Shelter Provides a Lifeline with CAAHT Support

December 9, 2008


The arrival of the CAAHT project in 2004 provided essential support for Vera Lesko, Director of the Vatra Psychosocial Center.

CAAHT is the acronym for The Albania Initiative: Coordinated Action Against Human Trafficking, a project made possible with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development. Implemented by Creative Associates International, Inc., CAAHT has funded 22 local NGOs to implement more than 40 projects since the program started five years ago.

Vatra – which means hearth in Albanian – is one of four organizations among the grantee NGOs funded by CAAHT, that provide shelter and reintegration assistance for victims of trafficking.

While CAAHT has a broad mandate, support for the Vatra Center’s work is a testament to the project’s ultimate aim – to prevent trafficking and help victims rebuild healthy lives. By its end in 2009, CAAHT will have disbursed more than $2.6 million to local NGOs working to combat trafficking in Albania.

Vera Lesko has been a courageous pioneer in exposing and combating trafficking of Albanian women and children. Her work began in the city of Vlora, located in southwest Albania, which has a population of more than 60,000 people. It is also home to Albania’s second largest port and a gateway for traffickers, who ferry their victims to the Italian ports of Bari and Brindisi, and from there to numerous Italian cities or other Western European destinations.

Lesko discovered the breadth of the problem in 1996 when she was assigned by her employer, a non-profit women’s organization, to investigate prostitution in Vlora. After conducting 500 interviews with politicians, workers, community representatives and trafficked girls, Lesko came to the stunning realization that human trafficking was widely practiced in Vlora. She began working with victims of trafficking directly and on one occasion, reported a local trafficker to the police. The trafficker followed her home threatening to traffic Lesko’s own daughter unless she dropped her allegations.

“In this moment, the fear was big and terrible,” Lesko said. When she arrived home, she found all of the windows in her apartment broken and her neighbors terrorized. “At that moment, I decided to withdraw my denunciation and to move my daughter to Italy, immediately.”

But Lesko couldn’t forget the fate of so many victims. Having secured the safety of her daughter, she returned to Albania to raise awareness about trafficking in her community. She continued to denounce local traffickers to government officials and the international community. In December 1999, she opened Vatra, the first shelter in the country to assist Albanian trafficked victims. “It was indispensable for the girls who were deported to be accommodated somewhere,” Lesko said.

With the information she gathered from her extensive interviews in Vlora, Lesko, approached local government officials and the police about taking action against local traffickers, only to discover that some of these officials were involved in trafficking themselves. Undaunted, she began organizing meetings with civil society representatives and international organizations.

“Until 1999, a lot of these people that I met with were not accepting the extent of trafficking,” Lesko said. “This forced me to share with them some of my confidential reports which was very dangerous for me personally, and for my family.”

Lesko continued her awareness-raising campaign, explaining to officials and vulnerable girls the ploys used by traffickers. She raised these issues at the highest levels of the Albanian government. But senior government officials denied the phenomenon, seeing it as a stain on the reputation of their country. It has taken five years of advocacy work by Lesko, other Albanian NGOs and the international community to persuade the Government of Albania to establish a National Coordinator in the Fight Against Trafficking.

International support has been essential to providing both financial and diplomatic support for Lesko’s efforts. In 2003, her brave and pioneering work was recognized worldwide when she received the 2003 Anti-Slavery Award from the renowned international human rights organization Anti-Slavery International. In 2004, USAID/Albania launched the CAAHT program to support and expand anti-trafficking work of civil society and government institutions in Albania. Lesko and the Vatra Center were one of the earliest partners for the program. “The arrival of CAAHT in 2004 was important,” she said. “In 2005, Vatra had a huge number of victims in need of assistance, but was in financial crisis; it was then that CAAHT began to finance our organization.”

While Lesko’s concern for victims led her to establish Vatra, she had little experience running an organization, building its capacity and reporting on finances – all necessary steps to keeping Vatra’s doors and services open to victims. “I really appreciate and value the experiences that CAAHT has given to strengthen Vatra and other organizations, the capacity building for the staff that they have offered, strengthening the reporting skills of our staff and, the most important, the Monitoring and Evaluation system that CAAHT has developed,” she said.

Human trafficking remains a serious problem in Albania today; but public attitudes and government anti-trafficking policies and procedures have dramatically improved – especially thanks to the work of Lesko. As she begins to contemplate the temptations of retirement, she draws comfort from having helped approximately 1,600 victims of trafficking at the Vatra Center.

“A lot of trafficked victims are re-integrated into normal life, and have gotten married and have children,” Lesko said. “A big number of them have called me and are continuing to call to say ‘thank you’ and to express their appreciation for our work.”

— Reported and written by Alexandra Pratt in Washington, D.C. and Sarah Stephens, Alketa Gaxha and Ines Xhelilaj in Albania.

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