Leila Segal, Founder of Voice of Freedom, on her experience of working with trafficked women.
I remembered why I set up Voice of Freedom, when Rose*, the Nigerian woman I was sharing a room with at the shelter, who had spoken barely two words to me all week, washed my cup and plate.
I was staying at Piam Onlus shelter for trafficked women in Italy to prepare for photography workshops there. Rose was asleep on her bed with her back to me when I arrived: she did not move much from that position all week. Either that, or she was cleaning and re-organising her few possessions, kept in a pink suitcase. Rose appeared not to understand me when I spoke; we passed days and nights in silence together.
Rose seemed too traumatised by her recent arrival over the sea from Libya to do anything other than recover. By osmosis I felt her, and my own loneliness returned.
Then one day in the shelter’s kitchen, Rose handed me my cup and plate, washed for me in a gesture of care and authority, of trust. I remembered that it is love, rising from stony ground, that makes me do this work.
It was small movements: she noticed me sitting on the fl oor outside to make a call, and brought out a chair. This, the balcony, was where she made most of her calls, in a language I could not understand but later learned was Ishan, spoken in the Edo state of Nigeria, Rose’s home.
I set up Voice of Freedom in 2013, working in Israel with women who had been trafficked to the Sinai torture camps via Sudan. They produced a body of photography about their experiences, which we exhibited, with their permission, at Amnesty UK and on Anti-Slavery’s website. Voice of Freedom has gone on to work with women trafficked to the UK from all over the world.
“The women on Voice of Freedom have shown me that when I come to someone to offer them care, I receive a return of their humanity. This deepens my own connection to life in a world of fury, displacement, despair.”
The women on Voice of Freedom have shown me that when I come to someone to offer them care, I receive a return of their humanity. This deepens my own connection to life in a world of fury, displacement, despair.
What the women show us, via their photography, is how to be human with them in the face of incomprehensible suffering, before which we are in danger of losing our capacity to love.
They allow us to walk with them, to find our place in this suffering, not a place of useless voyeurism, but of action. Through their words and images, the women show us how each life – ours or theirs – is interdependent: far from being useless in the face of horror, we are as powerful as we choose to be, as are they.
*Not her real name