ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

‘Maiden, arise’

Catholic network in Lebanon rescues women from trafficking

Sister Marie Claude Naddaf, R.G.S., was 17 when she ran away from her home in Tartus, Syria, to join a congregation dedicated to promoting the welfare of women and girls.

“My parents were opposed to it,” she says. “They found me and brought me back before I could reach the convent and kept me prisoner in my room, but I decided to convince my father. After a while, he took me to Damascus and bought me an airplane ticket to Egypt, where I did my novitiate with the Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd.”

More than 50 years later, Sister Marie Claude’s tenacious spirit continues to serve her well as coordinator of Wells of Hope, a regional initiative of Talitha Kum, the Rome-based international network of religious sisters dedicated to combating human trafficking. “Talitha kum,” translated into English as “Maiden, arise,” are the words Jesus spoke in Aramaic when he raised Jairus’s daughter from the dead.

With teams in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Jordan, Wells of Hope seeks to prevent human trafficking in the Mediterranean Basin and to help survivors heal and rebuild their lives.

According to the United Nations, 87 percent of detected trafficking victims in Middle Eastern countries in 2020, excluding those in the Gulf Cooperation Council, were women; most trafficking cases were related to sex trafficking and forced labor.

The 15-member team of staff and volunteers at Wells of Hope in Lebanon focuses mostly on “prevention through awareness,” says Sister Marie Claude.

“Our aim is to preserve the dignity of persons, to spread awareness about human trafficking, to find ways of stopping it and to offer help to those who have been trafficked or abused,” she says.

Human trafficking and violence against women have been longstanding issues of concern for Sister Marie Claude. Prior to Wells of Hope, she had spent several years working on empowering women victims of domestic violence, first in Lebanon, then in Syria.

Sister Wardeh Kayrouz, F.M.M., sits with children at a day care playground in Nabaa, Lebanon.
Sister Wardeh Kayrouz, F.M.M., heads a nursery and day care in Nabaa, Lebanon. (photo: Raghida Skaff)

When appointed superior of the convent in Damascus in 1996, she started “Oasis Shelter” for victims of domestic abuse and human trafficking, as well as a related emergency hotline, and worked to raise awareness on these issues.

The shelter and hotline were both firsts in Syria, where the situation for women and girls has worsened since the 10-year civil war and has been exacerbated by the earthquakes that struck the country in February, according to a 2023 report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Statistics provided by the Syrian Network for Human Rights paint a horrific picture. From 2011, when the civil war began, to 2021, the N.G.O. reported 11,523 documented incidents of sexual violence against women and girls in Syria, 10,628 women and girls forcibly disappeared, and another 28,617 women and girls murdered.

Sister Marie Claude moved to Lebanon in 2011, when she was elected to a six-year term as provincial superior of the Good Shepherd Sisters for Lebanon and Syria. In 2018, upon returning from a sabbatical year, she was invited to meet Sister Gabriella Bottani, then international coordinator of Talitha Kum, which led to the founding of Wells of Hope a year later.

Social worker Nayiri Arslanian, among the first Wells of Hope team members in Lebanon, regularly leads interactive sessions aimed at raising awareness about human trafficking in some of Lebanon’s most vulnerable areas.

“From day one, we went to the people. We visited Palestinian refugee camps, the poorest neighborhoods, in all different parts of the country,” she says. 

Ms. Arslanian always starts a session asking audience members what they know about human trafficking. At first, people are too shy to respond. Then, she explains that every time a person is being constrained to do something against his or her will, it is human trafficking. And she waits and observes the reactions.

It was in the context of a recent session that the social worker uncovered a case of human trafficking: A Syrian woman could not stop crying during the presentation; she did not know what she was enduring had a name or that anyone could help. She had entered Lebanon illegally, was living on the street and was coerced into sex trafficking. Wells of Hope helped her with rent for an apartment of her own and encouraged her to enroll in the Wells of Hope women’s empowerment program.

“It’s never easy to deal with trafficked persons,” says Ms. Arslanian. “They have been so deceived that they don’t trust anyone. This woman at a certain point tried to be a trafficker herself. Our work wasn’t easy, but we succeeded in getting her back on track.”

“This is God’s mercy,” says Sister Marie Claude about how these sessions have offered hope and help to trafficking victims. “Without them knowing, God puts on their way a person, a ray of hope that could help.”

A mother sitting on a bed fixes the hair of her child.
Dalal Atallah’s daughter attends the day care of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary in Nabaa, Lebanon. (photo: Raghida Skaff)

Sheikah, whose name was changed to protect her privacy, is another trafficking victim who is being assisted by Wells of Hope.

“I can never heal from all I have been through,” she tells ONE. “But every morning I wake up and I thank God. I am grateful. I could have died like many other girls.”

Sheikah was lured into sex trafficking by a recruiter. She was held in a house against her will for six years by one of the most powerful prostitution networks in the country. Hers was a long and painful journey toward freedom. She later married and had a daughter, but her marriage was abusive. When her husband tried to kill her, she sought the help of a social worker and met Ms. Arslanian. Sheikah, too, enrolled in the women’s empowerment program.

Sexual exploitation has increased across the board among migrant and local populations in Lebanon in recent years, says Ms. Arslanian. According to the U.S. Department of State’s 2023 Trafficking in Persons Report for Lebanon, the “combined impact” of Lebanon’s economic and financial crises, as well as COVID-19 restrictions, “increased the vulnerability of Lebanese nationals to trafficking.”

However, Ms. Arslanian notes a particular increase of sexual exploitation among migrant domestic workers, contracted under the “kafala” or sponsorship system in Middle Eastern countries, where an employer has almost total control over a worker’s life. These workers often face difficult circumstances and are vulnerable to trafficking and other forms of abuse.

“Their employers can’t pay them anymore, and they can’t make enough money, so we see more and more of them on the streets,” she explains. “Once they are on the streets, they become easy prey for traffickers and now they face two issues at the same time.”

“It is in the best interest of children that they be in school, but they are sent to work, and there, they are underpaid.”

Child labor, as well as forced child labor, continue to increase in Lebanon, especially “among the Syrian refugee population,” according to the same U.S. Department of State report.

“Child labor is considered human trafficking,” explains Ms. Arslanian. “It is in the best interest of children that they be in school, but they are sent to work, and there, they are underpaid. Very often they are beaten by their employer. They have to work very long hours.”

Organ trafficking is also a growing issue of concern. Ms. Arslanian recounts the case of an 11-year-old child who asked his mother if selling his kidney would earn them enough money to quit his job.

“Many times, I end up doing parenting guidance,” she adds. “I understand that some people really need the money their children are earning, but they should send them to afternoon classes at least and check if the employer is treating their children well.”

The task ahead is huge. 

Wells of Hope organizes regular daylong awareness campaigns, in collaboration with parishes, municipalities, social service institutions and other religious groups. The program includes age-specific activities and special attention is given to social media as the primary tool recruiters use to attract new victims.

“The recruiter working for a bigger boss knows how to recognize easy prey,” says Ms. Arslanian. “He immediately spots a girl who has never learned to say no in her life.”

She tells the story of a 15-year-old girl who was intercepted at the Lebanese border thanks to the efforts of Wells of Hope. She had met a man online and had fallen prey to a sex trafficking network.

Going up against international human trafficking networks is dangerous and Sister Marie Claude never uses a personal phone number or personal email address. A member of her team was once attacked after an awareness session for children. Still, the team continues its work.

In the four years since its founding, Wells of Hope has helped seven women escape trafficking and start their path toward healing. The most recent victim was a domestic worker who left her home country in the Horn of Africa 15 years ago to work in an Arab country and then went missing. Her mother had been searching for her, but without success. After Sister Marie Claude received a phone call about the case, indicating that the missing woman might be in Lebanon, she immediately started an investigation.

“When we found and recognized her, she had no legal documents,” says Sister Marie Claude. “We worked and God helped, and we were able to get her to her country’s embassy, and then to her country.

“Her mother sent a message saying: ‘Today I was born again and was given life again. You gave life to me and you gave life to my daughter.’ ”

Empowering women and providing them the support they need to have regular employment and not fall prey to exploitation is at the heart of the work of Sister Wardeh Kayrouz, F.M.M. She heads the nursery and day care of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary in Nabaa, a poor neighborhood of Beirut.

The nursery was founded in 1966, after a Franciscan sister learned that a mother had tied up her son at home because she had no one to care for him while she was at work. Since then, the nursery has welcomed the neighborhood’s poorest children, regardless of race or creed. It currently welcomes 50 children, from six months to 3 years old.

“This nursery was created to help working moms and for children to be in a safe place,” says Sister Wardeh.

Over the years, many domestic workers have enrolled their children at the day care, including Nancy Kano from Nigeria. She and her husband have been living in Lebanon for 16 years.

“We stand by you, you are not alone. We have to be strong and face adversity together.”

“All my children went to this nursery, all five of them. The sisters help a lot,” says Mrs. Kano, whose youngest daughter is currently enrolled there.

Before admitting a child, Sister Wardeh studies their file and visits the family. She knows all the children’s families, as well as many other families in the neighborhood.

Prior to Lebanon’s economic crisis, more than 80 percent of the children at the day care were of migrant workers or were unregistered children, that is, children born outside of marriage and therefore without legal documents. The war in Syria saw an increase in the number of children of Syrian refugees. However, this year, Lebanese children represent almost 50 percent of the enrollment for the first time since the day care’s founding due to financial hardship.

Priority is given to children who were not registered at birth, as they do not have any legal documents and will not find another nursery — or later a school — that will accept them, making them vulnerable to exploitation. Sister Wardeh assists in the process of getting them birth certificates.

“The mission of our congregation is to stand by the people in the society in which we live,” she says. “We see how we can help and support the people around us wherever we are.”

Aside from her work at the nursery, she collaborates with a team of seven, among them two social workers, a nurse and a psychologist, that offers psychosocial support to 270 families in difficult situations. They also organize family trips and special activities for children.

“In a very difficult reality, we help people to take a different look at their lives and to try to find a solution for their problems on their own,” she says. “Of course, the needs are huge and what we do is not enough, but it’s our way of telling them, ‘We stand by you, you are not alone. We have to be strong and face adversity together.’ ”

Read this article in our digital format here.

Arzé Khodr is a freelance writer and playwright, based in Beirut.

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