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A Place for Trafficked Migrants

A Letter from Ellen Smith, serving in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Poland

Summer 2021

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Write to Jessica Derise

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Dear friends,

Finally, Pastor Jessica Derise is headed to Moscow. In March 2020, Presbyterian World Mission called Pastor Jessica Derise to serve with Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy (MPC). Within days of her hiring, the COVID crisis led our church to issue a travel ban. Over the last 18 months, Jessica has found creative ways to serve from afar, providing pastor leadership and care for a diverse congregation in a faraway place. It has not been easy, but she has persevered. Jessica and I have decided that it is time for us to write to you together to update you on the ministry of MPC. If you would like information on how to subscribe to Jessica’s letters please contact mary.nebelsick@pcusa.org.

The world is on the move for a variety of complex reasons. Some are seeking economic opportunity because earning a living wage and supporting family is not possible in their context. Others seek safety from war, from domestic violence, and from the ravages of climate change. Natural disasters and climate change drive a large percentage of migration. We have never spoken to a migrant who thought where they landed was preferable to home; however, in most cases home is not even an option. The issues of migration are global, but our purpose here is to look at the effects of this phenomenon in the Russian context.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, many have migrated to Russia for a variety of reasons. Early on, students came to study, either at Friendship University or other regional universities. The majority of these students came from Africa and Asia. Afghans who had aided the Russians during their war relocated to Russia for reasons of safety. People from countries of the former Soviet Union came because economic opportunities were better in Russia during the chaos that ensued after the collapse.

In the last 10-15 years, there has been a growing number of people being trafficked from African nations.  People have been trafficked into prostitution and menial labor. Both are forms of economic slavery. Often, they have been told that if they can get to Moscow, they will have a gateway to Europe and ultimately to financial success. Families have sold whatever they could, including land, to get one family member to Moscow. Traffickers lure with many promises that are, of course, never fulfilled.

Upon arrival, they are warmly met at the airport by fellow countrymen or other Africans but have quickly been confronted by a harsh reality. The traffickers have delivered them to overcrowded apartments and they have been given menial jobs in difficult circumstances. Oftentimes, they have found themselves out on the streets in harsh winter temperatures passing out flyers from stores.

Usually, they have not realized that their visas are not correct for work and will expire quickly, leaving them illegal within weeks or days of their arrival. There is a deep sense of shame and trauma in those who have found themselves in this situation. MPC has been able to work with embassies to help repatriate some, but others refuse help because their families sacrificed so much to get them there.

In the early 2000s, MPC became aware of the plight of such migrants and began to seek ways to support them. They established a social ministry program that provides a warm, safe space to gather and use a computer, a medical advice center, a clothing closet, a food distribution program and an educational program. Through this center, the congregation has deepened its knowledge of migrant issues. The migrants are all victims who arrived with hope and now trudge through an extremely dangerous space.

As MPC Social Services has accompanied this population, they have become aware of a particularly heartbreaking situation. In these crowded apartments (12-15 in one room from different countries, different tribal groups and different language groups), children are born. Of course, it makes an already difficult life even more difficult. The parents are traumatized and find it difficult to provide basic parenting. Numb from the life they have fallen into and without family support to guide and help raise these children, neglect is prevalent. These children, surrounded by languages from many countries, find themselves with no language fluency.

They do not have Russian citizenship at birth, and they have no access to kindergartens and schools. If they spoke Russian, there might be opportunities, but without that there is nothing. What becomes of a child without language fluency? MPC Social Services has studied the issue and talked with potential partners. [For now, COVID has put plans on hold.] What the center needs more than anything is space, but there are many obstacles.

Children are often the unseen victims of this global migration. Many children have been sent ahead by their families with the hope that the whole family might follow. They now live in camps for unaccompanied minors and often fall prey to drug rings and prostitution. As we saw with the children at the U.S./Mexico border, these children are undergoing deep trauma and it will take a lifetime to sort through the effects on their lives. It is not greed that drives families to give up everything and move or that drives parents to send children ahead or that leads young people to leave the safety of family and culture. It is quite simply desperation. The question before us is how to alleviate that sense of hopelessness and to provide safety, security and skills for a better future.

The Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy needs resources for their many ministries, but the proposed project with the children of trafficking victims is a new endeavor. Money is certainly not the only resource needed, but it is a critical need in order to begin the project. It would also be valuable to have dialogue with people that have had success in this kind of ministry in other contexts. We covet your prayers. Quite simply, we cannot do this without you. For further questions, please contact: mpcpastor@pcusa.org.

Peace and blessings,

Ellen & Jessica


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