Sometimes stories need to be heard from the person who lived them. It is the only way to understand actions that seem impossible to comprehend — actions like sexual trafficking, where children, women and men are traded for sex in our communities in South Alabama. They are traded by family members and boyfriends for money, drugs, food or rent. Sometimes, even by their own mothers and grandmothers.
January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month and two survivors of sex trafficking and the mother of a young girl lured away by a predator will share their stories during “Stories of Survivors” on Saturday, Jan. 25 at The Peoples Room of Mobile. All were part of the 2019 Lagniappe series “Sexual Slavery in South Alabama” about sex trafficking in Mobile and Baldwin counties, which was written by Lynn Oldshue. The evening will include music by Molly Thomas, and all proceeds will be donated to the Rose Center for victims of sex trafficking in the area.
Nadia Lee, one of the survivors, was once an honor student in Mobile and graduated ninth in her class. She started smoking marijuana when she was 14 and the club life followed. On a binge when she met a guy in a club, they exchanged numbers and got on the fast track, spending all of their time together. A few weeks later, he asked Nadia to go to Florida with him. He told Nadia she didn’t need money; he would handle everything. She said it seemed like love to her, so she got in the car.
“Sex trafficking wasn’t talked about in Mobile and I had never heard of it,” Nadia said. “I was 26 when I became enslaved. I didn’t realize it was happening to me. My pimps put it in my head it was my idea to advertise myself on Backpage and dance in the strip clubs. There is no way I wanted to do that, but I had two children at home. I was scared of that gun in my face. I froze and did what they wanted me to do.”
Nadia was required to bring in $1,000 to $1,500 a day with no days off and no pay. There were beatings on the days she didn’t make her quota. Performing sex acts with men 15 to 25 times a day and giving all of the money to her boyfriend under the threat of beatings made Nadia a victim of sex trafficking. Not a girlfriend. She was saved by a police officer who asked the right questions.
Michelle, another survivor who will tell her story, was 18 years old, but was sold as 16. She described the years of her enslavement in the mid-2000s in Mobile as “days of daze” with “drama every day.” She was robbed several times and at risk of being killed by the people over her. The men paying for sex with a 16-year-old girl weren’t just the “weird ones,” she said. They were doctors, lawyers, a former judge, a missionary and “rich, well-educated, influential men who did big things in our community.”
“Police officers who laid their money on the table and removed their clothes were not working a sting,” she said.
One of her regulars was a local high school principal who had her wear pigtails.
“These men seeking to have sex with younger girls may appear to have it together on the outside, but they are dangerous and dark on the inside,” she said. “We were hired to serve drinks at community and business parties, but were expected to do much more. I learned to do whatever I had to do to make the men hurry up and get it over with. Just leave the money and go.”
Mardi Gras was the busiest time of the year, with men coming to Mobile from across the country. “The celebration brings out the best and worst in people,” she said. “I didn’t sleep during those weeks. They told us Mardi Gras was big money, but I never saw it.”
Sara’s daughter, Olivia, was lured away during her senior year at Auburn by a man from the Midwest. Still alive, Olivia never came home.
Sara thought Olivia was safe in their house playing video games. She was wrong. Olivia was unknowingly passed in an online game from the man she thought was her boyfriend to the man who became her trafficker. “Every predator has the key to your door when your kids are online,” Sara said. “There is no way to lock them out.”
Sara holds the last picture taken of Olivia. It was Christmas 2013 and Olivia was an honor student in her final year at Auburn. Sara points out the necklace with a wolf charm. A symbol of his control and a collar to be worn at all times.
“This was a smug-looking Olivia with a secret,” Sara explained. “We didn’t see she was becoming who he groomed her to be. Even her facial features changed during this time. Olivia has Asperger’s, on the autism spectrum, but you would never know because she is high functioning and very intelligent.
“People with Asperger’s are victimized easily.”
The emails from Olivia’s predator began in October 2013 and became a diary of transformation. In only three months, Olivia changed from an aspiring young adult into a submissive child her predator called “Pup.” She called him “Papa.”
“Communities don’t want to acknowledge sex trafficking or deal with it,” Crystal Yarbrough, director of the Rose Center, said. “Some people here shut down when I talk about it.”
Trafficking is any sex act in exchange for anything of value, explained Yarbrough, who will also be speaking at Stories of Survivors.
“It often happens by men, but one of our kids was trafficked by her grandmother,” she said. “Men also need to recognize their role in this. The majority of johns in Mobile are white, educated, middle-class men. It there wasn’t a demand for sex, there would not be a supply.”
The victims and survivors often come to the Rose Center with the sexual abuse and trauma of their childhood. Staff and volunteers interview victims and prioritize their needs. The center provides food, a safe place to sleep, programs on coping skills, trauma-informed counseling, help with job preparation and help getting placed for an apartment. They also provide a place to shower, wash clothes or get items from the clothing closet.
“Our goal is to equip and empower girls and women to stand on their own, but Southern culture is difficult to break through,” Yarbrough said. “They want to be rescued but the fear of the unknown and judgment from the community is so much worse. They would rather stay in their worlds and away from judgmental eyes.
“The sad thing is that we have been seeing these girls for years, but never really saw them. How girls are seen in the media is how they see themselves. We have to help them see themselves in a new way, to be who God created them to be.”
These women are sharing their stories to raise awareness that sex trafficking is happening here, to save other women and children from becoming victims and to talk about how the community can help.
(*The names Olivia, Sara and Michelle have been changed.)
Stories of Survivors is Saturday, Jan. 25 at 7 p.m. at The Peoples Room of Mobile. Tickets are $30 and all proceeds go to the Rose Center. Tickets are available on Eventbrite.com.
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