As a result of advocacy work and a strong partnership with the government, Willow International was the first organization called when the Ugandan police rescued over 150 women and children from a trafficking ring in May of 2018. Willow responded immediately and welcomed the youngest 30 girls rescued, ages 2 through 9, into its aftercare homes. Willow opened a third aftercare home to take in 13 young women and their six babies.
Zoe*, a 9-year-old survivor, had an especially difficult transition. Extensive trauma left Zoe struggling to remember life before her enslavement. When she first arrived at Willow, she was crying and angry most of the time. She would dissociate during group activities and stare at the piece of paper in front of her, unable to speak. When she did write, she wrote backwards—a result of the trauma that troubled the Willow team. She was uncooperative with her caretakers and felt safest sitting alone in the corner.
Each day, Willow’s case managers attempted to stabilize and comfort Zoe—hoping she would feel safe and loved. With time, Zoe began to tell her story through her drawings and would talk of witches that surrounded her former home.
Taking a more extensive approach, Willow provided Zoe with Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy sessions. EMDR encourages patients to briefly focus on trauma memories while rapidly moving their eyes as a result of bilateral stimulation. EMDR is incredibly effective in helping patients recover traumatic memories that were not fully processed and are causing harm.
Zoe began to share that she did not have any loving people in her life except for the team at Willow. She had lived with her dad and step-mom during her victimization but did not know if they were alive after the police raid. She felt alone.
In time, however, her memories began to come back. EMDR uncovered that the family Zoe recalled was not the full picture. Zoe remembered that she did have a mom who loved her and cared for her and was not part of the trafficking group. Zoe felt peace with her mom and said she wanted to return to her.
With her memory restored, Zoe no longer dissociates and is looking forward to seeing her mom. Her fears have subsided. She feels safe, cooperates with staff, and interacts with the other children. Most importantly, Zoe is happy.
Out of the 30 children rescued, Willow and the local authorities have successfully found 18 of their families. Zoe’s mom has not been located but the Willow team will not be discouraged and will work to reunite the mother and daughter.
Although Zoe and the other children have stories that are heartbreaking and horrific, they are safe and receiving the love and care they desperately need.
*Pseudonym to protect survivor’s identity.