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Helping Victims Of Sexual Trafficking Find The Courage To Recover

Psychologist Lidia Gorceag
Psychologist Lidia Gorceag
CHISINAU, Moldova -- When she meets her patients by chance on the sidewalks of the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, psychologist Lidia Gorceag says they often cross to the other side of the street to avoid having to say hello.

"I am not angry," Gorceag says. "I understand that I am associated with pain, with the confessions they have made to me. I also understand that a psychologist is a kind of 'garbage bin' of society, and I take my profession this way. The gratitude comes years later when they call to thank me. The only thing I care about right now is making them happy."

Gorceag specializes in counseling women and girls who have been trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation, as well as the victims of domestic and sexual violence. Gorceag's work is called officially "resocialization," although this is quite a dry, cold word to describe the passion she brings to her work.

According to the U.S. State Department, Moldova is a "major source" for women and girls sold for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation. It says Moldovan women are trafficked to more than a dozen countries, from Russia to Portugal, Israel to Ukraine.

In its latest report on trafficking, the State Department said the Moldovan government had not fully complied even with minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, and had not provided evidence that it had attempted to crack down on involvement by government officials in such trafficking.

In 2006, it says, the Moldovan government made no real effort to improve victim assistance and protection and continues to rely on NGOs and international organizations, such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM), to educate the public about the problem.

For the past seven years, Gorceag has been working in the Rehabilitation Center in Chisinau, which is financed by the IOM. In that time, she and her team have worked with hundreds of women, helping them to come to terms with their past and to face their futures with confidence and dignity.

"If only you saw where these women come from, you would understand why they leave," Gorceag says. "Ninety-seven percent of them are victims of domestic violence. Sixty percent are victims of rape. And all of them are victims of poverty. Anyone under similar circumstances would choose to work in prostitution."

Touching The Souls

Lidia Gorceag was born in the town of Soroca in 1949, into what she describes as an ordinary family. She says she inherited her "moral capital" from her grandmother Sofia, a woman with little formal education but whom her granddaughter regards as the wisest person she's ever known.

"When she took the pie out of the oven, she used to cover two pieces in a towel and ask me to give them to our neighbor Domnica, a lonely and poor woman. I asked why we weren't eating first," Gorceag recalls. "'No,' she told me. 'Making charity means to share first with someone in need and then to take care of yourself.'"

Gorceag's face lights up as she tells the story.

"I have been following this advice ever since," she says. "I just regret I don’t have a daughter to bear [Sofia's] name." Her son, Viorel, is 31 years old and is a doctor.

Gorceag consults with one of her patients in her office in the Moldovan capital, Chisinau.
Her interest in the field of psychology began at an early age.

"The school I attended was the second important thing in my life," Gorceag says. "Those born in Soroca know what School No. 1 signified during the old days. Some of my teachers had studied at the Sorbonne, others in Bucharest. They were extraordinary people. A pedagogical school existed in Soroca at that time, and young students were practicing the art of teaching in our school. They were doing [psychological] tests with us, and this is how I learned about this area."

After graduation from university, she found a job teaching psychology at the same pedagogical school. Then she worked as a researcher at what used to be the Pedagogical Institute. Later she took the job of a school psychologist, following postgraduate studies, and then joined a center for family assistance. She also studied trafficking and violence against women in the United States, which helped her get the job with the IOM.

People hesitate to go to a psychologist because people around them may consider them crazy. This perception makes it difficult for the specialist to intervene in the healing process for survivors of human trafficking.
She married her husband, Ion, an engineer, in 1973.

"My good luck was to get a job in this center," she says. "It’s a great pleasure of mine to help people understand themselves, to help them perceive their reality in other ways, to draw up goals for themselves, to reach those goals, and to come to what the ancient philosophers called catharsis."

Gorceag says her job is to touch the souls of her patients, to encourage them to see their experiences from other angles, and to help them find the strength to move forward. Her basic principle is, "Don't look back." She urges her patients to write down their immediate goals, and then more long-term objectives, and to do something every day to bring them closer to fruition.

“Why do I like working here? Because we have all of the instruments we need to help the victims of slavery reintegrate. Look how it happens," she says. "I am helping them to overcome their fears and phobias. The lawyer is assisting them in the courtroom when necessary. We are able to provide scholarships for them. We can support them while they start a business, find a job, and find a place to live.”

Sterile Statistics, Real People

On Gorceag's desk is a copy of her 2007 annual report, which she will soon show to her boss. The report is full of sterile statistics that do not convey Gorceag's real work. There are, nevertheless, some clues hidden in its pages:

"1,338 individual counseling sessions; 73 family counseling sessions; 102 sessions by telephone; 197 persons who sought her assistance for the first time; 214 repeated calls, including 310 adults and 101 children. The diagnoses include neurotic distress; post-traumatic stress; affective and psychic stress; schizophrenia; manic-depressive psychosis; and epilepsy." She also acted as a moderator in 26 workshops and training courses and gave 21 interviews to the media.

One of the drawings produced in Gorceag's art therapy sessions, aimed at helping the victims of human trafficking cope with their ordeal
Martin Andreas Wyss, the chief of mission for the IOM in Moldova, calls Gorceag's work vital to the IOM's success. He says rehabilitating the victims of trafficking requires a "titanic" effort by a psychologist with proven techniques, extraordinary patience, and professional expertise.

"Lidia Goreag's character is endowed with all of these qualities," he says.

Wyss also notes how difficult it is for victims to even meet with a psychologist.

"This profession was not accepted in Eastern Europe until 1990," he says. "People hesitate to go to a psychologist because people around them may consider them crazy. This perception makes it difficult for the specialist to intervene in the healing process for survivors of human trafficking."

'I Was Completely Destroyed'

Svetlana is one of Gorceag's patients. Svetlana says she always comes to Gorceag when she can't figure out what to do. On her last visit, she says, Gorceag gave her some advice that made her angry, but now she has returned to thank her and to tell her she was right.

"You see, I can't give comfort all the time," Gorceag explains. "Sometimes I have to be tough in order to make them move, to make them act."

Svetlana doesn't mind talking about the nightmare she experienced as a victim of human trafficking. There is nothing to hide anymore, she says. She is safe. No one is following her. She asks only not to be photographed.

I will never forget how surprised I was when [Lidia] asked me to write three letters. Imaginary letters, of course. I felt such a relief after I burned those letters...
Svetlana's story is similar to those of many trafficked women -- complicated relationships with her family, living in poverty, and then a job offer in Turkey.

Followed by slavery.

“When I came through this door for the first time, I was completely destroyed," Svetlana says. "Everything was in dark colors. I was very aggressive and nervous. I didn't know how to get on with my life."

She says she tried to go to church. It helped, she says, but only a little.

"I will never forget," Svetlana continues, "how surprised I was when [Lidia] asked me to write three letters. Imaginary letters, of course. I won’t tell you to whom I wrote those letters. But I felt such a relief after I burned those letters and dumped the ashes out the window.”

Psychologists call this technique "desensitizing," and Gorceag uses it often in her work in Chisinau.

"I ask the patient to write, for example, a letter to her aggressor -- to tell him what she thinks, anything she thinks, without any editing," Gorceag explains. "Then I ask her to write a second letter, from her aggressor -- a sort of justification. And in the third letter, the aggressor apologizes to her for what he did.

"When I ask them what they feel while having all of these things put on a sheet of paper, most of them say, 'Relief.' You understand that once the situation is imagined and heard again, it is easier to overcome the past."

Gorceag looks over some of the drawings produced as part of the art therapy sessions she conducts.
Gorceag uses a variety of techniques, including art therapy.

“It'a a very good exercise. A life road. The woman reproduces the most important events she has been through in images. She usually draws some symbols, and these images serve as benchmarks for further therapy sessions.

"If we draw the fear, for example, we tear up the paper and throw it into the garbage bin, and we take the bin to the waste site in the courtyard," she says. "It's good if we catch the waste carrier. This way, the woman gets rid of her fears."

Gorceag tells the story of one of her patients, suffering from severe depression after years of slavery in Turkey.

"She found the courage to recover. We gave her a scholarship. She then obtained a good job in a prospering company, and now she is engaged.

"There is just one dilemma she is facing," Gorceag says, her voice trembling with emotion. "Whether to tell her future husband about the experience she survived, or to keep it all inside."

What would she advise?

"Generally, I prefer to abstain from advice. Everyone must choose alone," she says. "Although my civic stance is that any truth is better than a lie, the decision rests solely with her. My feeling is that she is preparing to disclose her past to him. If she finds the courage she needs, she will win."

Gorceag relates the story of another woman who survived slavery and is now a successful entrepreneur in her home village, having opened a laundry and a mill. Another patient founded a textile factory and now delivers pajamas, bedsheets, and tablecloths to the center.

No Tablet Under The Tongue

Not every case is a success story, however.

"There are situations in which after a session or two I realize that I am not going to help in any way," she says. "And then I have to give them into other hands. This is an act of courage, if you want to say so, to admit that you are not almighty."

Gorceag plays with her nephew Catalin.
A few months ago, Gorceag was working with a woman who was expected to appear in court to give a deposition against a violent trafficker.

"After a few sessions, I realized that she would not get through, that she would not resist psychologically," she recalls. "The lawyer and I decided to withdraw the case. It is quite difficult, but we have to choose what is best for the victim."

"Psychology is not a tablet under the tongue, but the capacity for man to change," Gorceag says. "Some are less understanding or strong. Slavery dramatically changes people's lives. They become violent. They depend on alcohol or drugs."

She compares these psychological wounds to those of soldiers who return from combat in Afghanistan or Iraq. Years of psychotherapy are necessary in order to overcome this state of spirit, she says.

Gorceag offers her guest a parting gift -- a ceramic mouse, in honor of 2008, the Year of the Mouse on the Chinese calendar.

"Do you see what imagination does?" she asks. "From a rodent -- which is not very nice, let's admit -- it has turned into a beautiful knickknack. Life is the same. We have to see the full part of the glass. And these people need to be appreciated for the kind parts within them."

About "On The Front Lines"

About This Series
"On The Front Lines" features in-depth profiles of men and women in RFE/RL's broadcast area who have dedicated their lives to the causes of freedom, democratic values, and human rights. More

What Do I Believe? -- Lidia Gorceag

What Do I Believe?

We asked Lidia Gorceag about the core beliefs that guide her in her life and work. Play

Side Lines -- Lidia Gorceag

Side Lines: Lidia Gorceag
Favorite books or authors? Social and love poetry by George Cosbuc and Mihai Eminescu; prose by Mihail Sadoveanu and Anton Chekhov.

How do you relax? What are your hobbies?
I relax in the middle of nature, near my family, near by 5-year-old nephew. I like making kites with him, flying them, taking sunbaths, listening to the sounds of nature.

When will you know you've succeeded?
The capacity for appreciating your own success is related to intution and spiritual satisfaction.

What is your worst vice or extravagance?
My spontaneity. I cannot be predictable.

What was the best day of your life?
The day my son was born.

What is your greatest regret? That I do not speak more languages, so that I could gain direct access to various works of literature in the original languages.

Whom do you most despise? Those who are authoritarian, who force through their opinion, taking it as the absolute truth and thus slowing down development and creativity.

What is your idea of perfect happinesss? The capacity for seeing the glass half full; of receiving unknown people unconditionally; of loving unconditionally; the capacity for getting immense satisfaction when I offer, rather than receive.

What has been your greatest achievement or accomplishment?

My family.

What is your biggest challenge or obstacle?
The challenge of my life is still waiting for me in the future.

Making Contact -- Lidia Gorceag

Making Contact
Want to get in touch with Lidia Gorceag? Here's how:

Telephone: 373-79574334