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Human Trafficking: Interview with Sr. Patricia Ebegbulem

February 7, AD2016
Birgit - Garden of Hope
February 8 marks the 2nd International Day of Prayer and Awareness Against Human Trafficking because February 8 is the feast day of St. Josephine Bakhita, a former slave girl from Sudan who was rescued from human trafficking and entered the consecrated life. She lived her life with deep devotion to God and care for the poor and suffering.

Sr. Patricia Ebegbulem

St. Bakhita’s legacy is carried on by the many consecrated women who work diligently to fight the scourge of human trafficking. Not least among them is Sr. Patricia Ebegbulem and her fellow Sisters of St. Louis who run Bakhita Villa, a shelter for survivors of human trafficking in Lagos, Nigeria. Only a few years ago, Sr. Patricia received the highest Papal honor for Consecrated persons, the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice medal, given in recognition of her long years of commitment and exemplary service to the church in Nigeria.

Nigeria is the primary country of origin for victims of human trafficking in Europe. Sr. Patricia and her fellow sisters are members of Talitha Kum, the international network of consecrated women fighting against human trafficking. Bakhita Villa is a bright light in a dark place, and these sisters are truly ministers of mercy.

As you read this interview with Sr. Patricia, please consider what you might be able to give to help Bakhita Villa in their spiritual and material needs.

An Interview with Sr. Patricia

 Sr. Patricia, thank you for taking time to discuss the crisis of human trafficking and your fight against it. Could you tell us about your shelter?

Sr. Patricia: Our shelter in Lagos opened on April 1st, 2009. But that was in Ikeja, another part of Lagos. The house rent was increasing exorbitantly every year til 2014 when it became impossible for us to pay the rent. It was then that we got a place in another part of Lagos, where the rent was affordable. This is how we came to Ipaja, our present location on March 23, 2014.

At our Anti-Human Trafficking Conference in Pretoria, South Africa in April 2013, TALITHA KUM, African Region, chose St. Josephine Bakhita, an African ex-slave girl, as Patron Saint of its anti-trafficking ministry, and resolved that February 8, her feast day, be Human Trafficking Day for Africa. When I returned from South Africa I named our Shelter, Bakhita Villa.

 Who lives at Bakhita Villa?

Sr. Patricia: Three Sisters live here. About four survivors lived here at a given time. But then it varies.  In the past there were times we had about six survivors living in the house. [Previously,] most of the survivors chose to settle in Lagos. But now the survivors prefer to go back to Edo State, Benin City, in particular and settle there. We have seven beds for survivors. Now, the Lagos shelter, Bakhita Villa, serves more as a transit home. When I travelled back from Rome [from the Talitha Kum conference], two survivors and a baby traveled back with me. They have gone to Benin City where they want to be rehabilitated and reintegrated.

 How are survivors coming to you?

Sr. Patricia: Most of our survivors [are originally] from Edo State in Nigeria – about 95% of our survivors are from Edo State. About 4% are from other parts of Nigeria, while 1% are from outside Nigeria. Because Nigeria is ‘topping the list’ in the area of human trafficking, when a country is in doubt as to where to send a victim of human trafficking, they deport them to Nigeria.

Most of our survivors come to us through some religious groups we collaborate with [other members of Talitha Kum], such as SLAVES NO MORE in Italy; SOLWODI (SOlidarity with WOmen in Distress). Some individuals, groups, etc from outside Nigeria also send us victims. Most of these victims are from Europe. We have many internal victims of trafficking, but our problem is raising the funds to support them.

They usually spend from about 3 months to two years [with us]. This depends on their ability to settle and stabilize. For those who already have skills, they stay for about six months. But for those who have to acquire some skills, they stay for at least one year.

Does Bakhita Villa help only women?

Sr. Patricia: From the photo of Ismael that I sent to you, you can see that we also help and work with men. Actually, as soon as I arrived back from Rome, we were able to secure accommodation for one of our young men – Vincent. He was deported from Austria and a group from Austria is assisting him through us. At the moment he is learning to be a mechanic.

What is the impact made at Bakhita Villa?

Sr. Patricia: We see GOD working through Bakhita Villa through the many success stories we have. Some of our women have been economically empowered and are happily married with children. Even some of the men who have been part of Bakhita Villa family have also been empowered with the assistance of some generous donors. These men were deported from some European countries.

What obstacles do your survivors face?

Sr. Patricia:

  • Unfulfilled promises to their families
  • Shame
  • At times having to return to the difficult situations that pushed them out
  • Feeling of humiliation and loss of self-esteem
  • A strong feeling of helplessness

What awaits them when they leave Bakhita Villa?

Sr. Patricia: If when they leave Bakhita Villa we are able to rehabilitate and reintegrate them, what awaits them then is the regaining of their sense of worth and self-esteem. They live in dignity and feel fulfilled

They know they have a great support from the Sisters and the Catholic Church even if their traffickers try to threaten. But this is taken care of before they leave Bakhita Villa.

After the victim leaves Bakhita Villa, she is monitored and assisted to make good use of the opportunities she is given. After Bakhita Villa, they are not alone and that is why wherever they are, they never miss Bakhita Villa Christmas party. It is a family celebration.

How are you working to preventing future victimization of Nigerians?

Sr. Patricia: Actually much of our energy goes into Prevention because we believe in the adage that Prevention is better that cure. I wrote a book – STOP TRAFFICKING IN WOMEN & CHILDREN: It is a Crime against Humanity. This book has a Teachers’ Manual. We use it to Create Awareness and Sensitize people on the dangers of human trafficking. We organize campaigns, seminars, and workshops aimed at educating the society especially the youth and parents on the dangers of human trafficking. Some of our targets in these campaign programs are – Schools, Churches, Faith-based Organizations, Market women/traders, Law enforcement agencies etc.

Sr. Patricia, what challenges do you and your sisters face in this ministry?

Sr. Patricia: The first spiritual challenge we face is getting the victims to believe and trust GOD after all the trauma they have been through such as going through the voodoo ritual. It takes time to get them to see and believe that the GOD we worship is greater than the god of juju/voodoo.

Similar to the above challenge is getting them to believe that GOD loves them and has forgiven them so that they too should forgive themselves

Our biggest material challenge is funds to:

  1. Provide some basic necessities in our shelter
  2. Reintegrate the victims after their stay in Bakhita Villa
  3. Transportation for Prevention activities and other forms of mobility. Today when I returned from Rome with two victims of trafficking and a baby, my Sisters had problem organizing transport to come and meet us. In Nigeria, we do not have good public means of transport. So we need a vehicle for our work.

For Americans who want to help in the fight against human trafficking, what practical things can they do?

Sr. Patricia: For Americans who want to help in the fight against human trafficking, they can assist with Prevention by sending us funds for Sensitization programs, Awareness Creation especially in schools and churches etc. They can also prevent a vulnerable person from being trafficked by educating the person or by economic empowerment.

Sister, how can we be praying for the sisters and the survivors at Bakhita Villa?

Sr. Patricia: Please pray for me, my fellow sisters and other members of our team that GOD will use us mightily for His kingdom. Also, pray for us to be committed and compassionate in working with the survivors. You know the work is a risky one because we are up against criminal network so please pray for GOD’s protection for us. We have some cases of internal trafficking and it is not easy to get funds to help them. So please pray for us that GOD will provide us with all we need to do His work without stress and undue worry as to where the funds will come from. Please pray for the survivors, for protection and for the grace to cooperate with us in their process of rehabilitation and reintegration. Pray for them to have the grace to appreciate GOD’s love and to be able to settle down successfully and live in dignity. We should also pray for conversion for the traffickers.

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Pope Benedict XVI honored Patricia Ebegbulem, SSL with the highest Papal honor for Consecrated persons, the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice medal, in recognition of her long years of commitment and exemplary service to the Church in Nigeria.

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Please, help keep mercy flowing at Bakhita Villa by donating now.

By David Rummelhoff

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

David Rummelhoff has contributed to several Catholic websites, including EpicPew and Catholic Answers, writing about apologetics and evangelization. He graduated summa cum laude from Holy Apostles College & Seminary with a masters degree in theology and is the founder of Peter’s Square, an online marketplace for Catholic vendors. He and his three daughters live in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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