Imagine walking down the street of your hometown. You might see a friend and say hello, or you might walk past a coffee shop that you like to study in and smell the coffee wafting out the open door. You see a dog and smile as you watch his tail wag as he pulls his owner down the sidewalk. You walk around the corner and run into someone you've never seen before. Your first instinct is to apologize and keep walking but that's not what they have in mind. You're suddenly being pulled into the shadows, your mouth is covered, you're helpless.
That is how many of the women in Greece feel. They are being taken and exploited. They are forced into a life full of brokenness and darkness. Some of them don't know a life outside of this darkness. This reality that is plaguing so many of the women in Greece is called human trafficking. The United Nations defines human trafficking as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of persons by improper means (such as force, abduction, fraud, or coercion) for an improper purpose including forced labor or sexual exploitation. You may have heard of it before but didn't think much about it because it didn't affect you personally. It doesn't take place directly in your life therefore the importance of this issue gets overlooked. The problem is, it is happening. Human trafficking is a huge issue and we need to be doing something about it. Luckily, there are people who are fighting for these women.
Claire VanDerEems is one of those people. Claire, a graphic designer with a passion for this ministry, felt God's calling to go to Greece to give her life to a ministry that helped women being exploited and trafficked. After she heard God's call and decided that it was time to answer, she started to look around for a program that she could work with in Greece. Claire said, "When I was researching organizations after I had decided to move to Athens, I came across CHD online. I was reading about the work they do, and was very drawn to their program because it is a holistic, Christ-centered, long-term recovery program for trafficking victims. I was initially drawn to their work because it is very rare to find faith-based nonprofits here in Athens specifically in anti-trafficking ministry." The program that Claire is referring to is Community House Damaris.
Community House Damaris is a long-term rehabilitation program set in Athens, Greece for the women whose lives are dominated by this issue. The program is for women ages 18-29 (and their children) who have been sexually exploited or trafficked in Greece and in many other countries, including Romania, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. They do this by providing safe housing, rehabilitation, and education.
This program doesn't just house the women, they guide them toward healing. They offer them food, a safe place to live, and other essentials for living, but they also offer things like training and classes for subjects like budgeting, parenting, language, etc. Community House Damaris has a Jewelry Business that the girls can be a part of. They make and sell bracelets and most of the money goes directly to the girls. Psychological support is provided individually and in groups. Lastly, Community House Damaris has Bible studies and other Inner Healing Opportunities. It is a Christian program and "the director is an incredible woman of prayer. We don't hide God, he is in everything we do but the women are not required to be Christian (and it's not forced upon them) if they come to the program... nearly all the women go." According to Claire, she "would say most of the women there do believe in God/Jesus/etc but I'm not sure how deep their relationship with Christ is... they are growing!" Although Claire has only been there for a couple of months, she has already seen God working in this ministry.
One of the problems that Community House Damaris has come across is that the women who are victims of trafficking don't usually see themselves as victims. Instead, their situation causes them to question their own identity in terms of the abuse they experience. The women who are brought into the sex trading world aren't given the liberty to choose their fate. The majority of them did not choose to live a life of prostitution voluntarily. Due to their living situations, they are most often forced into this life because it is the only way for them to survive. Despite this truth, "they are often dehumanized, experiencing the stigma of being 'disposable.'" The mission that Community House Damaris, and Claire, feel called to is to show these women that they are more than the life they have been forced into. They strive to bring these women to God for healing and growth.
Claire helps the program with design, communications, and writing applications in English, as well as just working with the women in the program. Her goal is to continue "growing their organizational communications and to manage graphic design, web, social media, and (essentially) Damaris PR while continuing to work with the girls." Claire has found a way to use her gift for graphic design and her knowledge of the English language to contribute to this ministry.
When asked which passage in the Bible really spoke to her and her ministry in Athens, Claire mentioned Acts 17:26-27 "And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us." Claire hears a lot of heartbreaking stories and she doesn't always know what to say to these women who are feeling lost, rejected, and alone. When she doesn't have the answers, she reflects on this passage. She finds it encouraging that "Paul spoke these words on a rock here in Athens and he says God moves people groups so that they will find and know him! Ironic that that was spoken thousands of years ago in a city that is now in the middle of a migration crisis." Constantly reminded of her sinfulness and insufficiency outside of Christ, she is encouraged that God has a plan for these girls. She has never felt the pain that they are going through but Jesus has. He knows what they are going through and He knows what their future looks like.
The people who work at Community House Damaris are both a team and a family. Claire described them as "a team working toward a mission overwhelmed by tremendous need but fighting for a cause God put in our hearts." They all feel the same calling and are passionate about the ministry. This draws them together to work hard to bring God to these girls. As a team, they also push each other closer to God. Claire said, "they encourage me a ton and challenge me each day. As a staff, we also go through the 12 Steps healing program that the girls do... that has been like spiritual open heart surgery in the best way!" They may be there to help these women and draw them toward the Lord, but they are reminded that they are also sinners who need healing. This mindset allows them to come to the girls with a spiritually humble heart.
They are also a family who regularly celebrates together. Something that Claire loves "about this organization (and Greek culture) is that, often, we celebrate. We share a lot of meals together (staff, women in the program, everyone) and we make sure to spend a lot of time with the girls in the holidays." Families spend holidays together and the team at Damaris are sure to include the women in their family. Many of the women have children and they all become like nieces and nephews to the team at Damaris. However, outside of these family moments, Claire said that they still have a lot of drama. They are all sinners moving toward healing, both the team and the girls in the program. This reminds them why they are there, working as a team to help these girls. They are a big family who love each other but they are also God's little workers, bringing His love to a broken world.
Claire's calling and passion for this ministry doesn't make it easy for her. Like anyone else, she struggles with the transition into this different culture. Working in a different culture, at a different pace, and in a place where English is a second language comes with many struggles and miscommunications. Despite the daily struggles that she faces, Claire has more things that she loves about her ministry than things that she doesn't like. When asked what her favorite things about working in this ministry are, she said, "Learning, I love growing in my understanding of this issue and seeing more of the Father's heart for these ladies. Just the deep deep conviction and passion I have for this work, knowing that trafficking of refugees is a HUGE issue in Greece and there are very very few people committed to do something about it. I feel this supernatural devotion (is that a thing?) to this issue and inserting Hope and Freedom, and I know there are so many more men, women, and children trafficked and exploited in camps without shelter or recovery... which motivates the deep part of my soul to continue to the work."
Have you ever felt like God was calling you to a place where you might not feel comfortable all of the time? A place where they speak a different language or where there is a lot of brokenness? Are you hesitant to listen to this call because you're afraid or you feel like your gifts won't matter? Claire felt all of these things. She was afraid. She struggled to get the funds for this trip. She felt overcome by her own brokenness. Instead of succumbing to these doubts, she listened to God. A passage that she looks to when she needs to be reminded of why God called her to this mission is Psalm 16. The first two verses are "Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge. I say to the Lord, 'You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.'" Claire is "reminded often that I am a terrible sinner, have nothing good about me without Jesus (really, my life is a mess) but that it is God who guides my paths, who has given me a beautiful inheritance, and who secures my soul. I especially need that in this work and in this season of uncertainty with visas/finances/etc." God didn't call Claire, and He doesn't call any of us, into ministry because we are great. He doesn't call us because we will change the world. He calls us because He is great and He has a plan to use us to change the world. God is using Claire, and Community House Damaris, in Greece to bring these broken women to Him so that He can heal them.
When God calls you to go somewhere out of your comfort zone, He has a purpose in it. He uses His people in all different areas in the world to reach broken people. He sends you so that they will find Him there.