Serving By Your Presence
By Kara Rota, Contributor
August / September 2014
The work of two extraordinary Irish nuns, one of whom works with women who have been trafficked for sex or labor. The other helps first-time offenders stay out of prison.
If you run a Google search for “safehouse nyc,” one of the first results is for a bar in Greenpoint called Brooklyn Safehouse. The menu includes a yellowfin tuna burger and kale salad. It’s a far cry from the LifeWay Network safehouse where Sister Michele Harnett works: a secret location that protects, cares for, heals, and educates women who have been victims of human trafficking.
“To date we have helped twelve women. We can only accommodate five women at a time,” says Michele, who coordinates the 20 volunteers, from a network called the New York Coalition of Religious Congregations to Stop Human Trafficking, who staff and support the house.
Like her colleague Sister Bríd Long, who works at Abraham House, an alternative to incarceration for first-time offenders, Sister Michele grew up in Ireland. They each answered a call to join the Sisters of St. Louis, a teaching order, in their youth, and haven’t looked back.
In 1963, Michele was missioned to California where she worked as an educator, school principal and counselor for 48 years. “I came to Los Angeles to teach in 1966,” says Bríd, “however, after completing doctoral studies in Rome, I taught Pastoral Theology at the Catholic University of America and the Washington Theological Union before returning to California in 2004 to serve in community leadership with Michele.”
In 2011, both answered an invitation from their neighborhood to open an international community in New York at the service of the immigrant population. They now live in Washington Heights.
“Part of our calling is to answer new needs as they emerge,” says Bríd. “Religious communities are diminishing right now, but even in diminishment we must be focused outward and help in whatever way we can. And I think it was a natural fit for us to minister among the immigrant population, being immigrants ourselves.”
She spends much of her time at Abraham House on Willis Avenue in the Bronx. The address is easily found. Not so for LifeWay house, where Michele works. It must, for good reasons, remain a secret.
“It’s dangerous for the girls until such time as their traffickers have been brought to trial,” Michele says.
As well as the safety factor, the challenge for most of the girls, all of whom, apart from one American, are from different countries, is lack of basic education and English language skills.
“A big part of the goal of the Safehouse is to help them heal but also to provide some measure of independence for them,” says Michele, who tutors the girls in English grammar, writing, and reading.
“They’ve all got different stories. For some it was labor trafficking, for others it was sex trafficking, but basically they’re all trying to put their lives back together again, and we are here to help them.”
Carmen, who was a victim of trafficking and is now employed and in school, says, “The Sisters and the staff helped me to heal my trauma by listening to me and paying attention to me in a way that made me feel confident to tell them what I experienced.”
Carmen, who spoke at a recent fundraiser for LifeWay, said, “the [traffickers] control us emotionally, psychologically and physically, and the only way to escape from their hands is finding people with good intentions who believe us and believe that human trafficking exists and listen to us.”
Listening is an important part of what Bríd and Michele do.
“A lot of times we’re just a presence… we have cups of tea with the residents; we chat with them,” says Michele.
Both she and Bríd work with case managers and groups such as Safe Horizon and Sanctuary for Families, who provide legal help and counseling.
“The basic thing for me is that people can be helped,” says Bríd. “Many people are in trouble. They’re alone, they’re overwhelmed by life, they’re poor, they don’t have a safe place to live, they’re afraid, especially if they’re here undocumented. Abraham House provides them with access to resources.”
A lot of families come to Abraham House to meet with the social workers and get help with immigration and other legal problems.
“One young boy came [to the U.S.] as a high school student; his sister was here and he crossed the border on the back of a truck. He was captured, put in a camp in California for four months, then because he was still underage, he was released to his sister who’s here in the Bronx,” says Bríd.
“He has had to go to court several times. His deportation was deferred, maybe in the hope that immigration law will be reformed and that he can stay and be legalized. I don’t know if that will happen anytime soon, but we hope for that,” she adds.
Bríd teaches English to adults from “at-risk” families at Abraham House where her favorite time is Saturday afternoon. “There is group work for the clients, pastoral activities for families, and Mass. After Mass, the families have dinner, prepared with great care by the residents, who feel very proud of the fact that they can help others even though they are doing time.”
Severino Diaz, who now works at Abraham House, was wrongly imprisoned for 25 years. Father Peter, the founder of Abraham House (now retired), believed in Severino’s innocence and helped him maintain his optimism and his determination to continue his education while in prison so that he could advocate for others upon his release.
“Father Peter was there with me all the time. I don’t think three months passed by without a visit from him,” says Severino. “First I became a paralegal, then I kept going and got a BA in psychology. It was escape for me. I made a commitment to myself; I had to survive. That’s the only way that I made it 25 years.”
Even while he was still in prison, Severino started helping people. “Inside prison a lot of people are illiterate – they don’t know how to read or write. Not only immigrants, but Americans,” he says.
The families that belong to the community of Abraham House are mostly immigrants and poor – most live below the poverty line, with big challenges.
“They don’t speak English for the most part. They’re away from home. They lack a sense of community that they had in their own country, and in general their circumstances are sometimes worse than where they came from,” says Bríd.
The way Bríd and Michele see it, the immigrant story is the American story, and the changing economic times have made it more improbable for poor immigrants to scrape by, let alone achieve citizenship and thrive.
“I think the difficulty of raising children without family support systems is a challenge. Not being able to feed their children often is a challenge too. And not knowing the system, not knowing where to get help causes great difficulties. They hope, like all people, for something
better. Some get into trouble, they run into difficulties with the law. Sometimes it’s petty theft, sometimes drugs, various things like that.”
In these cases, alternatives to incarceration like Abraham House can be the difference between an individual spiraling into more major crime and finding a place to get help and ultimately helping others in their own community.
“I’m not trying to minimize crime,” says Bríd. “I know crime is crime. But it can be circumstantial. One of the young men at Abraham House is married and has three children. He worked at a cleaners but didn’t make enough money to support his family so he got involved in some fraudulent activity. Luckily he was sent to Abraham House rather than being sent to prison. Here we help people get their lives together, and we help them get some job skills and find jobs. It’s a place of welcome where people can come and feel at home, and be among others who are struggling along with them. And they know that there are people here who will help them.”
Both Bríd and Michele see a correlation between what they do and the experience of earlier Irish immigrants who had the most menial of jobs and were discriminated against.
“I don’t like to talk about duty, but it is almost that we should be compelled to help those who are trying to come up also,” says Bríd.
“It’s simply about not leaving people on the periphery but feeling responsible for one another, walking with one another, supporting one another, forming a community together, sharing life together. If all of us could reach out to and accompany one another in some way, then we’d all be a lot better.”