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Mary, 18, from Benin City, Nigeria, at a safe house for victims of sex trafficking run by the Penelope association on the outskirts of Taormina, Sicily, Italy on April 27, 2017. When she was seventeen, Mary escaped a life with no prospects in Nigeria to work in Italy, but was deceived by traffickers into becoming a prostitute. On her journey she was raped by the trafficker, and on arrival in Italy she confessed that knew she was going to be used in the sex trade, giving authorities the opportunity to extract her from the ring.
“There is no hope in Nigeria,” Mary says, “I suffered a lot there, I don’t have anyone to help me. I couldn’t go to school. My father is dead to me, I have no siblings, so I had to work as a house girl looking after a woman’s babies and cleaning her house. I was so frustrated and didn’t know what to do, and my friend said I should go to Europe. I don’t have anyone to rely on in Nigeria, and I decided to go.”
“Though my country is sweet and I love it, I suffered too much. There was no future there for me. A woman said she would help me and send me to Europe and she introduced me to a man, his name is Ben, who she said could help me. Ben said he knew people who had restaurants to put me to work in. For the moment, he said he would pay my expenses.
“The next day, the man called me to his house.” Mary says. “There were lots of boys and girls there. He said to all of us, if we made it to Europe, we all had to each pay €25,000. Some people said no, but I said that was okay.”
“Then he took us to a place they do juju.”
Juju is an ancient Nigerian belief system in the occult and through witches, spells are be cast on girls to ensure they fear for their lives should they escape.
“We had to swear to an old woman –a sorcerer– that we wouldn’t run.” Mary explains.
“So, on March 17, I left for Libya. That place is very very bad. They treated us so bad–everything Ben, the man who took us, said, that we would be treated well, and that we would be safe, it was all wrong. It was a lie.”
“When we were there, we were trapped first in Gharyan. For three months we were there, and a lot of the girls were raped.” Mary remembers. “That man, Ben, took two of us girls one night. He gave the other girl to an Arab man, and he said to me if I didn’t sleep with him, he would give me to Arab and not bring me to Europe. He raped me.”
“I didn’t have a phone, so I couldn’t reach anyone in Nigeria. There was no way out. One day, Brigette, a woman that was a connection woman that worked with the man took me to Tripoli for a month. She wouldn’t let me or the other girls out of the house because she said we would run.”
“From there we were taken to Sabratha, though everyone calls it ‘Seaside’, because that’s where they push the girls to Italy on the sea.” Mary says. “We were there for months, and that place is so very bad and dangerous. I was begging for them to feed us. All these Arabs, the Libyan men, they come and if they see a boy, they make him work for them. If they see a girl they rape her. I wanted to get away but I couldn’t–I had no money, no phone. I didn’t even know where I was to escape.”
“I had to stay until they called me to go on the boat. We went to sea and on August 11, 2016, we were rescued by Italian coast guard. I was friends with a girl who had been deported and was making the journey for a second time, and she told me we were going to be used as prostitutes, and that I should not talk to the madams and that I had to stay inside the camp the Italian’s would put us in.”
“I was thinking, ‘I’m not going to work with my body, I don’t want to sell it. Since I was a little girl, I hated prostitution.” Mary says.
Mary was seventeen years old when she set foot on Europe for the first time.
“When we arrived at shore, a white woman, Gilda, who was a lawyer, talked to me.” Mary says, “I told her I owed a man named Ben money, and I was taken from the camp and put into a safe house.”
“Now the people who paid for my trip are saying to my mother it’s time for money.” Mary says quietly. “They say I have run away, and that they paid for my trip and I owe them. They say that if I don’t pay, they will put a curse on me to make me be deported.”
“Two weeks ago, they came to my mother’s place and handcuffed her. They took her to a house and threatened her. The said they would do something very bad to her if I don’t send money.” Mary says, her voice breaking, “So now when she calls me I don’t know what to say, so I have to shut my phone off. I’m so sad, under so much pressure, and I’m so tired. I don’t know what to do.”
“I’m waiting for my documents, and then I can work and everyone says I have to be patient. And my mother has to be patient, but it’s hard.” Mary says.
“I can’t go stand on the side of the road in the name of money.” She says, her voice raising, “I have a future. Standing there, selling myself would destroy my life. My dignity. Everything. I would prefer to beg than do that.”
“What would I tell my children?” She asks. “How could I look in the eyes of a good man? Who would marry a prostitute?”
“What I’m passing through right now is so big, so serious, I see myself as a grown up.” She says, “I missed ever being a child.
Mary pauses and looks over the mountains that lead to Mount Etna, looming in the distance. A chill is blowing in through the valley, and she wraps a blanket around her slight frame.
“I have been inside here for so long,” she says, tears falling down her face, “always inside. I’m so very lonely. The other girls play with me sometimes, but not with heart. Everyone here has short tempers, they all have their own problems, and fights happen easily. I don’t want to get hurt again, so I stay in my room. I use my phone, I sleep a lot and sometimes I cry in there. I don’t have any friends. I have noone.”
“I just want to be happy, I just want to be free.” She says, struggling to talk over her sobbing, “I want it to be over, even just for one day. I need a peaceful place, and to feel the beautiful world. Sometimes I feel like giving up. I feel abandoned, and rejected. I try to be strong, but sometimes I lose that, and I can’t sleep or eat.”
“I don’t know when I will go to the commission to do my interview, but I don’t know anything. Everyone says wait, wait, wait. I just feel more confused though. I feel like noone is working on my case, it’s like they don’t think I exist. We get food everyday, and that’s all. I can only pray that something changes.”
“Even in Nigeria, I thought my life would be better, but I’m still in a prison.” Mary says, “I feel like Im going to be in one place forever. This room. I’ve been abandoned here. I can’t talk to the girls here. I can’t tell them what’s inside of me, and it makes me feel so old. I’m so confused. I can’t focus. I just want to be free.”
“I have to believe it’s just a matter of time. One day I will have my documents, I will have an education, I will have work.” She says. “My dream is to become a lawyer, to be able to help people. I want to give justice to the girls that have to use their bodies for work.”
Numbers of unaccompanied minors and migrants arriving in Italy after making the dangerous voyage from Libya has increased this year from 2016. (Photo by Ashley Gilbertson / VII Photo for UNICEF)