For many of us, when we think of Italy, we envision the breathtaking architecture, stunning landscapes, and incredible food. But what we may not know is that Italy is also home to a subculture that can be cruel to the weak and vulnerable.
Prostitution is legal in Italy, and the infrastructure for social services is sparse, even for its own citizens. For these reasons among others, Italy is an epicenter for sex trafficking. The result is a sea of women, many of them foreigners in a country far from their own. They are trapped in the sex industry but looking for the path to a better life. In their hearts, they hold the dream of escape from their current reality, but they know of no one to come alongside them and empower them to find freedom.
“We See You.”
TEAM global workers Jon and Erika have served two terms in Italy for a total of 10 years. Prior to joining TEAM, Erika spearheaded the formation of Alleanza Tesori Raggianti (ATR), which is a national network of Christian anti-trafficking ministries in Italy. When Jon and Erika came on board with TEAM in 2015, TEAM fully supported them in continuing in that same work.
ATR comes alongside existing anti-trafficking ministries in Italy, supporting their work and connecting them in their common goals. ATR’s ministry is comprehensive and addresses the issue of sex trafficking in a number of ways. One aspect of their work is outreach ministry – literally reaching out to women on the streets of Italy. “Workers would give small gifts to the women,” Erika explains. “They’d let them know, ‘We’re here for you. We see you. We care about you. We want to support you however we can.”
The workers began to develop relationships with the women, whom they refer to as “treasures.” But soon, a problem presented itself. “A woman would decide, ‘Yeah, I do want something different. I don’t want to be on the streets. I trust you. Help me get out.’ But there wasn’t really anywhere to send them.”
It was this catalyst, along with a burden that had been laid on Erika’s colleagues years before, that all the pieces began to come together for the formation of Alba Safe House and Recovery Program.
All the Pieces to Rebuild a Life
Jon and Erika and their colleagues knew they needed a holistic model for this new initiative. They had seen similar ministries struggle when they only focused on one aspect of women’s lives, such as just housing or just helping them find a job. As Erika says, the program needed to give a survivor “all the pieces she needs to rebuild her life.”
And for these treasures to do that rebuilding process in their lives, that’s a lot of pieces. Surprisingly, many of the trafficked women in Italy are from Nigeria. Lured by the hope of a better life, they find themselves enslaved to their trafficker in a harsh and unfamiliar culture. Many are uneducated, unable to read or write in their own language, let alone Italian. They have no paperwork for legal residency in Italy, and citizens risk prosecution for harboring them.
And in a particularly dark aspect of the trafficking industry, Nigerian women are often manipulated into participating in voodoo rituals which put them in spiritual bondage to their trafficker. If they try to break free, harm may come to them or their families back in Nigeria. If a survivor tries to return to Nigeria, they are ostracized and likely re-trafficked. It is a seemingly hopeless situation.
As one of Erika’s co-workers said about a survivor she is working with, “I feel like I am pulling her out of hell.” Meeting women right at those gates of hell and empowering them to escape the flames is what Alba is all about.
A Globalized Effort
To get the program off the ground, the team tapped into resources across the globe. In 2018, they connected with the SA Foundation, a Canada-based nonprofit organization that serves as a respected model for long-term recovery ministry. The SA Foundation provided a recovery curriculum as well as training for Alba’s staff so that they didn’t have to reinvent the wheel.
God also provided a sizeable grant for the program in April 2021, and with great joy, Alba officially launched in February 2022 with space to house three women. The first survivor arrived soon after but sadly only stayed a short time. The second Alba treasure moved in over the summer and remains on the road to freedom, one day at a time.
Also in the spirit of global collaboration, Alba and the ATR are a part of the European Freedom Network of anti-trafficking initiatives – a group that has connections all over Europe. More locally, Italian churches are slowly beginning to support Alba’s efforts.
Even Alba’s staff itself has multi-cultural, multi-national representation. The program is run by a team of three directors. One is Italian, one is Brazilian, and one is American. Each has lived in Italy for over 20 years. All speak Italian and have a heart to empower survivors in their journey to freedom. Erika and Jon are now back in the U.S., serving in a support role to the Alba team in Italy.
Trusting in the Lord for Transformation
The first of Alba’s core values is to trust in the Lord as “the only One who can truly and fully redeem and restore.” And while Erika and her colleagues of course desire for survivors to experience new life in Christ, they recognize that they cannot force spiritual conversations. Particularly because spirituality has been used to manipulate these women in the past, it is important to let Gospel truth come organically.
“We were adamant from the beginning that Alba would be a place where there are no strings attached,” Erika shares. “The staff doesn’t say, ‘In order to be in our program to receive your basic needs, you have to sit through a devotional every day.’ But the Alba staff are believers. They are completely committed to the Lord and find their strength in Him. They live out the Gospel in the way they love the women. Conversations are infused with that. But it’s important that no one feels controlled or manipulated.”
Hope for the Future
As the Alba team looks ahead, the prayer is for more women to find refuge at Alba. COVID restrictions in Italy have made it more difficult to connect with survivors seeking escape, and yet women continue to pour into Italy through trafficking. Finances are always a concern and additional funding is needed to expand the Alba program – the goal is to house as many as 20 women at a time. (Find more specific ways to pray for Alba Safe House and other anti-trafficking ministries HERE.)
Even as the team waits on the Lord to bring more treasures, they see His loving hand at work. The Director of Operations at Alba shares this: “We have incredibly hard days when chronic trauma can leave [women] feeling as if they could drown in pain. It is our job to remind them that we believe in them and we can see them one day living their own life in autonomy and freedom, inside and out. It is our job to carry this vision of what their life could look like, especially in the hardest moments. Together we have the opportunity to carry the light of Jesus into the darkest corners of life where the treasures we serve no longer have to just survive, now they can thrive!”