Walking with trafficking survivors

Blog Published: August 9, 2023
By Sister Judith Sheridaon, SMSM
a woman in handcuffs hides her face
Judith Sheridan is a Marist Missionary Sister from Massachusetts. She has worked in nursing or pastoral counseling in the United States, Jamaica, New Zealand, Australia, Bangladesh and Bougainville in Papua New Guinea and lived and worked cross-culturally with sisters from all over the world. In her congregation, she designed and administered their U.S. Global Justice and Peace Office, co-directed a residence for women victims of trafficking, and served as assistant provincial and provincial superior of the U.S. Province.

When the Missionary Sisters of the Society of Mary (Marist Missionary Sisters) began to research how to serve the victims/survivors of human trafficking in the San Diego area, we discovered that the No. 1 need was housing, leading us to open Mary's Guest House in 2005. Today, so many years later, housing continues to be the greatest need.

Mary's Guest House can house up to five female guests, and it is staffed by two Marist Missionary Sisters who are on the premises 24/7. Women come to us after they are rescued from dangerous situations and enslavement. They are rescued during law enforcement raids by police, the FBI, or Homeland Security at the borders. Some manage to escape their captors and are helped by a good Samaritan. Then, the Human Trafficking Hotline, or the emergency shelter of Marisa Ugarte, assesses them. If they need long-term shelter, they are referred to us for housing and services.

These women come to us bewildered, some unable to speak English and with only a few clothes. They are worried and afraid. Maybe she attempted an illegal border crossing and has been detained for months. Perhaps she was arrested and imprisoned for prostitution until she was certified as trafficked and brought to our house. Women are often in shock or drug or alcohol withdrawal. The situations vary, but it takes time for women to adjust. Many of our residents live in fear for themselves and their families, whom their captors threaten to harm if they escape or cooperate with the police.

In this shelter, I met Renee (not her real name) who bravely escaped abuse under cover of night and across borders until she was captured and sent to a California detention center. Overworked social workers and immigration caseworkers recorded her story in 60 or more pages to prove trafficking to clerks, lawyers, judges, etc. She waited every day for eight months. Since English classes weren't offered, she learned Spanish. When she was freed, she was unprepared for "normal" life. She had no money.

Renee came to our "safe" house, and it took time to gain her trust. It took caseworkers, immigration representatives, lawyers, doctors, FBI, etc., to assist her during this transitional period. English, GED, job training and employment were essential to help her become self-sufficient and achieve her goals.

I saw her many times on her knees, Bible on the floor, sobs mixing with her language, revealing a tortured soul before God. Psalms of powerlessness and desperation coming alive. Her trauma relived in her brother fleeing government forces in her homeland, breaking her heart. She couldn't help him.

I sat with her as she fought depression, crying: "I don't know who I am. Who am I?" The words God gave me:

You are a person who has suffered much but has been given deep strength to carry on; your spirit is strong; it is always speaking gentle words of encouragement, affirmation, and hope. God wants peace for you, a beautiful child of God. This is who you are.

We’re delighted to share with you this blog from the monthly feature “The Life” courtesy of our friends at Global Sisters Report. This month, The Life panelists reflected on the question: What have you and/ or your congregation done to combat modern slavery/ trafficking? CLICK HERE  to read more blogs from The Life series, GSR’s monthly feature about the unique, challenging, and very specific lives of women religious around the world. 



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