Sometimes life smacks you right in the face with a situation you hadn’t anticipated. In January 2017, after missing a connecting flight at Moscow airport, I spent a night in terminal D. I had been given food vouchers and a hotel for the night. Whilst waiting to check-in to the hotel, people began to notice a girl desperately sobbing, begging on her knees for help. Security guards frowned down while passengers walked by cruelly remarking how crazy and dangerous she was. It was extremely uncomfortable to bear witness to. Eventually I made a decision to leave the queue and approach her to ask what was wrong.
I came to learn that 23 year old Mary, from Nigeria, had been offered a job as an estate agent in Moscow by a Russian man who came to her village...despite her having never received an education. Now trapped in the airport for two days without any water, food, or bed, her sack of belongings had been seized at security. She had no phone, no money, no passport. All she had in her pocket was a Russian hand-written note with a phone number she had been instructed to call. Through tears, she explained in broken English that she’d be killed if she returned to Nigeria. She was terrified and weary about trusting me. This was her first time in an airport and first time outside Nigeria. I couldn’t imagine how frighteningly alien that must have felt.
Confused and outraged, I marched to the information desk and demanded food vouchers for Mary too. Why had I been given them, while she, with very little English to express herself, had nothing? The sad truth was, I already knew the answer to this inequality.
The woman at the desk dismissed us saying Mary would be deported in a few days. “Look around” she said unphased, “she’s not the only one”.
Eventually we obtained a food voucher and I helped her find something to spend it on. She had no idea what or how to order as she’d never eaten at a Western food hall. I suggested she phoned family in Nigeria to tell them of her whereabouts. Her parents were dead but she called a brother. It took some time to convince her my phone wasn’t bugged & she wouldn’t be tracked down and killed.
I lay her down on a bench to sleep, gave her a hug and promised I’d come back in the morning to find her.
In my comfortable free hotel room, I looked at the empty spare single bed beside mine, contemplating how unfair life can be.
Initially I hadn’t put two and two together, but it didn’t take much overnight research until it dawned...Mary was trapped in a human trafficking ring. Moscow is a notorious sex and slavery trafficking hub for African women. Men in power recruit in villages promising job prospects and a better life. Student visas and fake passports are organised to move women across borders. I knew it was a wide-spread global problem but I’d never physically met someone who was being trafficked and it made me feel sick to my core.
In the morning, I went back into the terminal and spotted Mary on her knees pleading a security guard for help. When she saw me, she ran over, threw her arms around me and didn’t let go. I was the only familiar face in a sea of strangers.
We sat down and I tried my best to explain what was happening to her. I had never seen another human so scared, trembling and shaking uncontrollably in my arms. She couldn’t understand how God had let this happen to her. I didn’t know what to say. I just held her hands tightly, reassuring her everything would be ok. I didn’t fully believe what I was saying, but I truly wished it to be true. My flight was announced and I felt rotten leaving her; freely going back to my comfortable privileged life, whilst she was physically trapped in the airport with nobody to care.
Even writing to NGOs in Moscow lead futilely to dead ends. The issue is enormous and Mary is just a number, a mere statistic trapped in the ring.
Meeting Mary was an important pivotal moment. I wasn’t able to offer her much and I couldn’t change her fate, but I believe she found a moment of comfort in the companionship. She helped me too. It acutely highlighted my fortune of being born into a nation of freedom...of speech, of education, of mind, to physically move where I please.
After I returned to the UK, I constantly thought about this encounter. It planted a seed to consider how I might volunteer my time to work with disempowered women.
'Together in Sport Rwanda', a charity founded by Kari Spence, a local lass from my hometown, spoke directly to me. The charity works with primary school children and teenage girls without access to secondary education in Gako village, Rwanda. Education is one of the most important gifts we can receive and pass on and it excites me to be a tiny part of the process.
I often wonder if Mary ever made it home and if she has found safety. I’ll never know. Maybe if the women in her village had had sufficient support and education, she would have avoided being tricked into the trafficking trap.
Often it can be too overwhelming to think about the sheer scale of global issues such as human trafficking. It is easier and less painful to shrug it off, saying “there’s nothing I can do” and continue in our own bubbles. But that is simply not true. There is always something we can do, be it: raising awareness; spreading positive messages; keeping an eye out for others who are struggling; sharing our skills. Helping even only one person is a life well spent. Sometimes we have to search a little until we find that calling...sometimes, it just smacks you right in the face.
“I alone can’t change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” - Mother Theresa