People

From Trauma to Triumph

How three human trafficking survivors are healing through their advocacy
Author: Vivien Fellegi
Photographer: Syx Langemann
2 months ago
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Traffickers make between $240,000 and $260,000 a year per victim per year 

95% of total human trafficking victims (sex and labour) are female 

The average victim of human trafficking is 13-and-a-half years old 

27% of all human trafficking victims had experienced some degree of physical injury

Victoria Morrison was on autopilot the day she escaped. As her john pulled up to the curb with cigarettes for her trafficker, her body was seized with the urge to run. She sprinted to his car, jumped in, and begged the driver to take her to the police station.

“He’s gonna kill me!” she shouted.

“What? Is there someone in there?” her client asked.

The john was confused. He had never met Morrison’s captor, and had always assumed she was servicing him voluntarily.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Far from being a free agent selling herself for quick cash, Morrison had been kidnapped by a human trafficker, forced into prostitution, and kept in line with violence. She was, essentially, a slave.

Morrison’s john isn’t the only one who’s clued out. Many Canadians would be hard-pressed to explain the difference between voluntary sex work and human trafficking.

While some women choose to ply the trade, most are prisoners toiling to line their captors’ pockets, says Joy Smith, president of the Joy Smith Foundation (www.joysmithfoundation.com), which advocates on behalf of trafficking victims. And the sex trade isn’t the only target of these predators—human traffickers also leech off foreign-born labourers. Coercion is the common denominator in both rackets.

Both sex and labour trafficking are flourishing in our backyards. According to Statistics Canada, there were 340 incidents of human trafficking in the country in 2016, and these numbers have been steadily rising over the last decade. Two-thirds of victims were recruited domestically. (Due to underreporting, however, these numbers underestimate the prevalence of the practice.)

Although public awareness of modern-day slavery is increasing, there’s still a long way to go. “Human trafficking is such a shocking, alien concept,” says Jacqui Linder, a registered psychologist and Executive Director of the Chrysalis Anti-Human Trafficking Network in Edmonton. Overwhelmed by the gravity of the issue, people often turn away.

Meanwhile, experts are honing in on traffickers’ tactics. Sex traffickers target predominantly young girls (ages 12-14) who may have low self-esteem and are easy to manipulate, says Smith. “When a young cute guy promises them the world, it turns their heads.” Once they’ve isolated victims from loved ones and caught them in the clamp of dependence, the predators slough off the Romeo act and pimp out the girls for their own profit.

Labour traffickers perpetrate a different kind of hoax. They target poverty-ridden men from foreign countries, luring them here with offers of lucrative work. Once they arrive in Canada, alone and unable to speak English, the traffickers bully their victims into working for free, or at best a fraction of the agreed-upon salary.

This entrapment in abuse can lead to trauma, a condition that emerges when our coping strategies are exhausted by an overwhelming threat. Since victims’ brains can’t fully integrate the experience, it can come back to haunt them long after they’re physically safe.

 Victims may react differently to the same forces. Many respond to their betrayal by losing faith in others and withdrawing from society. The traffickers’ systematic degradation can wear down victims’ self-esteem and erode their ability to act. As their options dwindle, many succumb to depression. Others escape mentally by switching off their feelings and becoming numb. As the stress chips away at their being, victims’ identities can come unglued until they lose sight of who they are.

While recovery patterns vary, many can rebuild the pieces of their “shattered self,” says Linder. Self-compassion—taking stock of your needs and nurturing them—is the first step towards wholeness. A therapist can help survivors access buried emotions and then process them. Building a supportive network is crucial to help survivors regain trust in humanity.

Speaking out about their experiences puts survivors in charge of their narrative, while listeners’ empathic reactions can help them feel human again, says Linder. Eventually, survivors need to find a new sense of purpose to steer their emerging identity, says Linder. Advocating against human trafficking is one way to transform their suffering into something meaningful. “That can help to heal the wounds,” says Linder.

Meet three human trafficking victims-turned-crusaders whose advocacy is helping them heal.

Canada has a Canadian  Anti-Human Trafficking
Awareness Day, every February 22.

On Tuesday, July 30, 2019, Project OnRoute was launched as Project Maple Leaf by Courage For Freedom at the Trenton South OnRoute on Highway 401 in Quinte West, an initiative to create more awareness about human trafficking and its effects.

Heather Ellis is the Project Maple Leaf’s co-lead and said the campaign is to create awareness about human trafficking, and will be rolled out nationally and on social media.

To report incidents of human trafficking, sexual exploitation or forced prostitution, call the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking hotline at 1.833.900.1010 

TIMEA NAGY

Timea Nagy
Timea Nagy

“Be careful, there’s a loser outside, he’s screaming and yelling,” a Toronto waiter tells human trafficking advocate Timea Nagy as she enters a pub on a sweltering summer day. Instead of heeding the warning, she goes outside and finds the homeless man picking up cigarettes. He stops, embarrassed.

She looks him in the eyes. “Are you OK?”

“Why the fuck would you care?”

“I’m sorry, but I do—you look sad. Can I get you anything?”

“No, but thanks for asking.”

Nagy feels the man’s plight viscerally. “I was invisible too; I was a ghost.” Her recently published memoir, Out of the Shadows, relates her harrowing ordeal as a victim of sexual trafficking.

Nagy’s journey began in 1998 when the then-20-year-old Hungarian was close to financial ruin. Her mother was the only one who might have rescued her, but Nagy couldn’t bear disappointing her habitually disparaging parent. So when Nagy read a newspaper ad for a well-paying babysitter position in Canada, she rushed to the recruiter and signed the contract.

It was a snare. After arriving in Toronto, Nagy discovered that the agreement, written in English (a language she didn’t speak) specified “exotic dancer” rather than nanny. Moreover, her “agents” insisted she fulfill her obligation in order to work off fabricated expenditures. Anxious and alone, the perpetual people pleaser didn’t question them.

A nightmare followed. Nagy was held at a cheap motel, fed only one meal a day, and forced to dance in stiletto heels and little else for up to 19-hour shifts. She was also tasked with “entertaining” VIP visitors at all hours of the day or night. Leaving was not an option, as her traffickers threatened to harm her family should she try to escape.

Her captors’ mind games also kept her in bondage. Nagy, accustomed to her mother’s criticism, absorbed labels like “you’re a nobody,” or “you’re a loser,” and allowed the traffickers to sell her body. But with each violation, her shame mounted and weakened her will.

Nagy’s only refuge was her mind. She shut away her “good girl” self and turned into a brash alter ego she called “Allison,” someone who could tough her way through anything.

Nagy did eventually flee. But it took years before she forgave herself for the “poor choices” that had almost destroyed her. An article about human trafficking finally broke through her self-recrimination and let her shift the blame onto her abusers. “I became a survivor when I was first able to comprehend what happened to me.”

Her new self-compassion kindled a drive to assist others. Nagy began sharing her story to boost public awareness of human trafficking. The talks revived her buried feelings and restored her stifled voice. Caring listeners also eased her alienation. “I realized that it’s not that society didn’t want me; it’s that they didn’t know what was going on.”

Nagy’s growing advocacy generated a mission for her maturing new self. She started teaching police how to spot and speak to frightened trafficking victims and branched out to educate schools, the tourist industry, banks, and other institutions intersecting with predators and their targets. Nagy’s efforts have even changed some of Canada’s human trafficking laws. These successes have reinforced her dedication to victims. “That’s my purpose—to change the world for the next generation.”

Nagy’s crusade has already redeemed her own life. In 2010, the RCMP asked for her assistance with recently released Hungarian labour trafficking victims. As she translated for the starved, scared men, she saw herself in their eyes and knew intuitively what they were going through. And, for the first time, she recognized that her suffering had meaning—it had equipped her to care for others. Nagy drew on this compassion to reconcile with her own flawed but fragile mother.

Today Nagy continues to leverage her empathy in the service of human trafficking victims. “I want to see them like nobody saw me.” Nagy employs them in her social enterprise, Timea’s Cause (www.timeascause.com), which supplies educational consultants and produces a line of handmade beauty and bath products. The work teaches the girls life skills and bolsters their confidence. Nagy gets a high every time one of them succeeds. “I love seeing them achieving their goals—it’s just absolutely amazing.”

TAMAS MIKO

“There were two options: either you get badly beaten or you do this”

Tamas Miko was terrified as he approached the stately courthouse in Hamilton on a cold day in 2012. As the wind buffeted his skinny frame, he started to shake. He turned to his friend. “Let’s get out of here,” he said. “No, you can do this,” she replied.

It turns out Miko had good reason for fear. The brutes who had used 19 Hungarians as slave labour in their construction business had hired a hitman to knock off the crown attorney, two RCMP officers, and Miko—the star witness against them. Luckily the assassin was caught before leaving Hungary.

Miko doesn’t know what gave him the courage to defy the largest known human trafficking ring in Canadian history. But when the judge convicted all 22 of the accused, he was glad he stuck around. “I knew these people won’t hurt anybody else,” he says. “I felt really good.”

Miko’s ordeal began with a promise. Unemployed for months, he was desperate for work and welcomed the acquaintance who showed up on his doorstep offering a construction job paying thousands of dollars a month at her brother-in-law’s Hamilton company. Miko had worked odd jobs for the “nice” woman from his small town in Hungary, and didn’t question her sincerity. “OK, I’m coming,” he told her.

The dream rapidly turned to dust. The unsuspecting Miko found himself enslaved by a ruthless family-run crime ring. His trafficker took away his passport and ordered him to pay off his airfare as well as the fee for his recruiter. But though he toiled from dawn to dusk, the debt didn’t budge and he never earned a penny.

Miko and his fellows were crammed into a dark, unfinished basement, fed only one meal a day, and were even instructed to clean their captor’s “big-ass house” while the owners partied and drank. “They saw me like a piece of bread—a thing, not a person.”

The mobster didn’t brook dissent. “There were two options: either you get badly beaten up or you do this.”

But beneath his compliant surface, Miko was quietly hunting for an escape hatch. I’ll do what I have to and find a way to get the hell out of here, he thought.

He got his chance. Christmas 2009 was the last straw for Miko, who spent the holiday working until 3 a.m. without a break. “We were freezing to death; they were sitting inside the house having fun.” A few days later, Miko exposed his situation to a contractor, who called the RCMP. Shortly afterwards, a constable took him to a shelter.

But though he regained his freedom, Miko was no longer the easygoing extrovert he’d once been. Not only has he become suspicious of others, but he also berates himself for his guardedness.

 A few special people have broken through his barriers. Timea Nagy, summoned by the RCMP to help the men, was one of them. Nagy translated for the group, bought them clothes, and made them feel human again. “Because she had a similar experience, she 100% understood what’s going on.” She even introduced him to WeFight, an initiative by Legal Assistance of Windsor that aids victims of human trafficking.

WeFight social worker Shelley Gilbert became another trusted ally. Gilbert helped Miko with material needs, and later, after he mastered English, she offered him counselling and guidance.

Miko has also benefitted from painting and music, which have become outlets for self-expression.

His own advocacy is another route to recovery. Encouraged by Gilbert, Miko has given several talks on labour trafficking, which have earned him praise. More importantly, the crusader is comforted knowing he’s making a difference. “I’m sure I saved some people by sharing my story,” he says. “I feel good about it.”

Today Miko’s life is far from ideal. He still struggles with anxiety and mistrust. But he’s tilted towards the future, working midnight shifts at a Kitchener bakery and saving up for college. In the long run he hopes to become a professional videographer. The creative process yanks him out of his painful past and positions him facing forward. “It keeps my mind not thinking about other stuff,” he says. “I love doing it.”

VICTORIA MORRISON

Victoria Morrisson
Victoria Morrisson

Victoria Morrison’s soft voice rings with conviction as she addresses police and other human trafficking advocates at the Winnipeg police headquarters this past fall. Drawing on her own therapeutic encounter with the Winnipeg police force, she highlights the need for compassion when dealing with traumatized trafficking victims. When she looks up, she notices a few burly men furtively wiping away tears. One of them tells her afterwards, “You’ll teach a lot of officers a lot of good information that they will carry through their careers.”

An unfamiliar emotion washes over Morrison: pride. “These are the same people who helped save my life; now I get to give back,” she says. “It’s a full circle moment.”

No one could have predicted this trajectory. Morrison grew up close to her middle-class family, worked hard at school, and enrolled at the University of Windsor. But a whirlwind of parties swept her from her studies and got her hooked on drugs. Her burgeoning addiction cost Morrison her job at a strip club, and she became homeless and hopeless. “I thought I was going to be doing drugs until I died.”

That’s when Morrison met the man who swooped in like a saviour. Her future trafficker offered her rent-free lodging and romance. “He was nice to me—he would laugh and joke.”

But it wasn’t long before the criminal with the hair-trigger temper began to assault her. When she tried to break up with him in May 2018, he whisked her off to Winnipeg, miles from anyone who cared.

A hellish existence ensued. Her trafficker advertised her sexual services, listening behind the bedroom door as she gratified one man after another. He kept her in line with ever-evolving tools of torture: hot-iron burns, electrocution, and even confinement in a freezer.

The relentless punishment chipped away at her volition and plunged her into apathy. Even in public places, when she might have escaped, she didn’t try.

As her defences dwindled, Morrison absorbed her pimp’s dehumanization. “Being trafficked, that was my purpose… I had no self-worth.”

Eventually, the stress crumbled her very identity until she couldn’t think for herself anymore. “I had no opinions—I was always just there.”

But something in her still kept fighting. One day in August 2018, after her trafficker had beaten her black and blue, he told her she was useless for work and then threatened to do away with her damaged body. Morrison knew he was serious. She thought to herself, The second he turns his back I need to get out. That was the day she fled.

And started healing. Shocked by the extent of her injuries, the police sent her to hospital, where they brought her snacks and guarded her door. These first acts of kindness were reparative. “I saw how the police responded to me, and I thought I am worth it, I am worth being saved.”

 Morrison has been piecing together her shattered self ever since. Back in Windsor, WeFight’s Gillian Golden referred her to a rehab program. Afterwards, the worker found Morrison a therapist who furnished her with tools to manage her moods.

Morrison has also wrested back her stolen power. Impressed with her rapid progress, Golden encouraged her to try public speaking. At one of her first talks, Morrison teamed up with Miko at a Windsor panel marking Human Trafficking Awareness Day. Telling her tale has sped her progress from victim to survivor. “Everyone tells me how brave I am and that reiterates how I feel about myself.” Morrison included these victories in her victim impact statement presented at her trafficker’s trial. “I wanted him to know that in this situation I’m empowered and he is not.”

Assisting other survivors gives Morrison a purpose and an anchor for her emerging new identity. “I’m doing so much good with the bad that happened to me.” Morrison volunteers at WeFight’s support group for survivors, where her firsthand understanding fosters their participation and her “comeback” tale gives them hope.

Morrison’s story is already changing lives. Several human trafficking victims have reached out to WeFight and asked for help after hearing one of Morrison’s interviews in the press. “It feels amazing that I can potentially save people’s lives,” says Morrison. “That’s all I want to do.”

#knowhumantrafficking

If you or someone you know is a victim of Human Trafficking, call the Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-833-900-1010