I first met Katrina on one of our monthly outreaches. In a drunken stupor, she railed at me, “Why won’t God just let me die?” She’s tried to overdose, walked in front of cars; all to no avail. She’s still very much alive, although her real name is not Katrina.
With courage no doubt brought on by the alcohol, she recounted a story that shattered any naiveté I may have had about the human trafficking epidemic that plagues the GTA.
While driving with her boyfriend (I learned that part of the victim mind set is to refer to your pimp as your boyfriend) she dared to challenge him on the new girl he’d been seeing. Angered by her audacity, he threw her out of the car in the middle of the city, leaving her with nothing. No money, no ID, and no water, on one of the hottest days of the summer. Afraid and tired, she stumbled wearily into a park rife with the city’s lost and broken.
“You know who actually helped me?” she asked. “A homeless crack head. He gave me water, food, and bus fare to go back to my boyfriend. Only someone who knows what it is to be looked down upon would help someone like me.” Bitterness etched on her face, she weaved side to side in her stilettos.
“You do know that I’m being trafficked?” she asked matter-of-factly.
This information is seldom if ever offered. It is an unspoken truth among many of these working girls.
Feeling inadequate at this point, I dared to ask, “Have you ever tried to get away from him? Have you gone to the police?”
“I have a nine-year-old brother. He’s already told me that he’ll hurt him if I ever try to leave,” she said, trying to hold back her tears. “Besides, he has my passport, my driver’s licence, everything.”
And then the moment is over. The club’s manager barged into the change room and bellowed, “Katrina, you’re up,” signalling her turn on the dance floor.
So how do you tell someone whose experience seems hopeless, that there is hope? That their life does, in fact, have purpose when their identity and every tangible piece of evidence that says that they even exist, has been stripped from them?
By showing up. Remembering her name – not her club name, but the one her parents gave her at birth. Being persistent in your pursuit of connection. Texting until one finally gets answered and leads to a dinner together at the Keg. A dinner that requires training on how to safely meet up with a trafficked woman in the sex trade.
This is eye-opening in and of itself. You’re given a cultural lesson on the difference between a common street pimp, and the more dangerous variety, one involved in organized crime. Should the pimp be present when Katrina arrives at the restaurant, you’re not to be afraid to make eye contact. He will be more afraid of you than you are of him, you're assured. After all, for him to show his face to a square person, he is exposing himself. Aside from attempting some intimidation tactics such as a menacing stare-down, there shouldn’t be any issues.
With some semblance of confidence, you proceed. You discover over steak and merlot that she’s just a girl – a girl with a family, a girl with a painful past. You laugh as she refers to you as the church lady, even more so when she learns that you, too, have a story. Maybe not as racy as hers, but certainly one that didn’t begin in a church. Then she stops calling you the church lady. We become Katrina and Monica.
Where choices seem to be far and few between, there is a light slowly being shone into this darkness. Ontario’s Ministry of Community and Social Services has developed a strategy to combat human trafficking. In June, with an estimated 72 million dollars in the kitty, the Provincial Anti-Human Trafficking Coordination Office will announce funding for groups that submitted proposals to collaborate their efforts to build services for those who are seeking to exit the sex industry.
The priorities are transitional and longer term housing, employment and job training, as well as addiction treatment. In addition, this initiative is also seeking to better prepare and train police services and the Crown Attorney’s office to be more sensitive and thus more effective when these cases make it to the courtroom, which, thankfully, has been on the increase.
I am not as strong as Katrina, but then again, I don’t have to be. I am blessed to know her, to walk alongside her, and to learn what it truly is to be strong, when it’s the only choice you have.
Monica Catto is an aspiring writer and Social Justice activist working in the Human Trafficking field with the White Rose Movement of Toronto. She lives in Mississauga, Ontario.
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