There are both struggles and rewards that come with working with survivors of human trafficking. One minute you’re leading clients through a group discussion about stress management; the next minute you are celebrating a client’s new job. In this work you experience the unseen hurdles facing survivors of sex and labor trafficking as they struggle to rebuild their lives. You also get the honor of experiencing their victories. This is a glimpse into a day in my life as the Social Work Fellow in the Client Services program. This blog was also posted on MTV’s Act blog as part of their Against Our Will Campaign.
I’m in the van picking up Ama*, a client who has an 8:00 a.m. appointment at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) office to take her fingerprints. Today is the last step in the five year process to break free from the diplomat family that brought her from Zimbabwe and forced her into domestic servitude in the U.S.
After dozens of lawyer visits, testimonials, and years of struggle, this is the final step before Ama can get her green card. In other words, it’s the last step before freedom.
Ama climbs into the van. She’s tired. For the past month while looking for work as a nursing assistant, Ama has been working the overnight shift at Walmart. But Ama is also smiling and chats with me about what she’ll do when she’ll visit her family after more than eight years apart.
The USCIS trip is successful, and we rush back to the Polaris Project client services office in DC where I have Sandra, another client, awaiting me. Sandra and I have been working together for three weeks.
Today is an important session. Sandra recently began working with an attorney to apply for the T-Visa (for trafficking victims); the process requires that Sandra dig into traumatic experiences. For Sandra, this means remembering the rape, abuse, and verbal assaults that she experienced after being trafficked from Mexico and forced to work in a brothel in New York City.
Therapy provides Sandra a critical time to be heard in a safe environment without an agenda. With every moment I am with her, I am reminded what an honor it is to serve as her witness and share these intimate moments.
I escort Sandra out after a powerful session, and immediately spot Celinda in the drop in center. I have been helping Celinda apply for jobs, and she’s come in today to work on her resume and cover letters.
I take a moment to collect myself. I know that the upcoming time with Celinda could be hard. She’s been looking for a full-time child care job for three months — not much time in the scope of things, but for Celinda it feels like ages. These days, many of us know how hard it is to be unemployed —but Celinda isn’t just responsible for paying her own rent. She also pays schooling costs for dozens of nieces and nephews back in her native Sierra Leone.
For the next couple of hours it is my job to share the fear and frustration that mount in Celinda every day she goes without a paycheck.
Celinda and I apply for four new jobs, and I’m starving and feeling pretty exhausted. I grab a quick bite and check my email. I do some research on food banks, English classes, a GED program, and cooking classes for clients. I make some calls and draft some quick case notes; I’ll have to come back later to complete them.
I’m responsible for our client group session today at 3:30 p.m. I’m going to lead a discussion about healthy coping strategies to reduce stress and sadness; afterwards, we’ll make collages to serve as a reminder. I’m excited about this group because it will allow clients to speak honestly about their feelings. Many of our clients don’t have many outlets, and this safe space can be extremely powerful.
Group was awesome. Despite some language challenges, clients shared strategies like cooking, running, deep breathing and calling friends. I head back to my desk to finish up notes, check emails, and plan my day tomorrow.
As I leave, I take a moment to reflect on everything I got to experience with clients today. I start thinking about all the things left to do, but then I stop myself. It’s important to take time to celebrate the victories.
Do you want to be a Polaris Project fellow? Visit our website to find out more.
*Names and biographical details have been changed to protect Polaris Project client confidentiality. But the scenarios throughout this blog provide an accurate representation of the day-to-day challenges faced by Polaris Project clients and the social work fellows like Ali who support them.