Notes from Romania, part 1

I'm grinning ear to ear as I sit down to write to you. How are you? The last few weeks have been a whirlwind for me and I imagine they were for you too. I have so much to tell you, so much to unpack about our trip to Romania
My goal over the next month is to transfer as much of my learnings to you as I can through a screen. If you were sitting with me you'd see the tears well up in eyes as I start to consider how to begin. 
I'll start with some context. In the last several months I've recommended this podcast on IG many times. It's the story of one young woman IJM rescued from OSEC (online sexual exploitation of children). In it, a member of the IJM team says, “We live on the verge of tears," which I can now say I have experienced a taste of. 
I'm going to share this information similarly to how IJM shared with us. It started with a lot of about how IJM works to stop human trafficking and why Romania is important to the rest of Europe. It might look long, but I encourage you to stay with me, learn & absorb as much as you can. This is important. 
We started our first day in Romania with warm, friendly greetings from the IJM staff. I was blown away by how happy they seemed that we were in their office - a group of people who have loved and supported IJM (some for over 20 years); the ones who have gone “all in” so to speak.
We sat down at a large conference table and began the same way they do everyday - with stillness, devotion and prayer. We heard prayer requests like “We welcomed a new woman over the weekend. She has health issues to overcome, as well as major trauma due to being trafficked. Pray for her.” Others brought up the high level work of developing anti-trafficking strategy and trainings for police, prosecutors and judges. Then there were the current court hearings that had the potential to make anti-trafficking history in Romania…. and this was just in the first half hour. The verge of tears was already starting to make more sense.
I sat with a notebook and pen ready to document everything as if I was back in the classroom and my grades depended on it. It's different now though - this isn't about a grade, it's about the lives of 2.2+ million people enslaved throughout Europe. The statistics began to overwhelm my mind & my hand as I scribbled away.

First order of business was to understand trauma and how trauma can lead to becoming vulnerable, but also why Romania? Here are some reasons why Romania is the starting point for IJM in Europe:

  1. 50% of trafficking victims in the EU are from Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria & Poland
  2. 56% of trafficking in the EU is for sexual exploitation
  3. Key vulnerabilities include unsafe economic migration due to poverty (ex: I need a good job so I'll go to the UK), low level education, and a history of family violence
Let's touch on these key vulnerabilities because that is exactly what traffickers prey on. Understanding how past trauma makes a person vulnerable can help identify potential victims, as well as help provide care for survivors. Traumatic childhood experiences can cause disturbances in brain development, social, emotional & cognitive impairments, poor decision making and engaging in high risk behavior.
The consequences of trauma can range from feelings of inferiority to being suicidal or even having hallucinations & delusions. Some of the biggest effects of trauma that cause a person to be vulnerable include fear of loneliness (even if the person they are with is dangerous), lack of trust, and trauma bonding (dependence on the aggressor or attachment disorder).
How does this trauma lead to a girl being trafficked in 2023? A young girl makes a risky decision to go to the UK and to try to find a good job. Meanwhile, she's living on the streets doing whatever is necessary to survive. A trafficker preys on this girl, making all kinds of empty promises and even giving her gifts. She knows it's risky, but goes anyway. 
Trafficking always starts with a dream of a better life. Many victims don't self identify as victims because they've done something wrong along the way too and think everything is their fault.

What else is going on in Romania that makes it the perfect storm for human trafficking? 

  • Half a MILLION kids have lost a parent to migration (some temporary). This causes so much trauma.
  • When parents migrate for work, children are left behind with extended family but don't receive love, care & attention from parents.
  • Romania has a very patriarchal culture.
  • Covid amplified all of the above issues.
  • Criminals are now using the internet to groom victims, which is much harder to identify. Exploitation can happen in private facilities vs out in the open.
  • Ukraine crisis has made more people vulnerable.
Whew! That's so much information, but it lays the foundation for what comes next - IJM's European Anti-Trafficking Program (EATP). I'll go into that in my next newsletter.
I don't want to leave you here, though, with just a heavy heart. So I'll share one of the most impactful things that was said to me on the trip. I got to have lunch with Shawn Kohl, IJM Romania Director. The first question I asked was “What is one thing you wish everyone knew about IJM. If we could only know one thing?” This was his response:

“It's actually possible to stop slavery. 96% of our cases are successful. It is complex but it's possible to stop it. There is hope. Don't be pessimistic about it. There is a model that works.”

And so we live on the verge of tears, trusting that this passion in our hearts is God-given and praying that as we each do our part slavery will end in our lifetime.