“Zena” was only a small child when she was molested by a teacher in school and then a church leader in her community in South America.
Later, when approached by sex traffickers offering money, her grandmother threatened to beat Zena and withhold food if she did not comply to sleeping with the European and American tourists the traffickers provided.
Zena loved her grandmother very much, and believed her grandmother loved her, as well, so supporting the family—taking care of her own—felt like the right thing to do. It was expected and became her normal.
Since thirteen, traffickers sexually exploited Zena while her grandmother remained complacent. However, everything changed when the undercover operation began.
O.U.R. Operators started a several month process of infiltrating the internet and street-based trafficking ring that kept Zena and other children enslaved. They met up with two female traffickers (the percentage of women in this role now closely equal to those of men) that promised to supply young and “interesting” girls for sex.
Both sides began coordinating the transport, delivery, and payment via WhatsApp. An Operator remembers negotiating a price for Zena.
The planned event finally arrived, and O.U.R. Operators had the proof they needed. Local law enforcement arrested all those involved in the abuse and freed the girls.
Zena, 16 at the time, did not go into aftercare but returned home, not ready to take advantage of all O.U.R.’s supportive programs. But she did begin therapy and worked hard to gain mental health in the following months.
Zena slowly realized the full scope of what had happened to her—what she had been forced to do—and knew that no child should have to go through that.
Now, at 18, she has dreams far beyond the life given to her. Though she doesn’t want to lose any support still offered to her from O.U.R., she doesn’t want hand-outs either. That’s why she started her own dog-walking business for high-end clients that pay her well.
She loves animals, (dogs are her favorite), and hopes to one day be a veterinarian at a zoo. First, she plans to graduate from high school this year and then hopes to attend college. Zena knows she must learn English to succeed, so she has accepted O.U.R.’s offer to cover the costs to help her reach that goal.
Our biggest reward came when we invited Zena to dinner.
We witnessed her enthusiasm and excitement as she talked about the things yet to come and shared how she sings and practices English while walking her dogs. We, along with her social worker, looked on with tearing eyes and deep pride, mesmerized by her genuinely happy and amazing smile and attitude.
We sat in awe of her remarkable, fighting spirit, how she rose above the horrendous things she had been through, now clearly on the path to healing.
She told us how thankful and invaluable she felt because of our invitation, and the understanding and care given to her.
Zena proudly wears her Hero Band and never takes it off—engraved there—the word “Priceless”. What a perfect way to describe her and everything we’ve experienced from knowing her.
The O.U.R. Ops Team and O.U.R. Aftercare will never forget Zena and the important message she has imparted to all of us. There is always hope. Children trapped in sex trafficking can go on to live incredible, fulfilling lives.
Every life is worth saving, and O.U.R. will continue its commitment to finding and freeing the vulnerable.