Compassion and empowerment are at the heart of relationships with survivors of human trafficking. They are essential elements for building trust and restoring one’s sense of self and dignity.
From my years of working with survivors, it is my privilege to share with you the incredible story of Ansa who lived in a LifeWay Network safe house, the organization I founded in 2007. Ansa allowed herself the time to heal and grow through the pain, and then took the learnings of compassion and empowerment to the next level by creating her own nonprofit organization to help other survivors of trafficking.
Empowerment Square is an apt name for Ansa’s work. Its mission is to help survivors of human trafficking rebuild their lives from the ground up through holistic life skills training, job training, job placement, and financial education. In the midst of a global pandemic, Ansa built critical infrastructure for the organization, recruited personal mentors for participants, and established a complete, virtual program platform. In her own words, Ansa shares her story, her successes, and her gratitude with us.
-Joan S. Dawber, SC
My name is Ansa Noreen and I come from Pakistan. I belong to a culture and society where women are supposed to live under the protection of a male or multiple males. They could be their fathers, brothers, husbands, or even their extended male family members. In return, women have to pay these men for “protection”, especially their husbands. More openly, I would say women have to pay for being abused by their husbands in the name of protection from other men in that society. So women have to choose between being abused by the men in their own family or by others. Trust me, it’s a very tough choice to make and it’s an ongoing pattern for hundreds of years. I see the intensity increasing at an unprecedented rate. How do I know it’s only getting worse? I work with other survivors not only from my culture but from all over the world through my own nonprofit organization called Empowerment Square.
I am a survivor of human trafficking. My so-called protector, my husband, was my perpetrator. Like most traffickers, he was preying on the vulnerabilities of young women. He did this in Pakistan in the name of marriage.
As a single mother in Pakistani society, even though I was a successful, financially independent mother of one, I was vulnerable. I was constantly reminded that unless I had a protector (husband), I was a bad woman. As a woman, I had no value or respect in society no matter how much I was contributing to society by raising a good child, by creating job opportunities for others through the business that I had, by supporting my siblings, by being there for my friends in times of need, and by being a strong role model for other girls and women. None of that mattered to fit the criteria of a “good eastern woman.”
As was expected of me, we started looking for an educated, good person for me to marry. As a divorced mother of one, it was believed that I would do my best to stay in this marriage no matter what happens to me whether I’m beaten day and night, kept a slave, or become whatever number wife of my trafficker husband. But I knew there was always hope out there and that I was not going to live as a slave, an abused woman for the rest of my life.
I figured out a way to defeat the circumstances and found myself in a safe house in New York City that was run by Catholic Sisters. I was a total stranger in this wondrous city, not having any friends or family here. Not speaking the language. Not trusting people. At that critical time, I found hope in the sisters’ community. They have become my new family in the US. I have lived with them and I cherish those times and fondly remember our conversations on the topics that I was passionate about.
During a conversation with Sr. Joan, I discovered a passion for creating new services to help women survivors living in the safehouse. Sr Joan invited me to join an advisory committee to design an economic empowerment program and since then that journey has not stopped. I am on multiple boards and started my own nonprofit organization to offer holistic education for women survivors of human trafficking to realize their full potential. It gives me much pleasure and a sense of accomplishment when I see my fellow survivors benefitting from our programs and becoming confident, independent women. Among 26 of our recent graduates, survivors were able to eliminate interpreters from their day-to-day lives, start new and better jobs, and start their businesses, all because they are now able to communicate clearly in situations where previously they would be intimidated simply by a lack of words. Now they can go back to school, prepare for citizenship exams, and much more.
I am entirely grateful for the experience that I had while living with the sisters because it taught me so much and broadened my viewpoint towards service to humanity without discrimination. When I initially moved into the community, I was highly skeptical of Christian sisters. I was not sure if they would try to secretly manipulate my religious beliefs and try to convert me to Christianity. As a Muslim woman coming from a country where we don’t have much interaction with our Christian brothers and sisters, I was not sure what to expect. But I must say, living with sisters has only made me a better Muslim and a better human being. I am so eternally grateful for this experience and as a thank you note to Catholic Sisters, I am writing this article so the world can see and know more about the most wonderful work that they are doing for humanity.