With an estimate of 17,000 women working the sex trade in Greece in 2015 [Independent News 2015], the numbers have soared since the increase of refugees and migrant workers entering Greece as a result of international conflicts. It is not only a ‘foreigners’ trade’: one source suggested 40,000 women and children were trafficked to Greece annually from 2010 onwards. Impoverished Greek women who lost everything in the national economic collapse of 2008 saw no other way to make ends meet than become sex workers. Ekathimerini news website quotes a Greek police report for 2017 stating criminal gangs made 100 million Euros in illegal activity, with human trafficking being the biggest share of that figure. Debt bondage has also increased with ‘survival sex’, particularly affecting Afghani migrant children [Trafficking in Persons Report 2018 GREECE: Tier 2]. This ever-rising trend world-wide makes sobering reading.
Bringing New Hope – story
“At first it felt like a joke”, said Rosie (UK) when sharing about opening a bookshop as a means of legally employing women from a background in the sex trade in Greece. “I have no background in any form of business, no higher education that would qualify me for this. But this was very much God’s plan.”
God’s plan began a long time earlier for Rosie. Rosie is a pastor’s daughter. She and her two younger sisters, all of whom came to know and follow Jesus personally, grew up in a small town in the middle of England. The factory which gave jobs and security to most of the town closed some years ago. The closure brought high unemployment, a lot of alcoholism and drug use. Rosie’s family brought hope, acceptance and love to the little congregation of ‘first generation believers’ who began to seek God for support and guidance. Rosie saw for herself the difference it made to people’s lives to follow God and trust Him, despite their circumstances.
In 2006, Rosie looked for an overseas gap-year experience before going to university to study history. Having told God she wasn’t interested in missions, He kept bringing the workers of OM across her path. She learnt of a short-term OM team working in Zurich. The team was seeking to befriend the old, the lonely, the many immigrants and the poor on the edge of society who were struggling like many Rosie had seen in her hometown. Her heart was stirred with compassion. She felt God’s voice whispering to her to get involved, particularly with the women in the sex trade. She hesitated and told herself: “Not yet, you aren't ready; you are barely 19!” However, as she began meeting and making relationships with women on the streets, she stopped worrying.
On leaving Switzerland three and a half years later, Rosie was no longer thinking about university. “I decided to go to Greece because there was a ministry doing outreach to women in the sex trade.” The team in Greece had partnered with other local Christian groups for some years to support those trapped in sex work through friendship, shelter, long-term therapy and education for themselves and their children. Thousands of women in Greece work in the sex trade. The numbers increased massively with refugees and migrant workers entering the country. The most common ethnicities are Albanian, Bulgarian, Moldovan, Nigerian, Romanian, and Russian, with refugees from Arabic and Farsi speaking countries. Greek women who lost everything in the national economic collapse of 2008 also had no other way of making a living than as sex workers. Rosie spent the last eight and a half years of her life meeting “wonderful women, of different ages and nationalities and backgrounds”, she said. “I was super blessed to be able to see God working in all these years. Some of the women whom I first knew on the street are now personal friends.”
The team recognised the importance of offering the women an alternative to street work. Many of the women would like to leave the sex trade but can’t. They face challenges: they can’t otherwise earn enough to keep themselves and their families, particularly if they have no official papers. Many have their debts paid by criminals who then insist on being paid back at impossible rates and threatened with black magic. This keeps the women in virtual slavery. Others have been groomed into sex work or sold through trafficking from their country of origin. Most feel lonely and isolated, and believe they have no alternative. Their suffering and shame include physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual trauma. The women feel they have no way out. “When you’re so broken, it is almost too painful to keep hoping. The women’s whole outlook on life is misshapen by their experiences,” Rosie explained.
The team in Greece had woven a network of partnerships working alongside these women, offering support, shelter, practical advice and healing. A sewing business had started from this outreach ministry, doing Bible study and offering practical help. “The sewing ministry is great”, said Rosie, laughing. “But not every woman can sew. I can't, and I was in those classes for four years.” She began to think of other alternatives.
God prompted her to think of opening a bookshop as a means of legally employing women from a background in the sex trade and to help those less literate, using bookshop stock. Many women had already asked about the popular sewing project. Those from the local recovery programme and shelter could also benefit from the bookshop project as a work placement. This would give them safe work experience to add to their CVs working alongside volunteers, and gain skills such as Greek or English, literacy, computer skills, and self-care. “The women need a first step towards non-exploitative permanent work that will give them financial security and self-respect,” explained Rosie. “After a lot of prayer and doubting, I began to believe this was something God was nudging me towards. A wonderful team started to come together. This was very much God’s plan.”
God also showed Rosie and her team an even bigger dream: to open a non-profit company that could launch diverse businesses with the shared goal of providing training and job opportunities to women with a background of abuse, exploitation or trafficking. The second-hand bookshop in central Athens, appealing to both locals and foreigners, selling books and handmade products, was the first step. God gathered the people together to form a board: not only Rosie, but the director of a sewing business in Athens who had already run a shop, a local Greek who was programme manager of a shelter/recovery programme for abuse survivors, and a bible school professor experienced in dealing with local business and the legal system. God also brought others along with artistic, fundraising, translation and practical skills to volunteer to get the project off the ground.
However, finding a property to rent was challenging. The Athens rental market rose; the team could only afford locations within the brothel districts, which would prevent the women making a clean break from area connections. When a suitable property was found, the team had to wait months for the final agreement, only to be outbid by a higher offer. “That was tough”, said Rosie. “I really began to question if I had misunderstood what God wanted us to do.”
Months passed. Then God led Rosie and a friend to an empty shop. The owner gladly showed them around, and gave them a five-year contract at half the market price. He even invested a huge amount of his own time and money to help the team in much-needed renovations. The property had a basement with a separate entrance and a separate street address, which could later easily be turned into the headquarters for a second business. God was showing His advance planning.
“We hope to open the bookshop soon in 2020, and progress to employing five women, alongside volunteers,” said Rosie. “God is leading our team to help those escaping from abuse to rebuild their lives, both emotionally and practically. Every woman is unique and deserves respect, dignity, and the right to a new start.”
We need to start well.
We need wisdom to help the employed women adjust, establishing healthy boundaries, and feel safe.
We need the right volunteers: believers in Jesus with a heart for these women, people with business experience, people who have worked with traumatised people before.
We need to know how to progress possible further businesses.
Our fundraising site enables the renovations. Many running costs will be covered through the business itself, but our policy of employing people, some of whom won't be able to work well or effectively for a long time, means we need sponsors willing to help cover their wages.
Need for workers:
Either locals, or people with specific skills, to come to Greece for at least a year. Short term placements may be possible for women with a specific skill to teach to employees and volunteers, such as two weeks on how to make a specific handmade product for sale in the shop, but with limited contact work outside their teaching role.
*Name changed to protect identity
** See www.ekneou.org/ for further information about Rosie’s non-profit making company, Εκ Νέου
Ekathimerini News www.ekathimerini.com/227657/article/ekathimerini/news/greece-a-hub-for-drug-and-human-trafficking-police-report-shows Accessed 19.12.2019.
Trafficking in Persons Report 2018 GREECE: Tier 2 www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=11&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=2ahUKEwjgoK-l1MLmAhUJYsAKHWmUCgUQFjAKegQICRAC&url=https%3A%2F%2Fgr.usembassy.gov%2Fwp-content%2Fuploads%2Fsites%2F206%2FTIP2018_Greece.pdf&usg=AOvVaw2_KuZC8VsfR-bGlw-FJDUa Accessed 19.12.2019.