MONTGOMERY, Alabama — Soon after the Berlin Wall fell, a handful of Scottish volunteers visited the newly independent Eastern European country of Moldova to renovate tattered orphanages in the remote countryside. The volunteers helped fuel the boilers, install new windows and work on other infrastructure projects, all the while growing closer to the children and occasionally returning to visit them.
One year, the volunteers came back to one of the orphanages and found that a young girl named Stella, who they had come to love, had been sent away from the orphanage because she was too old to continue under the state-sponsored care. The volunteers later learned that Stella had been trafficked and died from AIDS when she was only 19.
Out of deep care and concern for orphaned trafficking victims like her, Stella’s Voice was born. Today, Stella’s Voice provides housing for young women and men in Moldova to keep them off the streets and away from traffickers. Through educational services and overall guardianship, the organization helps its young people finish their schooling and become financially independent. Most significantly, it preemptively rescues them from lives of exploitation.
The Borgen Project had the opportunity to speak with Stella’s Voice global director Brian Paterson. He said the youth in the homes have all outgrown the age parameters of the Moldovan orphanage system, typically falling between 16 and 22 years old.
“We eventually came to find out that the practice was when they got to be 16 they were just given a bus ticket, whatever clothes they had on their backs and a little bit of money,” Paterson said. “The bus ticket was to whatever name was on their paperwork, and although there was nobody there that was wanting to take care of them, the government had quote-unquote ‘fulfilled its obligation’ and off they went.”
Most buses in Moldova go through the capital, Chișinău, and once young people arrived there, traffickers would approach them in vans with offers of jobs in far off places. They would then whisk their victims away to countries as far as the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Girls would often be sex trafficked, while boys faced forced labor in construction camps.
“We were busy patting ourselves on the backs before we realized all of these kids we loved and cared about, when they were 16, ‘goodbye!’” Paterson said. “So that’s sort of how we started on just trying to do something about that.”
Stella’s Voice rescues potential victims before they can even become victims. The organization recognizes the susceptibility of young, parentless adults to modern-day slavery.
“Our main goal is not to find a girl who’s been trafficked and then help her — we want to get there before that ever happens,” Paterson said.
The two girls’ homes, called Stella’s Houses, can fit up to 40 girls, and the boy’s home, called Simon’s House, accommodates 13. House mothers and fathers in each home make sure occupants complete their education to the college level, with some going on to university and others taking up apprenticeships or finding jobs. The house parents additionally provide care and love for the kids, some of whom never experienced such supervision before.
Katherine and Brian Jones from Montgomery, Alabama have been house parents for two years. They live with the children and would not think about leaving. “They’re just incredible people and couldn’t love the kids anymore if they were their own children,” Paterson said.
As spring ends and summer begins, Stella’s Voice celebrates its kids’ graduations and journeys into the working world. Rather than falling prey to sex trafficking, the young women from Stella’s Houses take on a variety of jobs when they leave.
One recent graduate will go on to be a physical therapist and another will be working as a paralegal. Many of the young women work in call centers, having learned English at the houses. Paterson described this time of year as “bittersweet.”
“In one sense we’re saying ‘oh my goodness, you’re leaving us,’ but on the other hand we’re saying ‘thank God, you’ve grown strong and you’ve grown smart and you are able to go and live a life that thrives and can make a difference,’” he said.
Stella’s Voice relies in part on donations to provide care for the youth it houses. Its website features a gift catalog where donors can choose to fund a college scholarship from upwards of $75, provide clean drinking water for an entire home from $28 and much more. Many of the items in the catalog are things that any teenager needs, like transportation or warm clothing.
With the help of donations, Stella’s Voice not only prevents young men and women from being sex-trafficked, a fate affecting one child every 30 seconds, but it also provides orphaned Moldovan youth with educational opportunities and the tools they need to grow and become independent.
– Sabine Poux