Q & A with Sr. Joan Dawber, providing secure housing for victims of trafficking

Sisters of Charity Halifax Sr. Joan Dawber is the founder and executive director of LifeWay Network, one of only two organizations in the New York City metropolitan area that provides secure housing for women who have been trafficked. The network in its mission statement says it is part of the "global movement against human trafficking" by doing two things: "providing safe housing for women who have been trafficked and offering education about trafficking to the general public."

On its website, the organization, now in its 10th year, says LifeWay offers "safe housing for survivors of both labor and sex trafficking, [and for] both domestic and foreign-born survivors." Its goal "is to provide support and services that enable each woman to recover from her trauma, regain her sense of self-worth, and move from isolation towards reclaiming a life of independence and growth."

Dawber said the group faced "slow-going at first" in part because of the challenging New York City real estate market.

"It started by asking fellow sisters, 'Do you have space, a spare room?' " she said.

Several congregations provided seed money for housing costs, and congregational support has been critical for ongoing upkeep and expansion of the number of homes.

It took five years for LifeWay to open its first "transitional safe house" in 2012. A second house opened in 2016. There are now four homes that can accommodate up to 21 residents in the New York City area: one for immediate needs, two for longer-term housing, and a fourth run in collaboration with the organization Covenant House, a shelter for homeless youth, that opened in 2015 for women between the ages of 18 and 24 and up to two children. Residents are allowed to live in the homes for a year, though the home run in collaboration with Covenant House allows a longer stay. Most of the homes also have house managers and social workers or a case manager.

Three sisters with LifeWay live in each of the houses. The commitment to community living is invaluable for both the sisters and for the house residents, Dawber said, as both groups learn from each other.

The congregations represented include the Ursuline Sisters; the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary; the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, Kansas; the Daughters of Wisdom; the Oblate Sisters of the Most Holy Redeemer; and the Daughters of Mary Mother of Mercy. LifeWay is also a member of the New York Coalition of Religious Congregations Stop Trafficking of Persons, or NY-CRC-STOP, a coalition of religious involved in anti-trafficking work.

In all, LifeWay says it has served 76 women from 32 countries, though Dawber says the word "accompany" better describes what the sisters are doing with the women who are trying to recover from their trafficking experiences. 

GSR: Why is the term "accompany" and the stress on community living so important in LifeWay's work?

Dawber: When we, the sisters and the women, come together to live in community, the sisters are not "helping you." We are working together to bring life out of this horror. What results is that we create a living space together. It's a home, and the trafficked women are part of that experience of living together.

I am very fond of a quote from Jean Vanier [the Canadian Catholic theologian and founder of L'Arche, an international network of communities for people with developmental disabilities and for those who accompany them]. The quote explains what a community living model does: "A community created to help others will never thrive. But one created for equal benefit would. We are all flawed. Everyone has something to learn from, something to give to the other. Dignity, equality, belonging."

That sense of really being present, engaging in each other's lives is key to what we do in the houses, and the community-living model is critical.

What in their experiences have made people who have been trafficked so vulnerable?

They come from war-torn countries. There is huge poverty in so many countries. There is so much inequality in one country versus another. And in this country, there is the huge problem of racism. It is not that the women have put themselves in this position. Certainly, male supremacy, that's a big piece, a huge part of the problem. Huge gender inequalities exist in all parts of the world.

We feel for the men who are trafficked, too — they, too, come from poverty, from war-torn countries, looking for jobs to feed their families. But in our ministry, with our limited resources, we can only focus on women and children.

Why is there a year's limit to staying in the program's homes?

To come out of the experience of trafficking can take a good month or more to even know that the women are out of the situation, and to think that they can go to other places and realize that they have another way of being in the world. A year is really nothing. It takes time to get settled; a year goes by so fast. They get nervous after a year. And depending on the circumstances, we'll become flexible. But we want the women to move forward and help them through economic empowerment.

Some women need a little more time than others, but most of the women are ready to go, and most stay in New York. Particularly for the women who come from other countries, they know there is a community of their own country they can find.

For those in recovery from their experiences who are healing, education and economic empowerment are keys to make them who they want to be. Our job is to connect them to case managers, contacts for health care, education, learning job skills. Help them move forward.

Economic empowerment is about building opportunities for trafficked survivors to be able to work and receive remuneration. This involves partnering with groups, agencies, folks like the airline business who are working on job training and work opportunities for survivors in particular. Or agencies which provide training in different jobs and skills that are not dead-end positions, where survivors can begin a worthwhile career. There are very few of these opportunities around. It is one of the programs LifeWay Network knows it needs to really further establish and then expand.

Tell us about the educational work LifeWay does — an equally important part of your work.

At least 12,000 people have been educated around issues of human trafficking in public forums, schools, universities. In April, we conducted a forum at St. John's University [in New York] attended by 200 people. The reaction to these events is that usually people want to help in some way. People ask, "How can we help?"

But they are also stunned that trafficking is as prevalent as it is and that it exists here in the United States, in New York. Many think usually, "Oh, it's over there, in other countries, other places." They begin to recognize that it is a problem hidden in plain sight, that it touches on so many areas — the women in nail salons, hotels, the men working on landscaping and doing construction work.

Anti-trafficking work seems to have taken hold of a lot of sisters, with sisters championing the needs and lives of those trafficked. Why is that, and what are the spiritual underpinnings of the work you and others do?

Many of the sisters active are, like me, of a certain age. We've been around the block a few times in our lives, and we've always been working along the margins. This continues that commitment because people who are trafficked merely exist in the eyes of the world. 

Their life is valuable — and the word "life" is such an important word. For me, Jesus came to us not only to give life, but life in fullness and abundance. People who are trafficked are so vulnerable, are really hurting in their lives.

I know I have everything I could possibly need in life; I don't want for anything. There are people who have so little and are made to feel so little. That's the thing. To know this, to know the beauty of who they are, who are God's creatures and are loved beyond measure, that's what we as religious are called to do, to make that present for them.

But it's not "help." We sisters, we don't have the answers for the women we serve. We learn from them, and they learn from us. The idea of "helping" — that's wrong because that's not an equal relationship. The women we serve help us see our own brokenness, our own vulnerabilities. I've been made aware of my own vulnerabilities; the women we serve have shown me that.

If we know that we're all in this together, it becomes something beautiful. It's not always easy. Sometimes, they've been through such difficulties, some of them yell and scream at us. But that, too, can be beautiful in its way.

From my point of view, it is that they are our sisters. We are one with them, and I've learned so, so much from them.

[Chris Herlinger is GSR international correspondent. His email address is cherlinger@ncronline.org.]