IASSW AIETS logo Social Dialogue Magazine

Vittorio Zanon,
Social Worker Verona Municipality City Office, Italy


Blessing Igiehon,
Cultural Mediator, Project Network Antitrafficking of Veneto Region, Italy

My life as a teenager soldier girl struggling in Europe

The article is a story from our experience with victims of trafficking.

London, March 19, 2036: first day of spring. My name is Hope and I am 34 years old. I came to Europe for the first time in 2016. When I arrived in Italy I was 20, or at least I said I am this age…

The first time I arrived Italy, in Sicily. I was really unprepared when more than a hundred people, at night, piled us on the balloon dinghy, the lapalapa... After having survived the desert and been in the prisons of Libya for months, living like an animal, I was really impatient to cross the river, that separates Africa from Europe, to achieve that longed-for freedom. In a few hours I would finally have fulfilled my dream of a better life: studying and working, to help my poor family, as my father and aunt had promised me, entrusting myself to the people who organized my trip. A few years earlier, when he separated from his mother, my father made me interrupt school and sent me to live as her sister, to help her do house work and taking care of her children. When I got pregnant, my aunt sent me back to my father. He was very angry, he make me to abort the pregnancy and then took me to some people, they took me to Europe. But first they took me to a native doctor, for the oath, which I'd rather not remember.

I hadn't studied much in Nigeria and I was only 14 when I left, but before I hadn't been to school for two years. If I had studied more, I might have known that there are no rivers with salt water and therefore I would have immediately understood that we would have had to cross a sea, the Mediterranean, which has become a cemetery for many people who have tried to cross it.

Despite this, it took only a short time, after the start, to understand that was extremely difficult to get to the other side of the river. Only when a volunteer ship rescued us did we think that our future would be saved.

"I'm twenty, I'm twenty"... I kept repeating it to the policemen when I got off the ship. I repeated to them what the madame had taught me. Maybe they didn't believe me, or maybe yes, I never understood it... I just know that they sent me to a camp with other young women in Sicily. When I managed to call the madame, she sent a man to pick me up and he took me to her. But first she raped me, in her house. It was the first time this has happened to me after I had been in Libya, and it was terrible. The madame was also not kind to me and told me that to pay my 25,000 euro debt, I would have to work for her on the street. I didn't want to, but I couldn't rebel against the oath I had taken.

So I went to the street, at night and also during the day. I was scared and sick, but if I didn't bring the money she would get angry, she wouldn't feed me and beat me. She then she sent me to do the documents. She explained what I had to say. But when that social worker took me to the police station, they took me to the hospital and then to a community. They took my phone away and I didn't know how to call the madame. And maybe I didn't even feel like it. I was confused.

Then the social worker returned, along with a very kind Nigerian woman. They said she was a cultural linguistic mediator, but I didn't understand why she helped those whites. They tried to treat me well, even though I didn't know what to do and tried to tell the story the madame had taught me.

It took me some time to trust them; and they, however, knew things about my life without my ever telling them. I didn't know how they knew me so well, but they never asked me for money and instead made me go to the doctor and to school.

They told me that I was not 20 years old, but that I was an "underage" and therefore I could not prostitute myself and had to stay in a protected place. They said that it was the Italian law that provided for it and that a judge would choose an adult, Serena, to replace my mom and dad in Italy, even if I wouldn't go to live with her. And all this because I could not choose by myself... I don't understand these whites very much: in Nigeria I was a mother to my aunt's children, I crossed the night and the sea alone, I traveled alone around Europe or faced customers more assholes... and according to them to choose my life I need a stranger? But I must say that I was pleased when Serena, the tutor, came to visit me in the community and we went out together.

They even sent people to Nigeria in my house at Orhionmwon to meet my family. Then wrote a report to the social worker, who also showed me the photos. Even though I could already hear them on the phone, it was strange to see pictures of my house and family.

I understood that everyone wanted to help me, but it was really tiring to stay in the community and respect all those stupid rules that nobody followed... they told me that there was privacy, but if I tell them something, the next day everyone knew it. And they often treated me differently from white girls. In one of these communities, if I messed up or didn't come back to sleep, they told me that I could go back to the madame to work on the street... when I hear this word it makes me feel very bad.

And then I had a lot of dreams at night and the weight and pain were really hard to bear. Sometimes it was better, other times I had thoughts or spirits that were difficult to send away, so much so that I would have preferred never to sleep.

After I ran away from my madame, for many years I had many health problems, especially when I was on my period: I suffered so much that I couldn't even go to work and many did not understand me... I myself was confused and I asked where this evil that haunted me came from: perhaps from the violence suffered in Libya? Was it because I suffered too much violence? Was it because I couldn't have more children? Perhaps because I had not finished paying all my debt and the edict, the juju, which launched the Oba, the King of Benin City, to free and protect all the girls and condemn the madames and native doctors, did not work with me?

Inside me I had these and many other questions that made me suffer, but I didn't have the courage to share them with anyone. And every time my family in Nigeria asked me for money to help them survive, I was getting worse and worse...

I think that many friends I met in those years also felt bad like me, but I didn't like talking to them about these things. If someone got pregnant, the madame gave her a hard alcohol and lots of pills to have an abortion. But it was very dangerous and she risked dying. We called each other "friends", but there were few real friends, because I never knew who I could really trust. But it was clear that they too weren't happy.

Some girls died during the journey: in the crossing or in the desert. Some were sent back to Nigeria, many went to other cities, but also to Germany, France, Spain... then they returned, perhaps after having children who did not always stay with them... others ran away from the camps to return to their mothers, to live with a Nigerian boyfriend or with some young or old Italian... also because there were always many men on the street willing to buy a Nigerian girl... then there were the lesbians, who no longer wanted men, or who used them only for have money, but they preferred to have a partner...

In short, each of us was looking for a way for her to get the documents and get better, but even those who could not obtain a residence permit were almost never expelled and sent back to Nigeria.

Like the boys, also some girls were drug dealers and ended up in jail, some were so quick to pay their debt and were so able that she became a little madame. I have never seen many of these "friends" I met over the years, and I really don't know what happened to them.

I would never have been able, but I don't feel like judging any of my sisters. I myself did not have the courage to denounce my madame, despite the harm she has done to me and that for years she has tried to make me pay all the debt.

We were all trying to fill the gaps we carried inside. The "traumas", as the psychologist and social worker said who, once, together with the linguistic-cultural mediator, gave me a book about a little girl who had a hole in her belly and was looking for many ways to fill it, eventually discovering that that hole, inside her, would remain forever, even if it could become a little smaller and hide positive surprises…

Many years later I thought that maybe it was just to help us live with that hole, that they proposed to meet all together and talk to each other... they called it the "Ubuntu, I am because we are" group, and it was perhaps a way to overcome that loneliness that each of us instead tried to overcome in our own way: with drugs or alcohol, accumulating shoes and clothes, with food, with prayer, singing, sports, studying... but above all in the smartphone, which often led to other forms of gratification, with relationships, virtual or physical, with boys or girls, or to create a parallel world in social networks, so as not to think about our real life...

The social worker cared for us and we called him "the father of Nigerians". The mediator was like a mother: she sometimes seemed strict but it’s a way to how show how much she cares about me, and she was also always very sweet and caring. He even went on television once and said that we were like girl child soldiers who fight and kill for a bowl of rice in Africa… Girl child soldiers because we had passed terrible trials and were still alive; because without fear we could harm other people and ourselves; because our experiences gave us the strength to survive a "war" that others have forced us to fight...

What saved me? I think it was the ability to really listen to then to take the choice of trusting then even though I didn’t know them before, a lot of patience and effort to achieve fundamental goals to build a better life. It was not easy, but today I am aware that it is my merit that I am well: I have a good job and I am happy and proud of the woman I have become. I have proved that those in my country who said that the time to give birth to a woman is wasted time were wrong.

And as I watch Felicity, my eldest daughter who is now 14 years old, the same age as when I left Nigeria, I know that it is thanks to our important choices that we women can contribute to building a better future.