By Sister Judith Schmelz
The story begins in late 2012 when the Sisters of Mercy chose human trafficking as a major social issue to be addressed, and the Sisters of Mercy in Guyana began looking for ways that they could contribute to this effort.
Trafficking In Persons (TIP) is not readily observed; there was nothing in the daily newspapers; and at that time the administration of Guyana consistently denied to the public that there was a trafficking problem.
While we were trying to learn more about the issue, a large article appeared in the newspaper featuring Simona Broomes, founder and president of the Guyana Women Miners Organization (GWMO), and that organization’s focus on trafficking, especially in the Interior. The Interior—a heavily forested area—serves as the home to many gold mines and scattered villages of Amerindians, the indigenous people of Guyana. Maybe by chance, maybe through God’s intervention, we met Simona at the airport in Guyana—and the story took off from there!
Where to Begin?
We sisters in Guyana knew that our first step was to become informed and raise our own consciousness about the problem. To that end, we scheduled a Conference on Human Trafficking in Georgetown, Guyana, in 2013 with Simona Broomes as the guest speaker. In her talk, Simona spoke of the difficulty of finding living accommodations for young girls they rescued. After the meeting, the bishop offered to make a house available for this purpose. It had been empty for a number of years, had been badly vandalized and was in very poor condition. The Sisters of Mercy agreed to raise the funds for renovation with the understanding that the GWMO would be responsible for directing the program. Simona organized a mammoth cleanup scheduled from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. with between 80 and 100 volunteers.
Converting a House into a Home
After the cleanup, the next step was to renovate the house to serve our needs. We employed an architect, a young woman just beginning her business in what had been an all-male profession. Like most things in Guyana, work proceeded slowly from December 2014 to May 2015, and from then until December 2015 we raised funds and secured and installed the necessary equipment and furniture. The building is beautiful and can accommodate 12 women. It provides space for private and group counseling, educational and recreational activities, skills training and basic computer instruction. The residence was opened about a year ago in January 2016; it is the only facility of its kind in all of Guyana, focusing exclusively on the needs of young trafficking victims. At the safe house, the acronym TIP no longer means “Trafficking In Persons,” but instead, “Together In Peace.”
In January 2016, we accepted two young women, a 16-year-old and an 18-year-old with a two-month-old son. Over the next six months, the numbers gradually increased to 11 women and two infants. The young women came mainly, but not exclusively, from the Interior. A few had never been to school and were illiterate.
Tales Worth Telling
The following anecdotes will give you a glimpse of life in the Together In Peace home. We refer to the residents as young women, but they are so very young, all between 12 and 19, all trying to put their lives back together.
There was the 12-year-old who arrived nine months pregnant. She was only with us a day or two when she went into labor and gave birth to a baby girl.
In the summer of 2016, residents attended a special program designed for them by the Carnegie Institute where they learned cooking, baking and decorating of cakes, garment construction and fabric decoration.
On International Anti-Trafficking Day, July 30, the First Lady of Guyana, Sandra Granger, invited all of the young women to a special luncheon at the State House, the official residence of the President of Guyana. That was a really big day!
In September, nine of the young women began the year-long program at Mercy Wings Vocational and Day Care Center. Four young women who have never been to school are painstakingly learning to write the letters of the alphabet and form small words.
The residents shared these updates about their time at the safe house. Their names are withheld for their privacy and security.
- “I like it here because I am cared for and get things to eat. I also like it because I feel safe here. I hope I can be home soon with my family. It has changed my outlook on life because now I have more skills. I went to Carnegie School and my favorite skills I have learned are how to bake and cook. I also got to attend Mercy Wings where I am studying child care.”
- “I like the home because it is keeping me safe from danger, providing [me] food every day. I can finish high school. … I am very thankful for the opportunity they are giving me.”
- “I feel secure here. It’s like a second chance in life for me. I started back to classes so I could get a good job and earn money. If not for my son Jason, I would be someplace else, maybe end up back in the backdam [a gathering place outside of local villages where bad things tend to happen]. All the staff is very helpful, especially when I have to be out, they look after Jason for me. It is good for me to be here at this time.
We know our safe house is only the first step in eliminating human trafficking in Guyana. In the future, our Board of Trustees hopes to address some of the following activities:
- Sponsor another conference focusing primarily on sensitivity training;
- Educate the general public, parents and children about the dangers of trafficking through our various ministries, schools, churches, especially in the Interior;
- Become a model Safe House and assist other areas that would like to start a similar program;
- Explore ways we might be able to support the government in addressing the problem at its source—putting the traffickers out of business;
- Train some of the victims to speak out for themselves and for others about the issue.
This has been an exciting and challenging undertaking, but we have only just begun!