Statement by Ambassador Callista Gingrich on 2018 Trafficking in Persons Hero Blessing Okoedion

Blessing Okoedion, center, receives an award from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, and Advisor to the President Ivanka Trump, right, at the 2018 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Heroes ceremony at the Department of State in Washington / AP Images

On behalf of the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See, I offer my warmest congratulations to Blessing Okoedion on being honored as a 2018 Trafficking in Persons Hero.  Each year the U.S. Department of State produces the Trafficking in Persons Report, assessing the efforts by foreign governments to combat human trafficking.  Along with this report, the Department of State honors brave individuals who dedicate their lives to this same endeavor.  The Heroes are recognized for their tireless efforts—despite resistance, opposition, and even threats to their lives—to protect victims, punish offenders, and raise awareness of ongoing criminal practices in their countries and abroad.

Blessing Okoedion is clearly a Trafficking in Persons Hero.  She is a survivor, an activist, an author, and a fierce protector of victims suffering under the evil of human trafficking.  She has helped a multitude of women escape horror.  Her advocacy on their behalf has quite literally saved lives.

Prior to her work fighting human trafficking, Blessing worked as a computer technician in Nigeria.  A recruiter found her through her local church and offered Blessing, a college graduate, a job in Spain in a tech store, where she could have a better life.  When Blessing arrived at the airport in Benin City, an immigration agent told her that her visa was fake.  She was allowed to board the flight anyway.

Of course, Blessing never stepped foot inside the tech store.  After arriving in Spain, her exploiters took her to Naples, Italy, and forced her into prostitution.  Her traffickers told her she owed them over $70,000 to cover travel and recruitment costs.  After four days on the street, Blessing decided to escape.  Her perseverance took her to Casa Rut, a shelter managed by Ursuline nuns in nearby Caserta.

During an April 11 symposium hosted by our embassy, Blessing explained how the sisters of Casa Rut provided her with shelter and care.  Blessing has since written a book, “Il Coraggio della Libertà – The Courage of Freedom,” to help others better understand the horrors of human trafficking.  Today she works as a cultural mediator and an advocate for women forced into trafficking networks.  She is an example that through perseverance and support, trafficking victims can overcome, thrive, and help others to do so as well.

Make no mistake, human trafficking is a global crisis.  More than 25 million men, women, and children worldwide are its victims.  Like Blessing, they are often lured with false promises by people they trust – including family members – and forced into prostitution, domestic servitude, or other forms of modern slavery.

The United States, like the Holy See, is committed to ending this horrific crime.  This is a cause close to my heart, and a top priority of the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See.  We have a great ally in Pope Francis who has called for a victim-centered approach to human trafficking, a method U.S. law enforcement has adopted for some time.  President Trump has also pledged to bring the “full force and weight” of the U.S. government to combat this “epidemic.”

The path to ending human trafficking demands action, but also cooperation.  No single government or individual can do it alone.  Governments, faith-based organizations, civil society, and survivors must work together.  America stands alongside heroic individuals like Blessing Okoedion, and our like-minded allies and partners, to combat this global scourge.

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Callista L. Gingrich, U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See