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Shining Hope in the Red Light District

A journalist's eye-opening account of the European sex trade and people who minister to prostituted women

It's almost midnight in downtown Athens, Greece. Ten young Nigerian women dressed in miniskirts, halters, and stilettos strut under the faded awning of a crumbling hotel. Men in cars cruise by and eye cleavage. When a car stops at the curb, one woman darts to the driver's side. She hangs her head and half-bare breasts through the open window. How many euros will this man pay for a half hour with her? I wonder.

I'm a writer from the Chicago suburbs searching for glimpses of hope amid the depravity of the European flesh trades. Here in Athens, and later in Amsterdam, I find Jesus' followers are lovingly pursuing trafficked women engaged in prostitution.

This week I'm traveling with Nea Zoi, a ministry of International Teams, serving prostituted men and women in Greece. Prostitution is legal here, and one in four Greek men regularly pays for sex. Consequently, the number of women and children forced into prostitution has increased tenfold over the last decade, according to Amnesty International. "The evil of trafficking and prostitution is dark," says Nea Zoi director Emma Skjonsby Manousaridou, a Seattle native in her early 30s who joined the ministry in 1999. "And yet, I've seen God is here." 

Three times a week, 8 staff and 20 volunteers from Greek evangelical churches canvas downtown neighborhoods, knock on brothel doors, and scour the streets for prostituted women and men. Since 2004, Nea Zoi's teams have spoken with about 50 trafficked Nigerian women per week.

This spring night, our outreach group includes Eirene Hatzigianni, a Greek social worker, and Jennifer Roemhildt, the American founder of Nea Zoi. We tote baskets of books, Bibles, fliers on health and legal rights, cookies, and thermoses of hot tea. Two team members pray nearby as others offer tea and friendship to the women. Typically, teams have only seconds to exchange a few words over tea before a customer flashes cash at a woman or police sirens send her fleeing. 

Fear and Friendship

We spend more time with "Maria," a petite Nigerian with brown and blonde braids. She likes music, so Eirene and I sing a cappella: "He carried the burden of the world on his shoulders. . . . He can carry you, too, my sister." Then, in a lovely soprano, Maria sings us her own African worship song. Maria tells us she composed gospel music and led her home congregation's choir in Benin City, southern Nigeria. But desperate to flee poverty and support her mother and many siblings, Maria was lured by promises of a high-paying job as a waitress in an Athens bar.

Her story is far too common.

When Maria's meager waitressing income failed to cover her food and rent, the man who trafficked Maria pulled her into prostitution. She owes him 50,000 euros (roughly $75,000) and lives in virtual slavery, forced to remain within his eyeshot except when she works the streets.

"By God's grace, one day I'll stop this," Maria says.

Eirene recognizes a chance to extend hope. "It's not your fault you were trafficked," she says. "It's a sin your trafficker committed." Eirene tells Maria that victims willing to testify against their traffickers can earn free legal residency, thanks to Greek laws.

Unfortunately, potential reprisals scare victims into silence. Women who attempt escape endure beatings, torture, or rape.  And Maria tells us her "boss," an acquaintance of her family, has threatened to harm them if she ever escapes. In addition, voodoo rights, endured as an employment contract, psychologically bind Maria and other Nigerian women to their masters. To date, only three Nigerian traffickers have been convicted.

The ministry of Nea Zoi slowly loosens those traffickers' grip. Beyond making street visits, staff and volunteers call women on their cell phones, meet them in cafés, direct them to legal assistance, and join them on medical visits. Trusting friendships often take months or even years to develop. But, for women trapped in prostitution, these small connections become a link to the normal world.

"What we offer is God in us," says Jennifer Roemhildt. "People begin to see we genuinely care for them." The next step, she tells me, is getting the women to wonder if God cares for them as well. And as I watch tonight, I'm amazed how many women ask for Bibles or books, or just want to pray or talk. My praying friends around the globe must be pummeling the spiritual blockades to our ministry!

Still, Nea Zoi needs more prayer, volunteers, and financial sponsors. Helping women find courage to leave prostitution is only the beginning. In Greece's sluggish economy with limited entry-level positions, a new Nea Zoi program will teach these inexperienced women how to interview and relate to employers.  Most of all, it will give them hope.

The Road to Enslavement

Encouraged yet sobered by my week in Athens, I catch a flight to Amsterdam to visit the Scarlet Cord, an evangelical Dutch ministry in the city's infamous red-light district. Here, prostitution has been legal since 2000, and the sex industry in The Netherlands hauls in almost $1 billion yearly. Its 2,000 brothels and many escort services exploit 30,000 women and make it a major destination for trafficking victims from Ecuador, Thailand, Russia, and beyond. In one Amsterdam study, 79 percent of prostituted women said they were in prostitution due to a degree of force.

My guide as I walk down the city's lantern-lit cobblestone streets along medieval canals is Toos Heemskerk-Schep, street outreach coordinator for the Scarlet Cord. The district streets pulse with passersby ogling young women in garish lingerie posing in brothel windows beneath red neon lights.

But the onlookers aren't only leering, lusty young men who stop to window-shop. Couples who look like my grandparents stroll hand-in-hand and take in the "sights," as if visiting the zoo.  

Toos taps on several doors. She hands the women her business card and invites them to contact her should they ever need help. Behind the first door is a Hungarian woman, younger than 20, who speaks minimal Dutch. Unlike other women, she has little makeup to hide her freckles. She wears a white and silver polka-dot swimsuit. Her name is Lucy. 

She's likely one of many young women who fit a common profile: Perhaps her father was abusive or addicted to alcohol, then her mother became sick and needed hospitalization or medication. With younger siblings and few local job prospects, she enlisted to work abroad as an "exotic dancer" or "nanny." Or maybe she expected to do this "work" but envisioned earning piles of money to support her family. She never imagined the violence that, according to a 2006 study, 95 percent of women trafficked from Eastern Europe suffer.

To help both prostituted and trafficked women like Lucy journey from servitude to freedom, Scarlet Cord offers shelter, counseling and mentoring services, and links to legal aid and job training. Last year, Toos and her team counseled 99 women who wanted to get out of prostitution.

Breaking Bonds

Ultimately, Toos hopes the women meet Jesus.

The Scarlet Cord's "buddy" program links each woman coming out of prostitution with a woman involved in church. Every two weeks, the pair meets for coffee. Meanwhile, three other Christian women pray for the prostituted woman's salvation. One German woman who turned her back on prostitution became lasting friends with her buddy and now attends church regularly.

Such stories may increase now that the city of Amsterdam, recognizing the dark underworld of the sex industry, has shut down parts of the red-light district. Since last December, the city has bought 20 buildings and revoked licenses of two well-known sex venues. Places that were once brothels are now fashion boutiques.

Still, hundreds of thousands of women like Maria and Lucy continue to endure sexual slavery. I hear Jesus whispering loudly to join and support Christians who are reaching our sisters trapped in the Devil's bedroom. By God's grace, and through our obedience, one day they'll be free.

Dawn Herzog Jewell is the author of Escaping the Devil's Bedroom (Monarch Books), www.EscapingThe DevilsBedroom.com.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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