ROSARIO, Argentina – In his famed poem “Auguries of Innocence,” William Blake spoke of seeing “a world in a grain of sand.” In a sense, that’s what Canadian Cardinal Michael Czerny sees in the death of a 23-year-old woman from AIDS in Sierra Leone last week – both the tragedy, but also the hope, facing modern-day victims of what Pope Francis calls a “throw-away culture.”
Based in the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, Czerny is Francis’s right-hand man on migrant and refugee issues and also helps lead the pope’s fight against human trafficking.
Augusta Ngombu, the Sierra Leone woman, had been orphaned as a child. Exploited and abused by a family member, she fled her home and ended up as a prostitute in the streets in Freetown, the capital of this African nation where over 50 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty.
When she was 16, after having suffered from abandonment, slavery, prostitution, poverty, violence and loneliness, Ngombu was approached by a Salesian missionary who offered her a way out of the exploitation.
Her life took a sharp turn: She went back to school, finished at the top of her class, took up cooking, did an internship in a restaurant and finally, opened her own catering company.
In 2016, she opened the program Girls Os+, a refuge for girls who, like her, fall prey to underage prostitution. She gave them cooking lessons, so they too could have a future.
Ngombu took part in a documentary by the Salesian Missions called “Love,” where she can be seen saying: “I feel happy. No one laughs at me or uses me anymore. I do my job, I make money because of it, and I love what I do.”
She garnered global recognition as an example of hope and faith. Last year, she traveled to Rome where he met Pope Francis at the end of a Wednesday audience. The Argentine pontiff, who’s invested much of his political capital in fighting modern-day slavery, encouraged her to continue on her path.
That trip, in Feb. 2019, almost didn’t happen for bureaucratic reasons. Several European countries denied her a visa to take part in various events, including in Brussels, where she was welcomed by the then-president of the European Parliament, Italian politician Antonio Tajani.
According to an obituary published by the Salesian Missions, Ngombu suffered “discrimination for being a woman, young and poor,” as countries feared that she would remain in the old continent as an irregular migrant.
With the help of the Spanish embassy in Abidjan, Ngombu finally obtained the visa that led her not only to Rome but also to a meeting with COMECE, the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community, on human trafficking.
It was there that Czerny and Ngombu met, as the two were keynote speakers.
“When we hear expressions like ‘victim of human trafficking’ or ‘victim of modern slavery’, the imagination leaps to unimaginably evil people who trick the innocent into a life of degradation and exploitation,” Czerny said.
“But the reality is usually less dramatic, and often associated with family tragedy and poverty. When she was 12, a relative who was supposed to help her brought her to the city and forced her into slave-like labour, and that soon turned into child prostitution. Escape from that is Augusta’s inspiring story.”
Ngombu was far from the first survivor of human trafficking with HIV/AIDS the Canadian prelate encountered. Back in 2002, he founded the African Jesuit AIDS Network (AJAN) and directed it until 2010.
During those nine years, he initiated and coordinated efforts by Jesuits and others in nearly 30 countries of Sub-Saharan Africa to provide pastoral care, education, health services, social and spiritual support, and to fight stigma for victims of HIV/AIDS, while channelling resources from foreign sources.
“During my eight years in Africa, certainly the most moving testimony I heard –and I heard it several times– was by someone living with AIDS who described the total ‘death’ which he or she had undergone, beginning with becoming HIV-positive,” Czerny said.
“Immediate rejection and even violence from the embarrassed family soon became ostracism by former friends, unemployment and homelessness (unable to find work or a place to stay), total isolation and finally the abandonment of all hope,” he added. “And then the person would testify with beautiful, grateful words like these: ‘Finally at death’s door, someone from the parish knocked on my door, said ‘hello’ and reached out a helping hand. And I, who was totally finished, began to come back to life … I who was dead, have arisen!’”
“When I listened to Augusta in February 2019, her story sounded similar, and thanks to the Christians who reached out to her, hers too was a story of Resurrection,” Czerny said.
The prelate also recalled Ngombu’s case in the light of the Pope Francis’ recent Message for the 106th Church-sponsored World Day of Migrants and Refugees. In the message, the pontiff wrote that “If we really want to promote those whom we assist, we must involve them and make them agents in their own redemption.”
Cznery wholeheartedly agrees: “For me Augusta’s story is a ‘best practice’ which illustrates exactly what the Holy Father is saying: affirming, helping, promoting, involving those who are ‘totally out’ so that they become protagonists and take hold of their own rescue.”
The cardinal heads the Vatican’s section for migrants and refugees, a job given to him by Pope Francis, who made him a cardinal in 2019. He said Ngombu’s story is especially timely as the world ponders a post-COVID 19 future.
“Pope Francis explains the lesson: ‘The pandemic has reminded us of how essential co-responsibility is, and that only with the contribution of everyone –even of those groups so often underestimated– can we face this crisis,” Czerny said. “We must find the courage to create spaces where everyone can recognize that they are called, and to allow new forms of hospitality, fraternity and solidarity.’ I am sure that Augusta joins the Holy Father and makes his message her own, her testament.”
Ngombu died of AIDS, but she’s a collateral death of the coronavirus: Out of fear, she stopped going to the hospital to receive the retroviral medication she needed.
Modern day slavery affects more than 40 million people worldwide, and the trafficking of human persons is considered among the top three illegal industries. The tier is completed by drug trafficking and guns trafficking. Experts estimate that more people are enslaved today than at any other time in history.
Women and girls comprise 71 percent of all modern slavery victims. Children make up 25 percent and account for 10 million of all the slaves worldwide.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma