Recap: Anna is a teenager from Russia who dreamed of better things for her Mother and siblings, so upon seeing an advertisement for nanny jobs in the US in a shop window, she applied and was prepared to leave her family and her country/continent in order to send $1000.00 per month home to them. She was scared and excited, all at the same time.
Unfortunately, favour was not smiling on Anna, and she was put on a bus that was supposed to take her to the airport and on to America, but instead took her to Laos where she was sold into slavery, and abused in every way imaginable.
She had begun to feel as though there was no way out, and that this was her life, and every ounce of life had been sucked out of her, when a young man came into the shop at the house she was a slave in and saw something fishy. He reported what he thought he saw, and following a well orchestrated raid, her abductors were imprisoned and she was rescued into a rehabilitation home for girls and women just like her.
This is where we pick back up in Anna’s Story. In today’s fourth (and final) installment of this fictional account of events (that are all too close to the truth of what happens all the time), we’re going to find Anna in a much better situation than she was in before. Find parts One, Two, and Three of the story here if you haven’t already read them. A reminder: Though I’ve clearly never been through any of this myself, I did my best to use the information that Exodus Road gives in their monthly newsletters to their bloggers to empathize and create a piece from Anna’s point of view.
Read on for Part Four!!
I sat straight up in my bed, lightning fast. I looked around me. I didn’t know where I was. The previous 36 hours had been a blur, and as the details started to focus in more clearly, I vaguely recalled commotion, being yanked out of the house I’d been in for the past 8 months, and being semi-assured, in barely comprehensible, broken Russian, that everything was going to be OK, that I was safe. I was supposedly taken to a facility designed for post-abduction/slavery rehabilitation, run by social workers. They gave me clean clothes, a hot meal (I hadn’t had one in months), and clean water to drink.
I looked around me. Could this be real? As my eyes focused in the faint glow of the sliver moon shining through the window, I observed that I was in fact safe, by all appearances. I looked across the room at Kalina, sleeping soundly in another bed. She looked peaceful. She looked comfortable. I laid back down. I pleaded with God that this could be real. I’d stopped talking to God a few months prior, feeling like a loving God would never have let me get where I was in the first place… but maybe it’s like my Mom always said…. maybe He works ALL things together for my good… and maybe this had a purpose.
I fell back into a peaceful, rested sleep. When I woke up, Kalina wasn’t in the room anymore. I noticed in the daylight what I hadn’t noticed in the early morning hours. There were many other beds in the room. All were empty and remade. I looked at the clock on the wall. 10:45 am. I hadn’t slept that late in months. No one had let me. I felt an incredible sense of peace then, knowing that I must not be there for someone else’s gains, but for my own good. These people could truly have meant it when they said they’re here to help me.
I found the clean clothes I’d been given the night before and shuffled quietly, still waking up, down the hallway, looking and listening for anyone I could find. I remembered more details from the night before, and recalled that the only Russian anyone spoke was broken at best, and so if I hoped to communicate at all, I’d need to find Kalina. Her Laotian developed far faster than mine when we were stuck in that house.
The hallway ended at a large common room. The sun streamed in through open windows. Birds sang, and girls all around me smiled when I walked in. Kalina spotted me and pointed me out to the woman she was sitting with. I was intercepted by a young man who lead me to a line of so many choices of food to eat. I’d never seen so much in one place before… or at least, not that I was allowed to eat. I took my food and sat down with Kalina and the woman.
Kalina introduced the woman as our counselor. She explained that they’d flown her in from Russia to make sure that we received the best care after all we’d been through. Our counselor, Kasia, just smiled. “I’m here to help you,” she said.
“What happens now?” I asked.
“We have a doctor waiting to you,” Kasia explained. “You’ve been through a lot. We want to make sure you’re alright.”
I nodded. “Then we set you up with a counseling schedule, and we’ll introduce you to the girls you’ll be doing group therapy with. You’ll all have an opportunity to talk to others who’ve been through similar situations to your own, and you’ll be able to find strength in your recovery together. We’ve made sure that you and Kalina both are in a group with girls who also speak Russian.”
I nodded again. “When do we get to go home?” I asked, and tears welled up in my eyes. I had stopped thinking about home around 3 months into this whole ordeal. It was too painful, and I couldn’t let myself do it.
“There’s a process around that,” explained Kasia, “Your case needs to be cleared through the legal system here in order to effectively prosecute those who took and sold you. We’ll get you home as soon as we can. In the meantime though, there are several phones scattered throughout the facility where we’ll be happy to get you connected to your family so that you can talk to them and tell them you’re OK. You can talk to them for as long as you want.”
Until that point, I’d been determined to remain very strong. Kalina was the only person who’d seen me cry, even when being beaten and abused. I had stuffed every emotion so far down that I had occasionally forgotten they were there. I had decided that it took some of the sport out of abusing me if my abusers couldn’t see how it affected me. I couldn’t keep it in anymore. I just wanted to talk to my Mom. Tears flowed freely down my cheeks.
“Can I call right now?” I squeaked out.
“Of course you can, let me show you to a private phone.”
Ten minutes later, I was sitting eagerly with the phone receiver pressed against my ear, praying my Mom would answer as the phone rang and rang.
Finally, I heard the ringing stop and her voice came over the speaker and into my ear. “Hello?” Came her familiar voice in Russian. I couldn’t get any words out.
“Hello?” She said again. “Is anyone there?”
“Mama?” I croaked out.
“Anna!?” She cried! My mother began to sob into the phone. “Anna, is that you!?”
“Yeah, Mama, it’s me,” I sniffled. “I’m here. I’m safe.”
“Where are you!? Where have you been? I’ve been worried sick? What happened to you?” My mother had more questions than she knew how to ask, and who could blame her? For all she knew, I’d either abandoned my family or died trying. I was sure she’d lost hope by now, only to have it all come flooding back with one phone call.
“Mama I miss you so much! And my sister! Alexis! I took her for granted. And even those little brothers… my heart broke when I thought that Liev and Zasha might think that I abandoned all of you. I didn’t, Mama, I didn’t. I wanted to come home. I wanted to break free, but they wouldn’t let me, there was no way out! When I got on that bus, the man…. he, he, he… he sold our passports and he took us to Laos, and Mama I’ve been here for 8 months? I lost track. I don’t know what day it is! But Mama… I’m safe. A man, he… he came to the store, and he reported what he thought he saw to the police, and they rescued us! Mama, I’m safe now. I’m still in Laos, I’m pretty sure, but I’m safe.”
My mother just laughed. “Sweetie, my dear Anna, we never thought you abandoned us. We knew something was wrong. We prayed for you every night. Even Liev and Zasha, they were on their knees and they talked to Jesus. Just last night they asked him…. they said they were pretty sure he was there, and it made sense that he cared about them, but that if he really wanted them to believe that he loved them, they wanted their big sister back. I tried to tell them that bargaining with God doesn’t work like that, but they were sure that they had to just tell Jesus what they really wanted. And they wanted you. Safe, and home… they wanted you.”
We both sat on the phone crying without words for several minutes. Finally, my Mama quietly asked the question I dreaded. One I didn’t really know the answer to. “When are you coming home?”
“I don’t really know, Mama. I hope soon. They said something about making sure that process was followed, and that I can’t leave until that’s happened… I hope soon. But they’re taking good care of me. I have a comfortable bed, clean clothes, warm water and hot food. I can call anytime I want. They have social workers to help us deal with… all of this, and they’re letting me stay with Kalina, a friend I made in the house where we were held. We live really close to each other in Russia, too. As soon as we’re cleared through the system, we will be home. But I’ll call every day. And I’ll call tomorrow after school to talk to Alexis, Liev, and Zasha.”
“My dear Anna. You are so strong. I love you, you know. So much. I love that you tried to make a different path for us, and that even though you were intercepted while trying, and I can’t even imagine the horrors you’ve seen, you still have that Anna spark in your voice when you talk to me. We never gave up on you. We NEVER thought you abandoned us. Never. That’s not you. We know that, baby. We know that.” She sighed. “You keep calling. We will see you very soon!”
That was the first of many phone calls filled with tears that I’d share with my Mother and siblings over the coming months. Through some intense therapy sessions and counseling, I was able to regain a great deal of the trust of strangers that I’d lost. My therapists and counselors said that it would make sense if I had trouble sleeping at night without remembering the horrific things I’d been through, but after 7 weeks I finally had a different dream. I remember waking up smiling. I had dreamed up my wedding. I was getting married, and my family was all there. Kalina was there. Kasia was there. I had found a man who loved me for me, with my strong personality that wouldn’t be pushed around that developed as a result of what I’d been through. He loved me despite how I’d been treated, and he never let me feel used and worthless, even though many girls in my situation would feel that way. I woke up smiling because I didn’t have a nightmare, and I’d slept right through the night.
That morning at breakfast, Kasia came to sit with Kalina and me to talk to us about our next steps. She explained that all of the legal red tape was cleared up, and we were able to leave the country freely now. Our flights had been paid for by a charitable organization in Vientiane driven to support the rehabilitation of human trafficking victims. My face whitened though. The last time I was supposed to get on a plane to something that sounded too good to be true, it turned out to be just that, and I was sold into slavery.
Kasia put her hands on mine. “Don’t worry, child,” she tried to soothe the fear she could see plastered on my face. “Hey, Anna, look at me. You’ll be safe. There is a volunteer from the organization paying for your flight who will be flying with you all the way to St. Petersburg, and you will not be out of his sight until you’re with your family again. We promise.”
I relaxed. Kasia had become a great friend of mine in the past 2 months, even though she started simply as my therapist. She also explained that the Laotian government was going to give me $1000 USD with which to travel, but that since my flight and transportation were all covered, I could save it and use it for my own purposes.
When I got home to Russia a week later, I was met by my Mother, Alexis, Liev, and Zasha at the airport to be taken home. They hugged me so hard I thought I’d stop breathing. I had never been so happy to be squished by hugs in my life.
Over coffee and breakfast the next morning at a new house, my Mother told me that the local church had just given her two jobs. She and my siblings moved out of our old house two days before I came home. She would be their secretary and she would clean for them. They didn’t want to hire the same person for two jobs because they felt it was too much work, but my Mother explained to me that before she’d gone to the interview, she’d prayed for a long time for a job that would provide the amount of money she’d need to stop being a prostitute, as well as to make sure that Alexis, Liev, and Zasha could stay in school without having to quit to work. She knew the number, but wouldn’t tell any prospective employers without being asked. She interviewed for the position as secretary, and when she was offered the job and told the salary, she started to cry. It had seemed so good, but it wasn’t good enough, because she knew she couldn’t work at a church during the day and be a prostitute at night. So she decided to tell the church her story, knowing that it was shocking and she may lose the job, but also knowing that in her renewed faith since I was rescued, she felt confident that this was the job her Lord wanted her to have. She explained that she was willing to do anything, but that in order to leave her current job which was killing her soul, she needed to make a certain amount of money. The Church leadership team’s eyes widened when my mother told them what she had to make per month to get out of prostitution, because it was, to the cent, the exact amount of money they were prepared to offer for both positions combined. The church immediately offered to give her both jobs, and arranged to have her immediately moved from where we’d lived all my life to keep her safe from those who’d go looking for her. Prostitution can be terrifyingly difficult to escape.
I then told her about the thousand dollars I’d been given, and that I thought I would like to pursue business school. The life we’d been living was behind us now, and it was time to move on and forward. We were excited about our new lives. My sister and brothers would get to stay in school, I would get an education, and my Mother could stop selling her body and her soul to the highest bidder.
Flash forward five years, and I’m sitting in my office in my very own bakery writing you this story. I’ve been fiddling with a ring on my finger for the past three weeks because I can’t believe that I got married. I met him in business school, which I successfully completed, and with his help and support, I bought my own little shop. With the skills I learned working in a bakery before being sold to Laos, I make specialty breads and desserts that are popular all over St. Petersburg. I’m currently looking into expanding into a second location. The girls who work for me are at risk to end up in prostitution themselves, because I vowed that I would never willingly let someone go through what my family has been through. I’ve been working closely with social services for the past three years, making sure that I can provide a constructive environment for girls who need a strong role model. I offer free seminars on cooking and baking which double as support groups for these young girls, because they draw out older women who will mentor them, and I’m active in the community providing education about the dangers of human trafficking, how to recognize it, and how to stop it.
As I look out the window in my office, the thought hits me that some dreams really do come true. I’m reminded as I write this story that I will never hang advertisements for American nanny services in my windows, and that I’ll always do my best to be a welcoming beacon for the troubled and the needy in St. Petersburg. This needs to end, and I plan to help stop it. Even if I only save a handful of girls, it’s still a handful of girls who never have to see the things I’ve seen.
Check out this video that Exodus Road sent us bloggers in our newsletter this month. It’s called Is Justice Worth It?
And think about it…. Is it? Is fighting for justice worth it, even if it only saves a handful of people? I think so, don’t you?