“They have been through so much, and they do not give up and we won’t give up on them.”
In an exclusive interview with ZENIT in Rome, Sister Ann Oestreich, IHM, US delegate of Talitha Kum, said this about victims of human trafficking, noting that therefore religious sisters on the frontlines “have the gift of stubborn hope.”
Talitha Kum, an international network of consecrated life against human trafficking, is celebrating their ten-year anniversary with their General Assembly, Sept. 21-27, 2019, in Rome.
The Milwaukee-based religious sister spoke about human trafficking in the States, particularly its prevalence, noting how it surprisingly is mostly based on ‘domestic’ trafficking and also how diplomatic immunity can feed into the phenomenon.
The sister, who met Pope Francis yesterday when he received the entire delegation of Talitha Kum, which is celebrating its ten-year anniversary in Rome, shares personal stories and even how Catholic sisters have worked with major sport events, especially the Superbowl, in very practical ways.
Sister Ann not only notes how the Holy Father has been a great advocate and “understands this issue,” but also explains how any sister can get involved in a little way to combat the phenomenon.
Here is our interview with Sister Ann:
ZENIT: When someone speaks about slavery, many often think of the past and of history but instead there are slaves today… Could you explain to us who are these slaves of the contemporary age?
Sister Ann Oestreich: Unfortunately, that is true! I do not think that slavery ever did end. As an American, we often think that slavery ended with the Emancipation Proclamation, but people have always been enslaved in some ways. We think about that mostly now under the title of human trafficking. People are enslaved for sex, for labor, in forced marriages, in forced begging, as child soldiers, in so many ways. Some are even enslaved in order to sell their organs, in organ trafficking. There are so many forms of modern slavery or modern human trafficking that are not as visible as in the 1800s, but it certainly is as prevalent.
ZENIT: And in the United states of America in particular, which types more common, more obvious, and where exactly?
Sister Ann Oestreich: Slavery for sex and slavery for labor, yes, [they] are very evident in the US. I believe also there is forced begging and forced marriage. The kind we do not see so much is child-soldiers. We do not have child soldiers that we know of, but we do have trafficking for organ removal, and that happens often, especially on the southern border. People are desperate. It is a way to find some income, to find some economic security, even if it is temporary.
ZENIT: How is the United States represented in this encounter? And tell us a little more about yourself…
Sister Ann Oestreich: At the UISG assembly, there are six sisters from the United States, and a lay woman who is the new executive director, for “US Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking.” My role is that I am a member of the Talitha Kum international coordinating committee, and I represent the United States on that committee. So we were part of the planning of this. We have limited space. So, Sister Gabriella Bottani, our coordinator, worked with our space limitations, and the number of networks we have. Each continent was given a number of delegates they could send, so we could all fit in the room. [smiling.] We have eighty-six delegates. North America has eight, and for our purposes, North America is Canada and the US. That is because of how the religious conferences are. Mexico belongs to a different conference. Otherwise they would be part of course.
ZENIT: How did you first become involved …
Sister Ann Oestreich: I worked as a justice coordinator for an international congregation of women, ‘justice and peace, integrity of Creation’ and in 2009, the president of the congregation came back from UISG and said “we really need to become active, reacting to human trafficking and we really need to educate our sisters about human trafficking” So, we did. We had to do a lot of education with our sisters in the United States. The sisters in Africa, in Asia were familiar, as were sisters from South America.
For sisters, but not only for sisters, but for all people in the US, awareness is a very important component of the work that we do. People often think that this doesn’t happen in the US, they think that it happens in other countries. It is completely false! There are so many cases of human trafficking in the United States! More than we are able to accurately count, so we do not have a good number, but we know where it is, we know where it happens and we are working as hard as we can to help people to recognize the signs of human trafficking, so that cases can be prosecuted and victims can be rescued.
ZENIT: What are you hoping to achieve?
Sister Ann Oestreich: What we hope to do is to make human trafficking more of a risk for traffickers, because right now it is low risk. There is a ratio and the ratio is that right now, human trafficking is a high profit – low risk crime, but it is a crime. And it will keep growing until we are able to flip that ratio to a low profit – high risk activity.
ZENIT: And are there some particular cases that left an impact…?
Sister Ann Oestreich: There was a case of a young woman who I met in New York, in one of the shelters run by sisters. She was from Asia, and was brought here as part of the entourage of a UN ambassador, specifically with another family of the ambassador’s entourage. She took care of the children. She was also forced to do all of the housework and cooking. The family insisted that she eat with them in the dining room, but that she sat on the floor, so she could be nearby, when they wanted something. And then the father of the family, the man, started to sexually abuse her. In the end, she found the strength to escape. Someone gave her a cell phone number. They saw her in the backyard, but never saw her leave the house. From time to time, the neighbor would talk with her, a little bit, not much, because that would have endangered her. One day she slipped her a cell phone with a phone number. It took that young woman more than a year to find the courage to use that cell phone, but she finally did, and was able to escape. But in those cases, it is particularly difficult because if women are brought here as part of the UN/diplomatic system, you know, there is diplomatic immunity, so they can’t be prosecuted. She was abused in every way. She was promised that if she came here, she could study, get a degree and get a job, and of course that was fraud.
ZENIT: Are foreigners the main victims of the human trafficking you know of in United States? Or Americans…
Sister Ann Oestreich: There are more cases of domestic human trafficking in the United States than foreign. That is what people cannot seem to wrap their minds around. I think that is what is unimaginable for most Americans…
For example, Catholic sisters have worked with major sport events, especially the Superbowl, in educating hotel managers and hotel personnel to recognize the signs. I was involved in the Superbowl in Indianapolis in 2012, and the arrests and the rescues that were made there, were all domestic victims, from Ohio, from Las Vegas. They were not from Indianapolis, but they were all domestic.
ZENIT: What do cases of domestic trafficking tend to look like?
Sister Ann Oestreich: Well, they can take any form. You can see people in Los Angeles on the ramps going onto the free ways selling flowers, selling whatever, begging. You can see people in restaurants, often times these may be foreign born or brought in, who are trafficked in for labor. There was a case in Michigan City, in Indiana, in a Chinese restaurant where Chinese workers were brought in from Chicago and then picked up by a restaurant owner, and kept in very substandard housing. They went to the restaurant from this home and back. One night there was a fire and they were not able to get out from the house. They were promised a better life, they had a terrible life, and their lives ended in tragedy.
ZENIT: What is being learned from this?
Sister Ann Oestreich: I think we are starting to progress, I believe. I get a global feed every day from Google, with the biggest human trafficking stories from around the world. I would say that ten years ago, everything was awareness, awareness, awareness. ‘This group is having a talk, because this group is studying human trafficking.’ ‘This state is setting up a commission on human trafficking.’ Now, when I read that feed, every day, there is a balance. There are still many awareness events, but you see there were this many arrests. For the NCAA basketball tournament, there were many arrests. These people are persecuted. Jeffrey Epstein, a very public figure, who was associated with many other public figures, was prosecuted and put in prison. So I see an increase in the arrests and in the prosecutions, which I find very hopeful.
ZENIT: That is very encouraging…
Sister Ann Oestreich: Yes. I see that many more, not only Catholic sisters, but other faiths, other NGOs, and people of goodwill, are realizing that this is a great need in our country. They are opening shelters and houses where victims and survivors can get the attention they need: the social services, medical services, the mental health services. They can enhance their education. They can be placed in jobs that will enable them not only to survive, but to be able to thrive, and really live the life of dignity and hope and promise, that God wants for all of us. As he said in [Saint] John’s Gospel, Chapter 10, ‘I have come so that they may have life and live it to the full.’ I think that is more what we are able to accomplish in partnership with many others groups. The human trafficking community of caregivers, educators, and advocate groups and advocates, is growing and growing and growing, in our own Church and in others. There are many differences we have in terms of Doctrine with many other faiths, but human trafficking is a cross-cutting issue. With other faiths, there is no daylight between us in our need to address this crime, this sin. So this is very hopeful! Very hopeful.
ZENIT: Are there best practices you have heard about in these days that you think some participants may bring back home with them?
Sister Ann Oestreich: I am not sure about a practice, what I am absolutely sure of, and I see it and hear it, every time someone speaks, is that among the sisters, there is a stubborn hope that is always present, no matter what is encountered in the field, on the ground. There is a hope–and there has to be–inspired by the Gospel and inspired by Jesus who came to liberate us from our sin and the sin around us, who came to call out the good in people, recognize the good in people, recognize that you are one community, recognize that you are all loved by God, and the sisters here cling to that. It is the source of their hope. this is what we are called to do. These are some of the most vulnerable people in our country, in our hemisphere, and these are the people Jesus wants us to walk with, and no matter what a government does, no matter obstacles may come our way, no matter what funding is cut, we will not walk away, because we can offer hope and we receive hope from the people who we meet. They have been through so much, and they do not give up and we won’t give up on them. Thus, we have the gift of stubborn hope.
ZENIT: How is the Holy Father supporting you, and efforts against trafficking?
Sister Ann Oestreich: The Holy Father is a wonderful advocate. He does understand this issue. He is very supportive of Talitha Kum. He is very supportive of the sisters. We saw him yesterday and we thanked him so much. He is always a wonderful advocate for the work we do. So we do really appreciate his prayers and his support, and it is part of our hope [smiling].
ZENIT: How involved are sisters in the United States in trying to combat this phenomenon?
Sister Ann Oestreich: There are so many sisters who are involved in this work in the United States. Hundreds and hundreds. In our network, we have over one hundred congregations of women religious who are members, we have dozens of coalitions who either are Catholic lay people, or have a sister who is involved. We have individuals who want to work with us, so individual members. When you look at the people within the Catholic community who are working on this, there are so many who are indirectly helping through their donations and financial support, but the sisters who support us with their prayers are in the thousands, and those who are probably working on the ground, on this issue, exclusively, probably number in the one to two thousands. Thus, it is very much a part of the heart of Catholic sisters of the United States.
ZENIT: What would be a first step if a religious sister would like to get involved in helping trafficking victims?
Sister Ann Oestreich: It would be helpful if a sisters would contact our network, our office. We can let her know if there are openings, or if there are places nearby her. We are trying to be a clearing house for resources and for information about shelters, not locations, but information. If they contact our office in St. Louis, we would love to work with them or help them, either with victims or on behalf of victims, because there is so much we have to do on behalf of victims, in terms of education and advocacy, helping us to provide access to survivor services without being directly in contact with survivors. We do have survivors on our committees, so we do try to keep our work survivor-informed and survivor-sensitive.
ZENIT: Thank you so much, Sister…