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“The devil’s playground”: ministering in the dark streets of Athens

MISSION NEWS | Kaley Payne

Tuesday 14th August 2012

Visiting and befriending a young woman in a brothel as she prepares for another night on the job is not the ministry for everyone. Nor is catching up with a prostitute working in a dark Athenian alley. But for 34 year old Annette Wilson, God called her to this ministry, and gave her the capacity to deal with what she has seen.

“God helps me hand what I see over to Him. I’ve never been more reliant on Him to take that stuff.”

Wilson has been working in Greece with Nea Zoi (literally, ‘New Life’), a Greek NGO run by partnership missionary organisation International Teams since 2010. When she signed up with International Teams, she thought she’d be doing an arts ministry in Paris. But after spending some time in Europe and noticing the scale of prostitution, Wilson says God fired her up for a different kind of ministry.

“I just couldn’t stand what I was seeing,” says Wilson of her time in Austria and France. “I had so many questions. And I remember thinking, surely there’s not this many girls that choose to do this.”

“I came back to Australia and prayed, ‘God, this stirs me up. I can’t stand it – but I don’t know what to do’.”

Wilson says she spend a “season in prayer”, asking God to “break my heart for what was breaking His.”

‘Women in prostitution’ was the answer that came back. Wilson says she has no doubt that that was where God was directing her. At the same time she was grappling with which direction to take her desire for international mission, International Teams was also heading in the direction of anti-slavery and human trafficking.

** Tania's name has been changed in this story.

“So at the same time God had been directing me, He had been directing my mission organisation to the same place. The timing was perfect, and off I went to Greece.”

Working with Nea Zoi, an established, 12 year old outreach ministry to women and men working in prostitution in Athens, Wilson visited brothels around Athens, developing relationships with the girls inside. She says it was often tough to visit the girls working in the brothels, talk to them, pray with them, and then walk away.

“It’s something that God gave me the capacity to deal with, but of course it was hard. And there were the girls, especially the new ones, who just looked broken. The new girls were harder to walk away from.

“They’d just arrived, they looked terrified. And I would think ‘Come with me now, don’t get sucked in’.”

But Wilson says, she’d go back and visit again in the next couple of weeks and would see the change in the new girls’ attitudes.

“After only a short period of time, you’d go back and see one of the new girls, and she’d have a hardened look, one that said ‘right, I can’t get away from this, I’ve got to stay.’ So they’d put this wall up and you’d see that hardness come over them. You just want to grab them when you first see them and say ‘Now! Come now! Walk away’.”

But Wilson says it’s never as easy as just walking away for the women she was working with. Many of the women came from Romania, trafficked from the poor country where women are often brought up with an attitude that “women aren’t really worth much more than this.”

“Traffickers target the orphanages, where you’re kicked out after 18, and many don’t have anywhere else to go. They’re ready to grab these very naïve, desperate, vulnerable girls. They promise them jobs, and the girls are willing to risk it – they’ve got nothing else to go to.”

A new wave of trafficking, labelled ‘happy trafficking’, has also been seen., with men befriending vulnerable girls, becoming their boyfriends, spending money on them and buying them presents.

“They suck the girls in and then bring them across to Greece, put them into brothels. They basically sell them,” says Wilson.

One of Wilson’s primary ministries was talking to Nigerian women working on the streets of Athens, away from the brothels. She says most of the Nigerian women she met were almost certainly victims of trafficking, under a debt bondage of an average of 50,000 Euro – the amount charged to bring them to Europe.

“Often, the traffickers are women who’ve been working on the streets and realised they can make money out of others. They go home to Nigeria, well-dressed, looking like they’ve got all this money, and say ‘look, you can have all this in Europe’.”

Wilson says many of the Nigerian girls travel to Greece with some idea of the industry they’ll be working in, but with no idea of how bad it will be. Wilson describes the main, most popular street for sex workers in Athens. Prior to the Greek financial crisis when demand dropped significantly, 50 to 80 girls would line the street each night.

“These women work on the darkest, dirtiest, most dangerous streets of Athens. They work all hours, right through the night.”

On top of the debt bondage, there is also a spiritual bondage for Nigerian workers in Athens.

“Most of the girls go through a voodoo ritual as part of their ‘induction’. And that’s binding. It’s partly for their protection, and partly to bind them to the obligation to pay back their debt. If they don’t, they’re told a curse will come upon them. And they believe it. It’s why they can’t just walk away.”

Wilson says you can’t underestimate the power of the devil in this area of Athens.

“The devil, this is his playground. He’s just messing with these girls. They’re afraid of getting out; they don’t know who to trust. They don’t believe they’re worth any more than what they’re doing.”

Yet even in the darkness, Wilson says there were pockets of light.

“We’re not rescuers – the anti-trafficking police are there for that – but we offer hope, support and alternatives for women in prostitution by choice, and refuge for those being exploited.”

In her two years with Nea Zoi, Wilson saw four women get out of prostitution in Greece. She calls them “extreme cases”; they were trafficking cases where it’s difficult and often dangerous to get the women out of their situations. But ‘results’ in this type of ministry are not just measured by how many women get out.

“It’s fantastic when a girl chooses to leave, and you’re able to get her to a shelter and get out. But that’s rare. There was twelve years of sowing put in by our team, and God had that season of reaping – but it’s unusual to have that many girls get out in that time period.

“There are a lot of results – smaller ones – that we see. Girls trusting you and sharing with you, coming to see us in our offices, wanting to learn more about God’s love for them.”

One of the most encouraging things Wilson saw in her time in Athens was the girls she met in the brothels or on the street coming to the Nea Zoi office to talk some more.

“We’d get to tackle some of those spiritual aspects, convincing them that God is greater and is more powerful than any voodoo or any pimp. It was easy to talk about the spiritual stuff away from the street.”

Wilson says the girls she spoke with often saw God as great and powerful, but a “big picture God”, unconcerned with the details of their lives.

“I’d talk to them about the intimate relationship with God that’s on offer. That they’re fearfully and wonderfully made, that He is concerned about their entire being – inside and out – and what they do with their bodies.”

Her experiences in Athens, and the situations she saw there, have not jaded Wilson. “Once you’ve seen, you’re responsible. I won’t stop – I can’t.”

Back in Australia for a rest period, Wilson is currently working with International Teams as part of its Streetlight Ministry – a brothel outreach based in Parramatta, west of Sydney. She’s also praying and working with a new ministry in her hometown of Newcastle, preparing to do outreach in brothels there. She says, while the statistics of trafficking and prostitution are overwhelming, the ministry for her is  very much about the ‘one’, the individual who is right in front of her

“All of these girls, whether they choose it or not, have a story as to why they’ve ended up where they have. Nobody grows up saying ‘I want to be a prostitute’. These are women made in the image of God. They’re precious in His sight. And they each have their own story. It’s so easy to get caught up in the enormity of the problem. I try to pull it down to the ‘one’, the individual stories, who’s in front of me right now.”

“I discovered along the way that they’re just girls. And once you wipe out what it is they’re doing, and just talk to them like real girls, you can really connect and bring love to them. And they responded so well to that.”

Image: red light district in Athens, International Teams

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