Saturday, June 27, 2009

Fighting the Good Fight

*Photo from

I have to admit that I did not really buy into the idea of the anti-trafficking “heroes” that are listed in the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report. I bet if you talked to many of the heroes on the list, they will tell you that they were only doing what they felt they had to do. Please do not get me wrong, I knew these heroes were doing amazing work but I have always found the term a bit cheesy.

However, this year, I was forced to change my mind when Vera Lesko was named a 2009 TIP Report Hero. I met Vera in 2007 while conducting research on human trafficking for sexual exploitation in Albania and the surrounding region. I traveled to Vlora in southwestern Albania to meet and chat with Vera and tour the Vatra (“Hearth”) Center. The Hearth opened its doors in 1997 as an NGO dedicated to helping young people in need.

Vera saw the need to focus on trafficking because this was the biggest problem at the time in that part of Albania for young people, particularly women. As a result, Vatra opened a shelter in 2001, the first shelter for trafficking survivors in Albania. One of the first things that I noticed about this shelter that set it apart from others was the atmosphere. While people were sad, this was not a place of sadness. There was hope in this place and a tremendous force for good, personified by the amazing Vera Lesko.

While the 2009 TIP Report Heros blurb glosses over it, Vera was facing a number of serious obstacles to her work at the time that I met her. Funding for the shelter had all but dried up, she had received some small awards from the US & UK Embassies in Albania but the rent for the shelter and linked apartments was expensive. Further, Vera looked wan and wore a headscarf because she was battling breast cancer. She was having trouble paying her medical bills and had to travel regularly to Italy to get cancer treatments. Vera had also suffered public beatings as a result of her work helping the most vulnerable in society.

What you do not read in the TIP Report is that the state police protection for Vatra was taken away. Vera was forced to hire a private security firm, yet another drain on her expenses. The local and national government have gone numerous times to Vatra to check that it is “up to standards” but, as Vera wryly pointed out to me, she helped to write the standards. Even though the government tried to block her work, Vera persevered. She managed not only to keep the shelter open but to expand the scope of her work. I am honored to have had the opportunity to meet Vera and I still marvel at her pioneering spirit.

According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, a hero is “a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability; an illustrious warrior; a [wo]man admired for her achievements and noble qualities; one that shows great courage.” While I normally eschew this type of terminology, Vera is the very definition of a hero. The amount of courage she has displayed in fighting trafficking is truly awe inspiring. Vera gives me hope that we can make a difference in the fight against trafficking, that we can ultimately win, even when the odds are so severely against us. Not only has Vera shown great courage in fighting trafficking, she has done so in a frequently hostile environment and, what is more, she has inspired others to do the same.

1 comment:

  1. Vera Lesko in Albania is doing great work to assist women who have been trafficked or who have been victims of violence.

    It is commendable of you to recognize her.

    I couldn't help but notice though, after you go on about her financial problems, you neglected to suggest to your readers that they could donate money to assist her great work.

    I would suggest that this would be a great thing on your part. Suggest donations, and show address etc where they can send money to Vera.

    This is the kind of recognition that could really be useful to her and her work and to the women she helps, don't you think?