Half-dressed women stand behind the windows lining the streets of Amsterdam’s Red Light District — some legal sex workers, others victims of human trafficking. In Austin, these victims are harder to find, hidden in online forums rather than sold in plain sight.
Calli Norris, director of operations at Redeemed Ministries, a Christian group, works to combat Austin’s sex trafficking industry and provides aftercare to survivors at the organization’s safe house. Before joining the organization in 2012, Norris traveled to Amsterdam and Cambodia to work with survivors. Though she was planning on staying abroad, Norris made the decision to come back to Austin after realizing how prevalent the issue was in her hometown.
“In Austin, the victims of human trafficking are harder to find,” Norris said. “In Europe, it’s right in front of your face, but usually here, these women are bought through the Internet.”
Sgt. Bob Miljenovich, head of Austin Police Department’s Human Trafficking and Vice Unit, said the unit received over 100 reports of human trafficking last year alone.
The vice unit works closely with organizations such as Redeemed Ministries when rescued survivors want to go to a safe house. If the women are interested in the ministry’s program specifically, Norris meets and coordinates with them. Once they arrive, the organization provides women with medical care and offers counseling and therapy.
Because of their past experiences, Norris said it often takes the women a long time to open up.
“When they first come to us, they’re very skeptical, which is understandable,” Norris said. “They’ve been taught that they can’t trust people, that you can’t get anything for free, that people don’t just love them for no reason. They’re coming to us very hardened, but once they’re able to trust us, then there’s beautiful relationships that are built.”
Three years ago, Norris was involved in the rescue of two women. Though they were being trafficked together, one of them had was attending UT during the day and being bought and sold at night. Norris said that though some victims of trafficking are given the freedom to attend school or talk to their families, their trafficker or pimp is often holding information over them that prevents them from leaving.
After law enforcement rescued the women, one attended and graduated from Redeemed Ministries’ program, got a job and moved to her own apartment. While Norris said the woman’s history was the most traumatic she’d ever known, they’ve remained friends throughout her transition to a new life.
“She had a really difficult time and was coming out of a rough month,” Norris said. “She was on the phone with me, and I will never forget she told me ‘I am so happy, this is the first time in my life I know what it means to be truly happy.’”
In the past four years of working at Redeemded Ministries, Norris said she’s learned so much from the women she’s helped and taken on a sisterly role with many of the survivors.
“[People] tend to look at these women as something other than people,” Norris said. “These women are people like you and I. They’re so much more than just victims. These women are so strong and so brave. They’re just people who are looking for love.”