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Timea Nagy-Payne. (Photo credit: Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press)

Former sex-trafficking victim says Canadian parents need to know warning signs

Timea Nagy-Payne is a survivor of human trafficking who was forced to work in Ontario’s sex industry. After escaping, she became an advocate for other survivors. She spoke with Lori-Ann Livingston.

By Lori-Ann Livingston

Q: You were trafficked for nearly four months after you emigrated from Hungary in 1998. How did you get out of that situation?

A: I was taken to a club [to work] in North York, Ont. My traffickers didn’t come inside; they would just drop me off. So I reached out [to staff] through a dictionary and through one person who spoke my language. The manager, a couple of security guards and the coat check lady helped me plan my escape. One day, my traffickers dropped me off out front, and when they left, I went to the back door, and the management put me in a cab. They paid for it, and they sent me to the DJ’s house, where I slept for a couple of days.

Q: You have since dedicated your life to bringing girls out of sex trafficking, to the point of becoming the go-to person on the issue in Canada. What sustains you in this work?

A: I don’t know if I’m the go-to. I’m definitely one of them. My inspiration is when I hear someone else is victimized, or when I hear from the frontline workers — police officers, service providers — how impossible their job is, how little funding there is, how they’re burning out. It makes me want to go much stronger and harder, raise more awareness to help them get more funding.

Q: You were recently appointed as a commissioner to the Liechtenstein Initiative, a United Nations global task force investigating the financial sector’s role in ending human trafficking. What led you to the UN and this task force?

A: I started working with banks in 2014 and asked them to join us in the fight against human trafficking, because the proceeds go into the banks. They have a really good way of tracking how much goes into the bank and where it goes, and eventually that could become really good evidence in court. So I thought if we get the banks involved, we have a much better chance of fighting this crime. My work with the banks got international attention and was eventually profiled by The Economist in a documentary. Members of the global task force saw that documentary and asked me to be an inspirational member of their group, and also to guide them and give feedback from the survivor’s viewpoint. I’ve been appointed as a commissioner.

Q: What exactly is the task force doing?

A: It’s a 35-member task force made up of financial institutions committed to ending human trafficking by 2030. One goal of the initiative is to come up with policies and recommendations for the United Nations. For example, we’d like to push the UN to require mandatory training on human trafficking for all banking employees around the world.

Q: Who is behind modern sex slavery? What’s driving these traffickers?

A: Human trafficking exists because there is a high demand for it — the johns who buy the sex. Men switch their gang and other illegal activities to human trafficking because there is such high demand. And it’s easy and profitable. It’s low profile, and it’s lower risk. When we talk about prevention, we should shift our focus in society to the actual problem: Why do men in the 21st century who are, based on the statistics, between 24 and 55 years of age, university-educated, Caucasian . . . [and] well off, why are they buying sex? Let’s teach young men that buying sex is not cool.

Q: Human trafficking is more common in Canada than people might think, and any young woman or girl can become a target. What advice do you have for parents who may be afraid their daughter is in trouble, or that their son might be a trafficker?

A: Eighty-nine percent of sex trafficking in Canada happens to Canadian girls between the ages of 12 and 21. Parents really need to get educated on it. We recommend parents visit our website for documentaries, a parents’ guide, resources and articles collected all in one place. Get educated. Know the signs such as grooming. Then as soon as the signs show up, know what to do right away.

Q: Can you tell me more about Timea’s Cause?

A: It’s a social enterprise I started after shutting down my charity in 2015. I wanted to empower girls who have survived trafficking by showing them we can transfer all the life skills that they learned from their traumatic experience into something good, something that helps them reintegrate back into society. Timea’s Cause offers training through presentations, manuals or textbooks. And all the sales we have we donate back to support survivors who are coming out of trafficking. We employ them and give them life skills, and we help them get back on their feet. All of it is self-supported and self-funded.

"Eighty-nine percent of sex trafficking in Canada happens to Canadian girls between the ages of 12 and 21. Parents really need to get educated on it."

Q: Growing up in a communist country, was your family religious?

A: My mom’s family was Catholic. She was baptized, and she believed in God. And then communism came, and all that was gone. You can go to church in communism, but it wasn’t favoured. My mom also became a public servant and, eventually, she became a police officer. You can’t be a believer and a police officer; you have to believe in the government more than anything. So, she had to hide her religion. I was baptized in secret, and my brother was, too. But I believed in God. I never thought otherwise.

Q: How did your experience being trafficked affect your relationship with God?

A: When I was trafficked, I always said to God in the back of my head, “Please don’t look. This is not who I am. I don’t want to do this. Still love me. Don’t judge me, please. I will be back. I’m a good girl.” There came a breaking point much later in my life when I just broke down and asked him to start talking to me again. And he did.

Q: What does freedom mean to you?

A: I think freedom is when you can do what you love doing. You can believe in whatever religion you want without being judged. Freedom is having your basic needs met and not relying on anyone else to meet them. No one is controlling your time, feeling, emotions or your income. You are free from the guilt and shame of your past. And most importantly, I think you feel free when you feel connected.

 Q: When you think about your experience being trafficked, how do you feel? Are you free from that guilt and shame?

A: I am free from the guilt and shame of my past, but not completely. I am more free than I have ever been, but I have a new guilt, which is very heavy. It’s me living my life, having a life right now, while the others are suffering, all the other ones that I left behind. I guess that’s my motivation.

This interview has been edited and condensed. It first appeared in The United Church Observer's February issue with the title "Eighty-nine percent of sex trafficking in Canada happens to Canadian girls. . . . Parents really need to get educated on it."

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