'I didn't think I had a right to be happy'

Sarah is 28 with a five-year-old son and a life marked by abuse since she was a child. She fled from a trafficking group and her native Ivory Coast and, at last, her story has a happy ending

ANA PÉREZ-BRYAN

In many African countries, when a father dies and his widow has no money, the children are passed to other members of the extended family so the men can look after and protect them.

For Sarah - not her real name, but her story is true - that moment came when she was nine years old. It was also the moment she discovered being sent to this particular uncle was the start of an atrocious story and would mark the end of her childhood.

Sarah, who is 28 now, tells her story in pieces, as if she wanted to sew up the threads of some memories which «suddenly appear and can't be got rid of».

She is dressed in bright African colours and patterns, but the dark memories continue to haunt her. She fled from the Ivory Coast when she was 16 after numerous problems at home - «they made life very difficult for me,» she says - and working as a kitchen assistant in different restaurants.

«One day a man said he had a job for me in Burkino Faso, and that he would pay my fare to get there.»

Thinking that everything would be different, Sarah set off on a journey which opened the doors to something «much worse» than she was leaving behind. «When I arrived they shut me in a house with a lot of other girls like me,» she says.

She breaks down at this point, and asks Carmen Rueda, her lawyer «and second mother in Spain» to continue on her behalf.

«They exploited her there, forcing her to have intercourse with clients on demand and in conditions of slavery. She had no money, no possibility of choosing,» says Carmen. She doesn't go into details, but says the network not only threatened the girls, but also the families they had left behind. In Sarah's case, her mother.

Sarah was there for well over a year, until a client «who was very influential in the country» became fond of her and felt sorry for her and decided to help her get away.

«He started to organise my escape, and one day he told them he wanted me to go to an appointment outside the house. He had organised everything so I could get to Mali, then from there to Mauritania and finally to Morocco,» says Sarah. It took weeks and she had to stay hidden at all times «because when I escaped I left a debt behind and I was scared they would come and find me».

Third time lucky

Once in Morocco, she took refuge in the house of a woman her former client had contacted to help her get to Spain. «She said it would be a good idea to cross the border into Melilla, hidden among the women who go to and fro with goods for sale,» she explains. She managed it on her third attempt, on 31 December 2014. The year was coming to an end and so was her former life. «It was like a sign. In Spain I would be able to start again,» says Sarah, but she hadn't realised that the woman who had helped her would want something in exchange. «I don't know how she found out where I was but she did, and told me she hadn't done it for nothing and I had to give her 5,000 euros,» she says.

Recently arrived, alone and with no documents, she had already told her story to the CETI immigrant centre in Melilla and they had suggested that she apply for asylum in Spain.

«She was being threatened. She was told they were going to report her and return her to the Ivory Coast; and they found her mother, who had to leave the town where she was living,» says Carmen, the head of the legal department at the CEAR refugee assistance centre, who has been handling Sarah's case since she arrived in Malaga from Melilla seven years ago.

The threat and the pressure of the debt obliged Sarah to «do certain jobs» but she didn't earn enough to make ends meet so she ran away once again. This time, though, she was pregnant by a compatriot she met in Malaga but never saw again. Her baby was born four months later, in France.

«There, I had absolutely nothing. They let me stay in hospital for a week because otherwise I would have been on the street with my baby. They said my baby would be taken away from me,» sobs Sarah.

Finally a social worker at the CEAR in Malaga, who had kept in touch with her, persuaded her to come back.

That phone call marked a before and after in her life, to such an extent that today, nearly five years later, Sarah has realised that beyond the administrative protection and the assistance that came with it, there were other small things she was entitled to. And some were important: «I didn't think I had a right to be happy,» she says. And now it is Carmen who bursts into tears, listening to her.

Carmen cries again when she recalls the intense work she had to do so to obtain official refugee status for Sarah and her son, who is nearly five now. But the bureaucracy left another weak point in this story without protection: Sarah's mother, still in hiding because of the debt her daughter left behind her in Burkina Faso.

«We started the process for a family extension, which is very complicated because the legislation normally only considers spouses and children, not parents,» says the lawyer. «My mother doesn't know how to read or write, it's hard for her to work and she is in a very vulnerable situation,» says Sarah.

However, she is feeling very happy at present because she has a stable job as a cook, she has finally fallen on her feet and because she has just been able to hug her mother again. And she is here to stay. «My life had been so difficult that I thought I would never see her again. Since she arrived, I have kept saying to her »is it really you, sitting there? I can't believe it«!

When we sat down for this interview, Sarah's mother was at her side, but then she asked her to leave. «She knows nothing about what happened to me. Sometimes she asks me, but I don't know how to tell her. I know she would cry so much if I did,» she says. It is a protective gesture; at least her mother is saved from hearing that Sarah was one of those stories which occasionally hit the news headlines about refugees and enforced prostitution. «I had no choice, but I can choose for her. And do you know what? I'm 28 years old and I feel like a little girl again. It's as if everything has gone backwards and is OK now,» she says.

She is about to register with a secondary school to complete her education and then go on to train as a social integration worker. She wants others like her to realise that they do have rights, and happiness is one of them.