Irene from our partner organization Associazione Papa Giovanni XXIII, tells us about her experience as a foster mother of victims of human trafficking.
A journey of dreams, hope, and determination towards a new life.
We interviewed Irene Ciambezi, European Projects and Communication Officer of the Anti-Trafficking Service of APG XXIII. Since its foundation, the association has supported victims of trafficking for sexual purposes, and in recent years also victims of begging and labor exploitation. The organization currently provides assistance to 111 victims of human trafficking for sexual purposes thanks to 304 families who welcome them in their own homes, in Italy and around the world. In 10 years APGXXIII has welcomed women and girls of 7 different nationalities. Four CRISALIS beneficiaries were hosted by foster families, before joining Quid in Verona.
Irene started working for APG23 in 2002, in the outreach unit of a shelter for women victims of sexual exploitation. Here – she says – she first experienced the full recovery of someone who has been violated in her dignity, in her body, and in her mind and to what extent this project requires a shared effort in building new prospects, together.
How many girls do you welcome in your house? How old are they?
As a foster family we currently host a girl and we are still in touch with two. We are hosting someone since she was 16 years old and today she’s 20, in the phase of working autonomy and on her way to move out and live independently. Together we envisaged a life plan related to her passion for the textile industry: sewing, fabrics, clothes. The other two girls are now aged 21, one is now part of an integration project in Germany while the secured a permanent job as a cleaner and canteen assistant in a nursing home.
What do you think your role is in helping these girls?
For all of us, educators, and not just volunteers is that being a foster parent is a choice of life and a vocation. I believe that the most difficult task is the encounter with a different culture, which requires a personal work of liberation from prejudices and stereotypes. My sensitivity as an intercultural mediator and communicator helps me to treasure such differences. Each of us, even the most wounded person, has a mother and a father in its roots. I believe in guaranteeing a family to those who do not have it, trying to rebuild, without ever replacing it, that family bond that makes you say “I have a family also in Italy”. It is a continuous search for the meaning of the origins of the roots.
What does it mean to you to be “mom” to these girls?
Being mother and a father means being able to see the potential of the person, it means being able to stop, even in the most difficult moments, to look at the positive, which they maybe shared with you confidentially. It also means accepting being a scapegoat for all that suffering, that anger that has nothing to do with you, because our foster children have to face their fears, the revulsion towards oneself, not accepting oneself because of the circumstances one has unwillingly been put through. So being a foster mother means embracing foster-children’s wounds that we cannot heal and stay close, to help them take the courage to find coping and healing strategies. Listening, accepting silence, and being ready to be (foster) mothers for life.
What are the difficulties of this work?
The main difficulty is that social inclusion programmes are structured on very tight timelines, but they do not reflect the time and pace needed by women and girls facing the transition to a different stage. We try to respect such timelines, but it is clear that if necessary we choose to go beyond the time we’re allocated. We put the foster child and their and history at the center, knowing that moving forward may need more support that one is granted by statutory programmes. Another difficulty is to rebuild the cultural system, roots, values, and the spiritual dimension: a key part of the integration process to understand the meaning of one’s own history and life.
What qualities does a person needs to have in order to accommodate a foster child who has been a victim of trafficking or abuse?
I think the main quality is the ability to work on oneself, to go through prejudices, and then overcome them, especially racial stereotypes. The second quality is knowing how to work together with others. I welcome you in my home, but I am not a happy island, so I know that the person will need other resources, that’s why collaboration, especially on a local level, is important.
What’s the bond between you and your foster children
The most important aspect is to build a relationship of trust, a healthy and meaningful bond, and then to ensure that this bond is not misunderstood. I have a role as a foster mother but I can never be the person who gives you all the things you lack. You have to be able to do it yourself: I offer you advice, but you have to do things. It is a relationship of trust that, however, in the right moments, can be a relationship of healthy detachment, as it is the case within every educational process.
Could you tell us about an episode or a story that stuck with you?
An experience that still strikes us very much today is that of a 17-year-old girl that we welcomed, during the 2011 earthquake in Emilia. We met her through the help of social services, she lived in a country far from ours and came to attend a catering school – her passion – and to complete her studies. What struck me was that during that time she showed a sense of responsibility and courage towards her life plan and life goals. If you want to be the protagonist of your own life, you cannot stop in front of difficulties but you have to keep going. And that’s what she did, obtaining her school diploma as well as the catering diploma, and then moving on to a training internship. She got a job in another city, and now she is an independent adult, a smart and responsible woman, who we’re still in touch with.
What do you think a girl who has been a victim of trafficking needs to integrate into the Italian social fabric? And what does it need/what They need to know Italy and the Italians to welcome it
First of all, discrimination must be addressed, because it exists, especially gender discrimination. Even today, many Italian men approach these young women on the street (girls who have survived trafficking, workers or schoolgirls) and only because they are foreigners and women turn to them labeling them as prostitutes and asking them for sexual attentions. It is necessary to know how to deal with these episodes by addressing rather than ignoring them. Another important aspect of the integration process is to foster a positive exchange between cultures, encouraging newcomers to grasp those cultural aspects that can be beneficial to them. As far as the territory is concerned, working on discrimination, especially racial discrimination, is important; It is equally important to support young newcomers to identify opportunities and resources in a new country.
What’s the legacy of a foster journey, on both side?
On a human level, it is a very tough legacy. Those who have gone through a trafficking experience lay bare your motivation, force you to ponder your life choices daily and inspire you to do your best. Our final goal is to see the dignity of your foster children redresses, and there is joy in being able to see that we have built together a sense of active citizenship, being part of a process of integration in the country, having built a small piece of an intercultural, non-violent, welcoming, different society. When our journey together comes to an end we try to give a clear idea: we are there, the door of the house is always open but now it is up to you to walk. We leave foster children with the mission to build a new core and write a new story. It is very important that we are there, in the background but that’s what we say: I will not disturb now, because this is your story.
Thank you Irene for sharing your experience with us! If you would like to know better our partner Associazione Papa Giovanni XXIII, check their website: www.apg23.org