French sisters shelter women against human traffickers, prostitution

Sister Marie Bernadette is active with catechumen as well as families who come to Strasbourg to visit a relative in jail. Sister Hanan is a young Egyptian sister who is spending six months in Strasbourg to learn French. (Elisabeth Auvillain)

Paris — Editor's note: Feb. 8 is the International Day of Prayer and Awareness Against Human Trafficking and the feast day of St. Josephine Bakhita, a Canossian nun and former slave. The date was chosen at the request of women religious to highlight her life. In honor of the day and St. Josephine Bakhita, we are running several pieces about sisters' anti-trafficking work around the world. Find all of our coverage here.

It is a big house, like many others on this street of a lively Paris neighborhood. A dozen women live there, staying for a few weeks, a few months, sometimes as long as a year, depending on their situation. All of them were prostitutes, victims of trafficking. They are now beginning a new life.

Sr. Cristina Ramos manages this shelter, named Foyer AFJ. Her congregation, the Handmaids of the Blessed Sacrament and of Charity, popularly known as Sisters Adorers (Adoratrices), was founded in 1856 in Spain by St. María Micaela Desmaisières, who opened a shelter to help prostitutes learn skills like sewing to earn a living.

When a wave of immigration from Spain to France took place in the 1960s, a lot of single girls came over the Pyrenees looking to work as maids. As some of them were caught in prostitution networks, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and of Charity in Spain sent some of their members to start a community in France to assist these young women in getting different employment.

Foyer AFJ opened in 1967 in Paris. At first, it welcomed victims of domestic slavery, violence, and other abuse. Since 2000, it has specialized in helping former prostitutes start a new life. The sisters made contact with a small group called l'Amicale du Nid (Friends of the Nest) and set up to help women who wanted to leave prostitution.

Today, Ramos, who was born in France to Spanish parents, and her colleagues first meet each woman on neutral ground, in a private room made available for them by local authorities in a building nearby, to figure out if she can benefit from staying at the shelter. Only about 15 percent hold a passport or ID card; about 27 percent say they left at least one child back home; and 40 percent could not give a home address, according to figures given by Foyer AFJ in 2014. For their protection, women staying at Foyer AFJ are not allowed to talk to journalists.

Read the full story at Global Sisters Report

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