them with those, especially with their families, that have trafficked them,” she said of rehabilitation efforts. “And then with time, if they have any [employable] skill, you try to perfect the skill. And if they have no skill, we try to get them to acquire skills. That is why one of the things we are looking for now is to secure a skill acquisition center.”
Along the way, she received help from the Italian bishops’ conference, which helped build a shelter in Benin City, where most of the trafficked women were coming from. And she stayed in touch with Sr. Eugenia Bonetti.
“Anytime I went to Italy, Sr. Eugenia would take us to Ponte Galeria, a detention camp where many of the Nigerian girls were being kept before they were deported,” she said. “We got there and tried to convince them that there is life, that there is hope, that they can make it in Nigeria, that they shouldn’t just be risking their lives. Many of them get killed in the desert or get drowned in the sea, and so many things happen. Even in Italy, so many of them get killed.”
Trafficked by their families
Sadly, she said, many women are trafficked by their own families, out of a desperate need for money. Often, traffickers take the women to a local juju man, or native doctor, in Nigeria, who mixes up a concoction for the woman to swallow.
“And then he will tell her that if she takes those things and if she exposes the trafficker, either she will go mad or she will die or something terrible will happen to people in her family,” Sr. Patricia said. “And that is how the greatest weapon they use against these victims of trafficking is fear. They put that fear in them, so that when they are trafficked, when they get an opportunity to escape they won’t avail of that opportunity.”
Things have changed somewhat since the 1990s, when young naïve women could be deceived by promises of going to school or working in Italy.
“With so much awareness that we have created [today], they now know why they are going,” Sr. Patricia said. “But they still choose to go, because of the level of poverty and the suffering in Nigeria. Many of them said they were prepared to go there and die. They’d rather die in the desert than stay in Nigeria and face the hardships.”
But those who are rescued and successfully go through rehabilitation and skills training have a better chance of staying home and starting a new life.
“We get them a shop and equip it for two years, because if they are not really integrated properly, if you don’t give them something to do, then the danger is that they will be retrafficked.”
It’s God’s intervention, Sr. Patricia testifies, that really helps. “It’s our prayer life. And we try to carry them along in the prayer, because they share; they participate with us in our prayer life, we pray together, we eat together, we do so much together.”
“But it is God,” she concludes.