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St. Thomas students learn about human trafficking while in Rome

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St. Thomas students learn about human trafficking while in Rome

By Elena Dini

ROME — The University of St. Thomas, Minnesota, reached out to The Lay Centre this year to organize the course “Global Christianity (Being Christian in Rome)” for students who are in the Italian capital for a semester abroad. The request came after a successful collaboration for similar courses in the past two years. 

This course introduces students to the Christian life in Rome, from the first centuries of Christianity to the present day, by exploring history, theology, art, and spirituality. Dr. Donna Orsuto, director of The Lay Centre, teaches the class, with the assistance of Loredana Fabijanic, a resident scholar at The Lay Centre from Croatia, who is working on her doctorate in Church history at the Pontifical Gregorian University.

The course offers frontal classes and site visits supplemented by various “awakening sessions,” where students dialogue during dinner with speakers who focus on specific topics related to Christian life. One of these sessions was on human trafficking, led by guest presenters Blessing Okoedion and Sister Patricia Murray, a member of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary. 

“When we talk about victims of human trafficking, we stigmatize them,” said Okoedion, who was a trafficking victim. She told the students how ignorance and lack of education among young women are partly the reason so many young women get caught in the net of human traffickers. 

“I arrived in Italy from Nigeriain 2013, after doing a job interview and expecting to work,” she said. “I was deceived and put immediately into the hands of human traffickers. My traffickers told me that I was indebted. They took everything I had and told me that I was going to be on the streets working as a prostitute. I was afraid and traumatized.” 

Okoedion finally took courage and, although everyone told her that she could not escape from her captors, she went to the police. 

“I thought about myself already as a dead person and this was not the life I wanted to live,” she said. The police sent her to a shelter run by religious sisters who helped her to rebuild her life. Since winning her freedom, Okoedion has insisted on the importance of education. 

“When a woman is educated, she is empowered, and when a woman is empowered, society at large is empowered,” she said. 

Sister Murray, who serves as executive secretary of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG), shared with the students the many activities of religious sisters around the world who work to put a stop to human trafficking. 

“Human trafficking is everywhere and maybe it is as lucrative as drugs,” she said. 

The UISG created an international network against human trafficking, called Talitha Kum. This “network of compassion,” as Sister Murray described it, is active in more than 70 countries and has rescued 10,000 trafficking victims. 

“The survivors of human traffickers are the true heroes,” she said.

St. Thomas student Lindsay Bayerkohler was deeply touched by the session. 

“I’m glad we have this opportunity to learn about real life issues anyone can fall subject to, it gives me a unique perspective on something in the world I often forget is a problem, because it will seemingly never affect me. Something else I learned that night is that it could,” said Bayerkohler. 

St. Thomas student Allie Mooney added she hopes community members can come together to make a difference for the better. 

“Future generations should be able to look back on this time as a time when we stood against these issues and not as a time when we just stood by them,” she said. 

Madeline Olson, another St. Thomas student, commented on the overall rhythm and methodology of the course. She said her favourite parts of the experience to date were the site visits, where students had the opportunity “to see and experience the things that we are learning about” in the classroom. 

Dr. Orsuto said the purpose of both the class and the awakening sessions are to introduce students to the spiritual, artistic and theological treasures of the Christian tradition, and to show that those who identify as Christian are also called to put their faith into practice through concrete action.  

“I really do not know what impact this course will have on the students,” said Dr. Orsuto. “I think our task at The Lay Centre is simply to sow seeds generously and hope that maybe, today or tomorrow, in five years or in 50, these seeds will take root and bear fruit.”

The course on Global Christianity will conclude at the beginning of December. 

Learn more about The Lay Centre programming for university student groups here.

(Photos by Liam Doyle/University of St.Thomas)

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