Susan was 15 years old when someone came into her life and made her feel special for the first time in a long time. But his goal wasn’t to care for her but rather than to use, manipulate and force her to sell herself on the street for his benefit.
Susan, whose real name can’t be used to protect her identity, is a victim of human trafficking in Southwest Florida. This is her first Christmas away from “the life” that had enslaved her and stole her own self value.
Though she escaped the abuse several months ago, this holiday season presents a true Christmas miracle in self renewal thanks to the help and mission of Selah Freedom.
Selah Freedom works with sex trafficking victims from this area and empowers the “survivors” to discover and value their own self worth.
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“Today I have a new hope and fire in my heart to help other people,” Susan said, noting she is enrolled in college to pursue a degree in criminology. “I now have a great relationship with my family. They are so proud of me and attribute my health and abundant life to Selah Freedom, which has shown me how to live life the right way, in health, humility, with a purpose and with a voice.”
It wasn’t always the case, as is typical for the young women Selah Freedom helps to get off the street and out of a life that often finds them in jail or worse.
“Day in and day out I was hopeless, helpless and thought that I would die in the the life,” Susan recalled.
Lisa Rowe, director of programming for Selah Freedom, said nationally, about 92 percent of sex trafficking victims were sexually abused as children, but 100 percent of Selah Freedom’s survivors report having that experience.
“Most of our girls operate in the teenage mentality,” Rowe said. “They may chronologically be in their 20s. They can act like a 12-year-old because that’s when they ran away. That’s when the emotional growth stopped and life and developmental growth stopped. They have never experienced a happy holiday because maybe for them that meant that certain uncle was coming over and would abuse them some more.”
As the cycle shifts from that of abuse to recovery, Rowe said genuine compassion shown to survivors can be confusing to them, especially when it’s their first Christmas off the streets.
“They don’t know what to expect their first holidays with us,” Rowe said. “When they get gifts from volunteers in the community or church groups they are overwhelmed. They ask, ‘What does this person want from me?’ because all they’ve ever done is exchange one thing for another. For those coming straight off the streets, they have mixed feelings about the holidays because they are confused about what help and compassion looks like. But as they grow and evolve, there is a strong level of appreciation and they know they have an opportunity see life from a different angle.”
For women who lose their identity while involved in sex trafficking, the holidays tend to bring them back to reality, if only for a moment, but not in a good way. Depression and confusion blanket their existence.
“Christmas can be a very depressing time out on the street,” said Robin, another sex trafficking survivor. “I remember it being a time when I felt very alone without family or good friends.”
Robin’s journey, like Susan’s has seen them reconnect with family once again. This Christmas will be the first time the pair will spend the holidays with their families.
“I am so blessed and amazed at the transformation that has happened in my life because of Selah Freedom,” Susan said. “I can’t say it’s been an easy journey, but I cannot begin to explain the support and love that I received from the Selah Freedom staff as well as the mentors and volunteers. They have walked with me through all the ups and downs and have surrounded me with comfort and compassion.”