Sally Irwin, founder of The Freedom Hub, tells us how she and her army of volunteers are rebuilding the lives of survivors of human trafficking in Australia, and how she’s created an elegant wedding and function venue with serious ethical credentials to support her cause.
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In 2009 my husband was posted in Europe as the Australian Defense Attaché in the Australian Embassy in Germany. On a diplomatic passport you’re not allowed to work, so I thought it would be a great opportunity for me to do some charity work while I was there. I was in Berlin when I started looking into charities to work with and first became aware of the need for action against human trafficking.
As it turned out, this was a major turning point in my life. Once I’d met some of the women who had been trafficked – people’s mothers, daughters and sisters – I needed to do something. I needed to fight for them.
Now, eight years later and a hemisphere away, we’re running a survivor school for survivors of human trafficking within Australian borders. We’ve taken a giant leap in supporting our own cause by developing and operating our own ethically-run concept, The Freedom Hub Café and Event Venue, a beautiful warehouse-style space in Waterloo, which has become a sought after wedding venue. We’re quite progressive and we’ve turned the traditional not-for-profit model on its head – 100% of our profits go towards supporting the survivor school.
What brought the issue of human trafficking to your attention?
My daughter, who was sixteen at the time, was already passionate about the topic. She spoke to me about the things she’d learned and her disbelief that women around the world could be treated like this. We were both absolutely incensed about women being abused, dehumanised and controlled through sex trafficking and felt strongly that this was something I could drive support for, and raise money towards through my connections within the diplomatic circles. I knew that I had access to a lot of people of influence sitting at my dinner table and at the parties of the diplomats.
How did you get started?
In Berlin, I found a little, very grassroots café and soup kitchen on one of the streets where prostitutes could go in and grab a coffee. They could often only go there for a few minutes at a time because they were usually under the control of a pimp or whomever was in charge – whoever they’d been sold to. So that was what I was donating to, and where I met and learnt about the women firsthand.
Tell us more about these women? How does something like this happen?
These women and girls are all of us, just in different circumstances in life. They’re just regular people trying to escape poverty. Often they are shipped from countries like Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania. They might go to an agency, and a woman – and until I heard this, I’d never realised that a woman could be so cruel to other women – offers them jobs in Berlin. Sometimes as hairdressers, sometimes in offices, lots of different jobs are promised. The girls make the move away from their homes only to find out the truth once they arrive. They have no money or resources and find themselves trapped in a foreign country, void of everything familiar to them. They have no support network.
Other times, girls fall victim to the ‘Loverboy Syndrome’, where a guy woos her with promises of a new life together with security, marriage and children. He convinces her to leave her family and come with him to Berlin only to find out she’s been one of many girls all along. She’s kept in squalid conditions, and used by men forty or fifty or sixty times a day.
Whatever their backstory, these women and girls are beaten and broken until they lose their will to fight back. Often they’re forcefully supplied with drugs until they’re far too addicted to ever consider leaving. That’s when they start to willingly sell themselves on the streets to feed their addiction.
It must have been so confronting, coming face to face with stories like these…
I had access to very influential people. I felt like it wasn’t enough to just be supporting a good cause from afar. My involvement became hands on and personal. These women had no voice, no choice and they’d given up. Their suffering in silence is what caught my heart. I knew I had to act.
“These women had no voice, no choice and they’d given up. Their suffering in silence is what caught my heart. I knew I had to act.”
Were there any particular stories that stood out for you?
I’ll always vividly remember this one woman, her husband was an alcoholic and sold her, his wife, the mother of his children, into slavery on the condition that he would get a percentage of what she earned. If and when she earnt enough money, she was then allowed to go back home to visit their children. I really, really tried to make a difference for her. I bought her cleaning equipment and supplies, and tried to get some of the diplomats to employ her as a cleaner. But there’s not enough money in cleaning – she earned a lot more money on the streets. She was trapped, completely trapped and I felt so powerless to help her. Ultimately I felt I had no real power or influence because of the nature of diplomatic relations. I couldn’t bring change directly, and I wasn’t able to express myself adequately in German to better advocate for my cause. It broke my heart because there was nothing more I could do at the time.
How did you cope with this realisation?
I felt incredibly hopeless, like it was four wasted years that achieved nothing. Now I look back and know what it stirred within me. It fuelled my resolve! I realise now that my time in Berlin was the catalyst for what I’m doing here now, today.
I came back to Australia in 2012 and I was talking to people about what I’d seen in Europe. That was when I found out it was happening in Australia too.
How did you find out about human trafficking in Australia?
I was talking to a friend about what I’d seen in Berlin and she asked whether I knew about the Salvation Army Safehouse for trafficked women in Australia. I was completely taken aback. I asked why we would even need a safehouse in the first place. Up until then I had no idea that human trafficking was happening right here too.
So I contacted them to see if I could volunteer or help in any way. I met with someone from the Salvos and talked through my experience. There’s a very high bar to meet to work with survivors of human trafficking because of everything they’ve already been through. It can be a very emotional experience for volunteers and even the most well-meaning person could inadvertently negatively impact survivors if, for example they decide to leave for their own mental wellbeing. It can lead to feelings of abandonment for survivors, which is the last thing they need. Luckily for me, the Salvation Army felt that my experience gave me the qualifications to work directly with the survivors.
How did you go from volunteer to opening a survivor school?
It was actually the Salvation Army that asked me if I wanted to set up the school. At the time, I was working with survivors, delivering a basic communication course to help them build confidence and assist with getting jobs; but the benefits of running a separate survivor school became obvious. I moved the school offsite and it became more confidential for the safehouse, as well as opening avenues for me to work with other organisations and not just with the Salvos.
What does a survivor school do exactly?
We help victims of human trafficking rebuild their lives on their own terms. Whether that’s gaining security and a job, or getting back home to their families. Some just want to learn or improve their English while others have broader ambitions like wanting to work in aged care or work with children. One of our survivors is studying dentistry now, which would have been inconceivable for them previously. Every single one of our survivors is a success story.
So, where to from here? What’s your vision for your social enterprise?
Our mission is to help rebuild the lives of people who have been subjected to modern day slavery like sex trafficking, forced labour, forced marriage, debt bondage or organ harvesting within Australian borders. Our role is in the aftercare side – in assisting and helping to rebuild each survivor’s life. I think we’re the only ones that specialise in this area in Australia.
My goal is to have a successful, self sustaining not-for-profit business that is actively geared towards bringing change. Our cafe and wedding venue not only supports our survivor school through the income it generates, it’s also 100% ethically run, across all layers of the business and its supply chains.
People in general are becoming more conscious of their ability to help across all areas of their life. Things are going the right way but there’s a long way to go and I love being a part of it all. I love knowing I’m part of something greater – knowing that I’m at the forefront of something that has such a positive impact in people’s lives drives me every single day no matter the challenges that I come across.
All images owned and copyrighted by WePlanr.
Read more about how The Freedom Hub is rebuilding the lives of people who have experienced human trafficking and slavery within Australian borders at www.thefreedomhub.org
To enquire about The Freedom Hub’s venue hire rates and packages, visit www.weplanr.com
If you’ve found yourself in awe of Sally and her story (just like we are), stay tuned for part two of our interview series for more on Sally and The Freedom Hub.