It's easy to detach ourselves from reality when it comes to big global issues - AIDS, poverty, human trafficking. Statistics, even stories can blur into the ether of our moral conscience; shocking us, moving us, but often only for a moment. The moment lasts until the next wave of numbers, information hits our brain. We know it's real, but it's out there. Somewhere. The moments when the statistics become reality though - flesh and bones, in our company, face to face - that's when detachment isn't an option. Detachment is replaced with a shared humanity and responsibility.
Today on EU Anti-Trafficking Day/Anti-Slavery Day, it seems fitting and important to share with you the day that detachment became reality for me.
He came into our office timidly, a little disheveled and tired looking. He shook my hand and waited politely to be welcomed to sit down. We chatted in broken English and he told us his story.
Radu was in his later years of life, not far off normal retirement age. He had been given our information by a support agency that helps people who have been trafficked, having recently exited their programme. We were there to offer a little help, a familiar face, a trusted ally. He was new to the area and had been set up with a new job working in a factory. It was finally a promising time for him, and he expressed gratitude in the fact that he was going to start his new job in the morning. "I still have energy to work", he said.
Radu had been trafficked. He had spent months under the control of a gang that took away his identity, forced him to work and stripped him of his basic human rights and needs. He had been lured to a job in Ireland and not long after arriving had been sold for a few hundred pounds to a trafficking gang. They moved him (& others), controlled them, and profited from their long hard work in agriculture.
We spent most of that day together, in and out, getting to know each other, hearing a tiny bit about his experience and trying to help him navigate his new community:
This is a map to the doctor’s office. We'll fill in the forms together.
These are some groceries for this week and some food bank vouchers to keep you going until your first pay check comes in.
Here is a map to the food bank and the opening hours.
This is your mobile phone number; this is mine if you need anything.
We will try and get you some more clothes for work and some shoes that will last.
I'll call with you tomorrow and drop off some more things.
He was incessantly thankful. Embarrassingly grateful. What a lovely gent.
See you tomorrow, have a great first day at work.
But tomorrow was another tragic story.
On his first day of legitimate, dignified work, Radu collapsed on the factory floor and passed away.
We got the call not long after it happened.
How could it be that after only a few short hours, you could feel so much about a persons death?
It stung us all. Each person that had supported Radu since his recovery were shell-shocked by his passing. It wasn't fair, it was tragic.
The very same day of his passing, it was announced that 20 victims of trafficking had been recovered in our town. He would never know the significance of that.
We spent the next few days communicating with the Police, the factory, the accommodation he was staying in to help in whatever way we could.
A couple of weeks after his death a handful of us - all virtually strangers to Radu - gathered at his graveside. It was one of the most sobering days we will ever recall. The 23rd Psalm was read in his native language, we placed roses on his coffin, we prayed and a stony silence held in the atmosphere.
We received a copy of his CV previous to the short ceremony and could see that until he had arrived in Ireland, he had worked consistently in the same industry for almost 30 years of his life.
And then, trafficked.
Radu died alone in a far away country, buried in a Council grave with no one that really knew his story to speak fondly of him. He was only beginning to realise dignity in life here in Northern Ireland, and he deserved dignity in death.
I already know that his life will be remembered as significant. It will be remembered by our team - our little team and our amazing supportive colleagues - as a marker to represent the countless unknown victims that are hidden and exploited. His story gives us a strengthened desire to see that no person has the same end to their life as Radu. No person should die alone, having been exploited in a country they thought would bring them new hope. No one.
Today is EU Anti-Trafficking Day; today we will remember Radu.