Ukrainian Trafficking Survivor Prevails Over Past With Business Training

A new life begins with opening a new business.
A new life begins with a new business.
Courtesy of the USAID Counter Trafficking in Persons project
Profitable livelihood brings stability to formerly troubled family
“Today, I find myself smiling quite often, as if I started seeing colors again after being blind for a while.”

May 2016—Olena*, the owner of a small family-owned shop in Ukraine, smiles as she opens her door to greet customers. Her husband helps her manage the store while their elder daughter bakes cakes popular in this neighborhood. Looking at this happy family, one would not imagine the turmoil it only recently overcame.

The problems began when Olena’s husband lost his job and turned to alcohol. At about the same time, one of her daughters was diagnosed with an illness that would require expensive, long-term treatment. Olena’s salary as a salesperson was inadequate to pay for her daughter’s medicine, so she borrowed money. In a newspaper, she found a job vacancy at a farm in Poland, thinking it was her chance to save her struggling family.

When Olena arrived in Poland in May 2015, the people who hired her took her passport for purported registration with local authorities. The advertised “excellent living conditions” turned out to be a dark barrack furnished with broken plank beds.

Olena shared a tiny room with about 20 other women. From 4:30 am to 9:00 pm each day, she stooped to pick strawberries on her knees in the sun with only a 30-minute break for lunch. After a week, Olena’s arms itched from pesticide exposure. Her back and legs hurt constantly.

One day, the women refused to work until they received their pay. Within a few hours, men wearing face masks entered their rooms and started beating them with rubber sticks. Olena was punched in the head and fell down. The landowner told the workers that he had purchased them and was not going to pay them salary.

In fact, he told them, they owed him for food and accommodations. He collected the workers’ cell phones and threatened to kill those who disobeyed or asked for help. A high fence around the field and the constant presence of guards precluded any attempt at escape.

At the end of the harvest season, the women were put on a bus back to Ukraine. They never received a single payment.

Back in Ukraine, Olena learned about a local NGO that assists victims of trafficking and turned to them for help. She received medical assistance and psychological counseling that helped her to cope with post-traumatic stress.

Olena also took part in business training offered as part of a USAID-supported microenterprise development program for victims of trafficking. She developed a business plan and won a grant from USAID to open her own home supplies shop. In the small town where she lives, the shop rapidly boomed in popularity, primarily due to its convenient location.

In six months, Olena was already turning a profit, which she used to rent a room next door that she converted into a grocery shop. A little over a year after the opening, both shops are profitable. Recently, Olena hired another salesperson—her first employee.

Meanwhile, Olena’s husband recovered from his alcohol addiction. He joined the family business and now delivers merchandise to their shops.

Olena sees further opportunities for business development and feels confident that she will be able to support her family.

“Today, I find myself smiling quite often, as if I started seeing colors again after being blind for a while,” says Olena. “I feel good because I do a job that I know well and really love. I have many great ideas, and now I definitely know that dreams come true.”

Since 2006, USAID’s microenterprise development program has helped more than 200 victims of trafficking to start 123 small businesses in Ukraine, creating jobs and providing new services to their communities. Fifty-four percent of the businesses employ additional staff. On average, each microentrepreneur creates 1.3 jobs.

USAID’s Countering Trafficking in Persons project, implemented by the International Organization for Migration, runs from 2009 to 2017. The project works to reduce trafficking in persons in Ukraine by transitioning services for victims of trafficking—such as registration, referral and reintegration assistance—to full Ukrainian ownership. This includes efforts to strengthen the national referral mechanism, increase government funding for counter trafficking efforts, and increase the involvement of non-governmental service providers in the national referral mechanism.

*Name changed to protect privacy.

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Last updated: August 13, 2018

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