When it opened its doors 12 years ago, Iana Matei's shelter for the victims of international prostitution was the first of its kind in Romania. Since then, it has provided a refuge to 420 women who have escaped from the hell of forced prostitution. Thanks to Matei, these women have been able to return to normal lives in a safe and friendly environment. The shutters are closed in the vast living room, where the silence is only broken by odd lines of dialogue from an American film on the TV, which is watched by several serious young women who appear to be silently lost in thought. The door opens and a blond with a broad smile enters. Ilana Matei appears younger than her 50 years. Along with two social workers, she has managed the refuge for former prostitutes since 1998: the year she returned to Romania after a spell abroad.

In 1989, she was forced to leave the country in a hurry after police issued a warrant for her arrest. She fled first to Yugoslavia, where she worked as an interpreter for the UN's refugee agency. Then she emigrated to Australia where she spent a number of years earning a living as a bus-company accountant before returning to Romania. Shortly after her return to Bucharest, Matei who trained as a psychologist became involved in a number of projects that aimed to help street children. Then one day she received a call from a policeman, who told her: "We don't know what to do with these chicks we have just picked up." As Iana Matei recalls, he was speaking about "three girls aged 13-14, who were frozen, badly dressed and starving. They told me that they had been sold by a gypsy, and then bought and sold again before being sent out into the street to bring back the bacon!" recalls Iana.

"I didn't know what to do with them, or where to take them. My home wasn't big enough. They spent the night at the hospital. In the meantime, I promised to think of a solution". During the night she came up with a plan for Reaching Out, the first association to offer a safe haven to female victims of human trafficking in Romania. The next day, Iana rented an apartment in Pitesti and moved in the three girls. Then she went to work on funding proposals, because she needed to find money quickly. A short time later, she received a call from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) which was trying to find a home for some Bosnian, Macedonian and Albanian girls who had been mistreated and sexually abused. Clearly, they would need a roof over their heads while they got back on their feet, so Iana rented a second apartment.

Convincing women to speak out

Most of the girls who end up staying with Iana have returned from Italy or Spain, which — according to a 2009 report from the US State Department on human trafficking — are the two main destinations for young Romanians who fall victim to prostitution networks. In the other top ranked countries — Greece, the Czech Republic and Germany — not all trafficking victims are destined for sexual exploitation; a significant percentage of them are forced to beg on the streets or work in agriculture. When they arrive at the centre, most of the girls need medical attention. Some of them have been tortured with razor cuts and cigarette burns, some are pregnant, and most of them are suffering from post-traumatic stress. Thereafter, they attend group therapy sessions, and adjust to routine living with daily chores designed to cultivate a sense of personal responsibility.

For them, Iana is more than a family, because the sad truth is that most of them are rejected by their families: "The parents reproach them for being prostitutes, for allowing themselves to be fooled, for shaming them in front of the neighbours. We are in a sick society, where children are still brought up by parents who believe 'if they make you, they own you!' Slaves to social prejudice, the compromised parents suffer in silence, especially when the girls come back pregnant. In some cases, to ensure that they will not be pursued in court, the traffickers actually marry their victims." And the girls that actually do file complaints "have to contend with expert lawyers hired by the traffickers, and threats and other forms of coercion designed to make them drop their cases." And in some cases, they throw in the towel.

Once again, Iana is there to offer support. She tells them they have to fight to put the traffickers behind bars. After a chat and lunch with the girls, Iana leaves the centre. On her way to her car, she receives a call. Her smile disappears, as she assumes a tense look: "Yes. Of course you can come to stay at the centre! Where are you? Be brave! We'll be waiting for you!"