By Celine Klosterman
DAVENPORT – All Shana wanted was to be loved.
A sex trafficking survivor, she shared at St. Ambrose University how she began healing after a life of trauma thanks to living in a Magdalene House for women who’ve endured prostitution, slavery and addiction. Her story Jan. 9 was part of the conference “Am I Trafficked?,” a two-day event that included sessions at Genesis Heart Institute in Davenport geared toward health care professionals. Anti-human trafficking activists including clergy, a state legislator, nurses and professors spoke during the presentation at St. Ambrose.
Shana said she was born addicted to drugs and was molested at a young age. She later ended up on the streets, selling herself, when a man who turned out to be a pimp offered her a place to stay. “I was stuck with him for 10 years.” Trafficked throughout the United States, including outside a Super Bowl game, she was arrested 167 times. Finally, “God did for me what I couldn’t do for myself.” Her pimp was arrested. “I was 39 years old before I got out.”
In 2011, she entered Magdalene House in Tennessee. While living there, she earned her GED, after having left school in seventh grade. She now works for Thistle Farms, which sells body care products made by the women Magdalene serves. The enterprise offers women opportunities to learn skills in manufacturing, packaging, marketing and sales, and administration.
Magdalene was founded in 1997 by the Rev. Becca Stevens, an Episcopal priest in Tennessee and sexual abuse survivor who wanted to offer “witness that love is the most powerful force,” she said at St. Ambrose. There are now several Magdalene houses, mostly in the southeastern United States, offering housing, food, medical and dental needs, therapy, education and job training.
Human trafficking happens in Iowa, said Cathy Curtis, an emergency room nurse. She was initially skeptical, but after hearing about the topic from her pastor, Father Brian McVey of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Davenport, she decided to investigate. She later wrote a master’s thesis on the issue.
Interstates near the Quad Cities offer ready ways to get victims in and out, she said. Midwestern “naiveté” keeps people from questioning suspicious situations.
Sometimes, family members sell each other. Other times, traffickers lure residents of a poor country into the United States by promising a job, then take their passports and force the immigrants into prostitution or long hours of labor for little to no pay.
Health care professionals have many opportunities to identify trafficking victims, Curtis said. “When people come into the ER, we ask them, ‘Are you living in a safe environment?’” Victims might show injuries resulting from repetitive work, “but they’ll tell you they have a job that doesn’t require that type of work.”
Medical workers can suggest resources to help potential victims escape. But “we can’t rescue them until they’re ready to be helped,” Curtis said.
State Sen. Joe Seng of Davenport said the Iowa Legislature may try to update the state’s human trafficking law in the coming legislative session. He encouraged conference attendees to work to educate their state legislators about the issue.
“As a Catholic school, we are very concerned with the rights of workers,” said Katy Strzepek, director of women’s studies at St. Ambrose.
Pope Francis has urged government leaders to face “the challenges emerging from modern forms of persecution, oppression and slavery.” In December, President Barack Obama proclaimed January 2014 National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, and claimed his administration is charging a record number of perpetrators involved in trafficking. “We are deploying new technology in the fight against human trafficking, developing the federal government’s first-ever strategic action plan to strengthen victim services, and strengthening protections against human trafficking in federal contracts,” he said.
Support for the conference came from Attacking Trafficking, an ecumenical group in the Quad Cities; the Episcopal Diocese of Iowa; Diocese of Davenport; Braking Traffik; Congregation of the Humility of Mary and the Center for Active Nonviolence and Peacemaking.
By Celine Klosterman