Thursday morning, our first meeting was with a young woman about my age who, for safety reasons, I’ll identify as L. We met her outside in the middle of the city, where she hopped in our van. I immediately liked her. She was intelligent and witty, and when we asked her where we should go for our meeting, she directed us toward a cafe in a nice part of town and said she had a surprise for us.
We took seats at a table under the patio as the sun was beginning to warm the new spring air. We ordered a round of espresso (tea for me) and began to make introductions. Tom went first. Then Brad. Then me. Then Simon, as he set up his camera so we could film L’s story and hear about what her organization does.
Our waitress, a young, pretty girl who surprisingly spoke enough English that I could actually communicate I wanted green tea instead of black, brought us our drinks. L. took a sip of her cappuccino and asked us if we were ready for our surprise.
After a day like we had Wednesday, we were ready for anything.
“The reason I brought you to this cafe is because there is a story here. When I first moved back to Moldova, I came here with a friend. It seems like a totally normal restaurant.”
I looked around. It had nice tables and chairs and the shops across the street were for designer clothes. I didn’t feel like I was in a developing country. I could have been on a street in Paris for all I knew.
“As I spent time here, I learned that this cafe is the main hub for girls that are trafficked out of Moldova.”
Our team sat back stunned. Even S., who is our driver and has worked in the social sector of Moldova for years, was shocked.
L. continued to tell us a similar story to what we have heard regarding young girls and the need for jobs. A majority of Moldovans immigrate out of the country for work because the unemployment rate here is so high. Girls out of the ninth grade (the required level of completion) when coming from abusive, alcoholic, or unattended homes, as well as orphans, will look for jobs. Foreigners actually own this cafe (amongst others) and will hire the girls as waitresses or cooks or to clean. They learn just enough of several languages over the course of a few months to a year and are promised promotions or transfers in restaurants in other European countries.
And they get trafficked.
I immediately wanted to take our waitress and throw her into our van, knowing what almost certain fate awaited her.
It’s not like this industry is completely a secret, either. Men, especially foreign men, visit these cafes for a reason. If L. and I wouldn’t have been there with the men from our team, more than likely they would have been offered a girl.
I lifted the mug of tea to my lips and wondered how many girls had filled that mug before. How many had served tea in it. How many had bussed it off the table and washed it.
I wondered where they were now.
L. proceeded to go through a newspaper and read to us ads that are intended to lure girls in. Ads for renting rooms or apartments often get young Moldovan girls and foreign university students kidnapped when they go to see if the apartment is what they’re looking for. Jobs for nannies who can travel. Jobs for waitresses.
She even told us her own story—how, when she moved to Chisinau, she was looking for an apartment. Out of the hundreds of listings on the pages, only a handful or so were legit. She almost went to look at one but had a strange feeling about it after speaking with the owner, so she had a male friend call to check on it.
It was one used for trafficking.
She could have been a victim herself.
As we sat around finishing our drinks, we took note of an ever-increasing stream of foreign men beginning to sit at surrounding tables. They came from inside the cafe and sat and stared at us.
We acted like we didn’t notice, boldly keeping our very large camera out, and kept filming L. and her story.
Before we left, I saw two young, very pretty girls walking outside the cafe. They were almost too young to be that pretty. One was maybe 14—the other one 16 or 17. I was surprised when they walked into the cafe, and later took a seat behind us in the corner of the patio.
They didn’t receive a menu, but a husky middle-aged man with salt-and-pepper hair sat down with them. He discreetly handed the older girl a large sum of money. She looked up to him laughing with flirtatious but noticeably empty eyes.
We paid our check and left, as the presence of the traffickers got to be a little too intense. L. and I stood on the sidewalk while Brad went in for a moment and we witnessed another young, pretty woman approaching the cafe. The husky man got up suddenly and began yelling at her. She managed to keep her distance on the other side of the patio railing, but they were screaming loudly at each other in Romanian. I asked L. what they were fighting about.
“Something didn’t happen right … something didn’t happen right at all,” is what she said. She nodded over my shoulder. “Those men behind you. They’re not Moldovan. They’re here for something.” I slowly turned around and pretended to look at the cafe door. Two very well dressed middle-eastern men were behind me and seemed to be negotiating with one of the cafe traffickers.
It was surreal. We were standing in the middle of trafficking deals going down all around us and at the same time, families sat at the patio eating brunch. Maybe some of them knew, maybe not.
But the darkness that was now exposed to us was almost blinding.
We walked to our van talking about how we couldn’t believe what just happened. The five of us said goodbye to L. and she went to wherever it was she was going. What an incredibly brave woman to know exactly what would happen where we would be and to show us exactly what we needed to see.
We waited a few moments and drove around the block, passing the cafe again. The eight or 10 men that had been keeping an eye on us were all gone in the five minutes it took us to circle back. The patio, except for a few maternal-esque women and the family, was empty.
I always assumed that sex trafficking went on in the brothels and the strip clubs. In Moldova, there are none. When we’d ask around where this trafficking took place, it seemed like nobody knew.
But when we did find it, it would be like watching a girl get sold outside at a Panera in your nicest suburb.
As I continued thinking throughout the day, I realized it doesn’t matter what my perception is on how or where or what sex trafficking looks like. I can pretend to be shocked (and honestly still am) that it happened in such an open location.
But the bottom line is this:
We all know it happens.
It may have been dangerous for us to be there. It probably would be if we went back. But this is a subject we must continue to stare in the face and say – dangerous or not – this can not happen.
This cannot happen on our watch.
Because if we know about it, if it’s happening on our watch, we’re responsible to do something about it.
Today, we’ll meet a girl who was trafficked from this exact cafe two years ago and is now in the care of L. and her organization.
I can’t help but wonder if, when she worked in this cafe, she served somebody tea from the same cup I drank from yesterday.
This blog originally appeared on Anne Jackson’s site, FlowerDust.net. Jackson is the author of Mad Church Disease and the soon-to-be released Permission to Speak Freely.