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'When the house is on fire' - Sr Theresa Ani

Updated: Aug 17

Our Nigeria Liaison, Sr. Theresa Ani, discusses the social isolation that trafficking survivors can experience after returning home:


In Purple Hibiscus, Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie penned a memorable adage, through the voice of Aunty Ifeoma - ‘when a house is on fire, one runs before the roof collapses on the head’. When we consider this saying, we can glimpse the reality for survivors of human trafficking running back to their host country. They want to save themselves from the roof that wants to collapse on their head.


When trying to understand the experience of trafficking survivors, there is no substitute for talking to those who have actually experienced it firsthand. Doing this allows us to learn about how a home turns to be a place of humiliation, abuse, and torture. This phenomenon is another issue that needs explanation, and a reality that cries for a solution.


For this piece, I interviewed a survivor, Stacy, who is using a pseudonym. She gave me an idea of what could make a person go back to a deplorable and undignified situation after being rescued.


Stacy said:

’’I lived for some years in a situation where we were deprived of

even seeing the sun. In that underground, we lived and

engaged in prostitution to pay off our debts. After years of

struggle, physical and emotional torture, we were finally released

and, by luck, [we] were repatriated to Nigeria. I was able to settle, pretending

that all is well even though I was, and remain, a walking ghost.

Anyway, my story is better when I think of some, who after that

experience sought the traffickers again and found their way back

to the transit country, because here the realities of people like

us are not encouraging at all. I am here because before I went I had

learned hairdressing. Now I am back to it".

Survivors face a different story at home if they return with no money. The torture begins with parents reminding them about their age-mates, who went out just like them, but can put up a nice house for their parents.


As they go down familiar streets, where they once knew warmth and friendship, people taunt them. They are said to be failures, or prostitutes without achievements. They are mocked and gossiped about by people. Worse still if the person comes home with a child. These realities heighten the tendency to think of moving away again, even if it means death.


The home is set on fire, metaphorically, as they get reminded by their parents (especially mothers) that they are of age to have their homes, and to take care of their parents who have suffered to bring them up. They are constantly abused psychologically with words that pierce their hearts.


Some are unable to share the weakness they experience as a result of physical ailment, which they often attempt to hide, and which makes it almost impossible to engage in any hard labour that can earn them a daily wage.


Throughout these traumatic times, they are unable to discuss their experiences because of shame. Facing a house on fire, many elect to leave, and to save themselves from what feels like a collapsing roof.


To live daily with these realities is nothing but hell. For that reason, many preferred going back to suffer, rather than staying back home and receiving insults and a lot of intimidation. They prefer to save their heads than stay and live in depression or contemplate suicide.


Who will quench the fire? Certainly, many are helped with temporary or permanent shelter, food, and accommodation - and even get settled with some businesses to earn their living.

But the other side of the coin described above is not easy to deal with. So some end up finding their way back to their trafficked base out of frustration.


It is said that charity begins at home. An essential part of victim support starts at home, with the supply of love without judgement. No matter the cynicism received outside, victims can always stand it if they are welcomed at home. They can rely on the safe environment at home, to shed off insult and humiliation at the end of the day.


My humble recommendation is therefore that the integration of the survivors takes cognisance of the importance of engaging the affected families in counselling, where they are helped to see that their children are wounded, traumatised and they need compassion and love.


These survivors cannot move forward meaningfully again in life unless they have strong social support that will help them to gather themselves, and face life again. They cannot forgive past hurts unless they are once more welcomed by those who matter most in their lives – their families. And families cannot offer them that without understanding what their children have experienced.


Victims of human trafficking experience severe psychological trauma, and must not be made to encounter taunting, mocking, and disappointment upon returning. To limit the damage trafficking does to the lives of victims, families must go through the counselling and reintegration processes alongside their kin.

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