When Blessing Okoedion was 26, she headed to Spain for a job she had been offered at a computer store. In her home country of Nigeria, she had earned a degree in computer science and started her own business repairing computers.
But the job offer was a ruse. Her work visa had been faked by human traffickers. There was no computer store job.
After a brief stop in Spain, her captors sent her to Naples, Italy. They told her that she owed them 65,000 euros — more than $70,000 in today’s dollars. And they forced her into sex work on the streets of an Italian town.
That was five years ago. Today, Okoedion is an activist working to combat human trafficking in Italy and Nigeria. She was one of 10 people honored for these efforts in June by the U.S. State Department at the 2018 Trafficking in Persons Report launch ceremony in Washington, D.C. The report is an annual assessment of foreign governments’ anti-trafficking efforts.
She received the State Department award “in recognition of her extraordinary courage in using her lived experiences to … prevent human trafficking [and] her selfless efforts to assist survivors and lend a helping hand to those still subjected to the crime,” said Kari Johnstone, acting director of the State Department’s Office to Combat Trafficking in Persons, at the event.
A few days after she had been forced to start working on the streets, Okoedion snuck away to a police station to report what had happened to her. The police brought her to Casa Ruth, a shelter in Caserta run by nuns who help trafficking victims, she says.
Sister Rita Giaretta founded the shelter, called Casa Rut in Italian, and has been fighting against human trafficking for more than 20 years.
“She’s actually the force behind me,” says Okoedion.
Since 2014, Okoedion has been working with Casa Ruth. She goes on rescue missions to get trafficked girls and women from Nigeria and other countries off the streets. She helps connect women who are still on the streets with medical care. And she works to ensure trafficking victims who have escaped have the support they need, she says.
Sex trafficking victims can be afraid to get medical care because they’re undocumented, she explains, so that’s often a starting point of the rescue missions.
“From there, we start building confidence, then many of them start to open up, tell us everything, their fears, everything. Then we start counseling,” she says. “There are some who, when we approach them, immediately tell us, ‘I want to quit this job. I was not told about this, I just need somebody to help me.’ Then we rescue them immediately.”
Once they’re free from their traffickers, a new set of challenges begins. High unemployment rates in Italy can make it tough for them to find jobs there, she says. She also accompanies trafficking victims who want to return to Nigeria through the Italy-based organization Slaves No More. The group focuses on helping Nigerian trafficking victims reintegrate into society.
Okoedion travels to rural areas in Edo State, where she grew up, to tell women and girls about the tactics traffickers may use in attempts to lure them to faraway jobs that don’t exist. Benin City, its capital, is a human-trafficking hub, she says.
Many women and girls who become victims of trafficking are from poor, rural areas and might not have had much education, she says. Traffickers can seem like a sort of savior.
The Nigerian government is taking some steps to address trafficking. But “widespread and pervasive” corruption throughout the government and security forces makes it tough, according to the State Department’s new report.
The report references international NGO and media reports of trafficking crimes by government officials, service providers and security forces at more than a dozen internally displaced persons camps. Reported crimes included forced sex in return for food.
And authorities found trafficking victims from Nigeria in at least 40 countries, including Italy, during the past year. They had often been trafficked by Nigerians, the report says.
Points of optimism in Nigeria: The governor of Edo State, Godwin Obaseki, declared trafficking one of his top priorities, the report says. He created a task force to fight it, which has arrested at least 10 potential traffickers so far. And the government is spending more money to fight trafficking.
Even at her lowest point, Okoedion says she didn’t see her first name — Blessing — as some kind of curse.
“I never attached what happened to me to my name,” she says.
Courtney Columbus is a multimedia journalist based in the Washington, D.C. area. She covers science, global health and consumer health. Her past work has appeared in the Arizona Republic and on Arizona PBS. Contact her @cmcolumbus11.