WARNING: Some of the details in this story are graphic and could be disturbing to some readers.
A black journal with the word “brave” scrolled on it sits at their feet, their arms rest gently on each others shoulders. They are survivors of a hidden world that, not so long ago, stripped them of their dignity and robbed them of even their basic human rights and made them believe they deserved nothing more.
“I guess my next fear was I was going to be evil and malicious and a whore for the rest of my life,” said Louis, rubbing her feet together. She’s wearing fuzzy yellow socks with cats on them.
“I’d be going to the nicest buildings downtown and they are on the penthouse suite floor and they were husbands and fathers and doing these horrible things and saying horrible things,” said the born-and-raised Calgarian.
Louis, a survivor of sex trafficking, said she once made $25,000 in one night, but it wasn’t hers to keep. She was required to pay her perpetrator. Global News has agreed to change the women’s names for their own safety.
“All the money I made was going to the guy’s child support, was going to his car payments, going to our rent,” she said. “The abuse and things just got worse and worse. And he’d still make me work with bruises and scars and being concussed. It was bad.”
Sarah, a survivor from Toronto, nods as she listens to her friend. She, too, had to hand over the cash.
“All that money that was made and spent, you know, went to a trip that he took with somebody else.”
Drowning in addiction, manipulation and abuse, they feared the thought of breaking free. It was a daunting and equally terrifying and unachievable task.
“I couldn’t leave because he constantly threatened me. He scared me more than anything,” Louis said. “And losing my house scared me and being homeless again scared me.”
“I was told that five or six times they were going to kill me or they were going to kill my parents if I didn’t do what I was told. So that’s why I went along with everything, as much as I didn’t want to. I feared for my life and for my family.”
Rene, sitting next to her, dries her own eyes. She was once sent to California to work. The name of the man who brought her there was tattooed on her body. She said it made it harder for her to leave, stacked up on the myriad of other challenges.
But the day did eventually come for all three of them, when they had no choice but to decide enough was enough.
“I looked in the mirror with my nose bleeding, and I was just sick of myself. I was just really sick of me and really sick of the choices I was making,” said Louis.
It was an arrest that guided Sarah to turn a corner. Rene was seven months pregnant, homeless and had just had a heroin relapse.
“Finally, I just turned myself into a homeless shelter and then my counsellor suggested RESET,” Rene said.
RESET is the only full-year program in Canada of its kind dedicated to helping survivors of sexual exploitation and trafficking. The women move into homes with other survivors, are protected, go to class, are taught life skills and get sober.
“The longer they are here, they start planning their future they are dreaming. ‘Oh, I’m going to open my own business one day. I’m going to go to school and get a degree.’ They start to think of the future,” said Kayla Campbell, a community support coordinator at RESET.
“We have a lot of laughter in the class, a lot of tears and a lot of craziness some days,” said Liz Gibson. She has been working with survivors for three decades.
“It’s happening in the malls, it’s happening in high schools, it’s happening at work, it’s happening everywhere. We need to talk about it, we need to talk about this way more than we are doing.”
RESET also helps teenagers, and survivors are allowed to bring their children to live with them for the duration of the program.
“We see such a change from the wee little guys… When they come, a lot of them are broken too. They’ve lived that lifestyle, they’ve seen the violence and trauma. We take them right away and they get to stay with their moms for the whole program,” RESET executive director Theresa Jenkins said.
It’s clear to see the impact the program is having on the three women, who sit squished together on a small floral couch in the RESET boardroom.
“I’m happy I’m not in a stairwell somewhere or getting high somewhere or in jail even. I’m so grateful to be in this room and I finally feel safe and I feel free and I don’t have to look over my shoulder anymore,” said Sarah, who would like to get into criminology one day.
Rene had her baby with her RESET caseworker by her side. The program also paid for her to have her tattoo removed.
Louis has delved deep into her recovery and sobriety, taking a keen interest in social work.
“It all goes back to ‘We’ll love you until you can love yourself’ thing and there’s a lot of power in that. We all fight for each other, just as much for ourselves,” said the now 22-year-old.
It was a painful understanding of a darkness and brutality that first bonded these women together. But out of that, with the help of RESET, they have formed a sisterhood, a unity that helps keep them accountable, that pushes them forward.
“Do you ever feel that you could go back to that?” Global News asked the women.
“No, no,” Louis and Sarah echo.
But Sarah hesitates.
“I feel not by choice, but I feel like it could happen again. But now I can see the signs and know if I’m heading in that direction again.”
RESET has room for 28 survivors at any given time. There are currently 23 on the waiting list — five are considered to be in danger.
If you or someone you know is a victim of human trafficking, a 24/7 hotline with critical resources is available to Canadians in more than 200 languages. The Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline can be reached at 1-833-900-1010.