By Bonny Van
The Catholic Commentator
“I am their voice.”
Sister Norma Nunez SOM joins Father Jeff Bayhi, pastor of St. John the Baptist Church in Zachary, center, and Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academies of Sciences and Social Sciences for the dedication of Metanoia Manor in April 26, 2017. Photo by Richard Meek | The Catholic Commentator
With those words, Sister Norma Nunez SOM gave an update on Metanoia Manor and unveiled disturbing human trafficking statistics during a Women in Spirit meeting May 24 at the St. Joseph Cathedral parish hall in Baton Rouge.
Metanoia Manor is a Baton Rouge shelter for young female victims of human trafficking. It has been up and running for the past few months.
“Coming here to talk about Metanioa Manor and human trafficking is not all about me, it’s all about the girls that are living in Metanoia Manor; that is why I am here,” Sister Norma said. “If they’re not there, I’m not here in front of you.”
Sister Norma read the words of one of the girls now living at the safe house: “Metanoia Manor is a comfort from my nightmares. Being here I can break the chain of addiction. Here, I can strengthen my education, my faith and my family, helping others while I am here at Metanoia … Finally, I can make my own choices.”
Sister Norma said the four residents under the 24-hour care of the Hospitaller Sisters of Mercy range in age from 16 to 17. She said the girls have suffered abuse for several years, including one who, at a young age was introduced to drugs and molested daily by her father. She was later sold to a trafficker.
Human trafficking is characterized as modern slavery with traffickers using violence, threats, deception and other manipulative tactics to force victims to engage in prostitution, pornography or provide labor against their will, according to polarisproject.org. It is big business during “high-profile sporting events like the Super Bowl,” said Sister Norma.
And the problem is alarming in Louisiana with Baton Rouge ranked at number eight and New Orleans at 23 out of the 100 most populous U.S. cities for substantive calls about human trafficking made to the National Trafficking Hotline between December 2007 and December 2016, according to human
According to the most recent statistics, there are currently 14,500 to 17,500 people trafficked into the United States annually, with the majority young females. Human trafficking in the United States generates an estimated $32 billion in profit annually and five times that worldwide.
Sister Norma said a human trafficker with four girls under his or her control can make up to $1 million per year, because the girls are forced to work night and day.
The pornography industry generates a combined $10 billion annually in profit, according to several outlets.
“Just a few yards away from here there are activities,” Sister Norma said. “And, you think it is just overseas? No. It is right here. The four girls that we have, they are from right here in Louisiana.”
Sister Norma recalled how the first resident reacted after her first night in the house. After a good night’s sleep, she told the sisters, “I am free now.”
“We can go anywhere, it doesn’t matter,” said Sister Norma. “But for them, they cannot do that, someone is following them, someone is controlling them. If they do certain things, they are beaten up. And so, for the first time in her life, she slept all night long and nobody bothered her, no phone calls, nobody is waking her up, nobody is intruding her room and when she comes down for breakfast, (she said), ‘Sisters, I’m free.’ So, we were hugging her (and saying), ‘Yes, you are.’ ”
Another resident was amazed at having a room and a bathroom to herself. Privacy was never an option in their past lives but it’s all part of the uniqueness of Metanoia Manor, whose design was well-thought out by founder Father Jeff Bayhi, pastor of St. John the Baptist Church in Zachary, to give the girls their own private space along with new furnishings, towels and pajamas, according to Sister Norma.
“There’s a reason why,” she said. “Because they have been used many, many times. Now, they can start something new, to celebrate the decision of starting a new life.”
Starting anew is not a smooth road, however, with the girls battling issues that come from trauma, including depression, addiction, behavioral, anxiety, mood swings issues and fear. For more information, visit metanoia-inc.org. The sisters have also had to teach the girls how to sleep at the proper time and basic household chores. Rewards come in the form of outings to fast food restaurants or area festivals and the park.
“Taking in these girls is a huge learning curve,” said Father Bayhi. “These children are so severely damaged. So, we are in the process of moving forward, trying to fill up the house but we’ve got to make sure that we have been successful with the ones we have.”
According to Father Bayhi, the Vatican said Metanoia Manor should serve as an international model to shelters for human trafficking victims.
The girls are homeschooled and therapy sessions are held at Metanoia Manor as well as sewing classes. But, the sisters need more help, like teaching the girls table social skills, including manners and the girls want to play sports, like basketball and volleyball.
“Alone, we cannot do this, but together we can,” Sister Norma said.
“So the sisters are there to cure them, to direct them, to be with them,” she added. “And, sometimes they have so many questions, which we don’t have all the answers. But, knowing that there is somebody to be there with them is already good enough.”
Before wrapping up her talk, Sister Norma read the powerful words of another resident: “I’ve never had peace in my life, peace in my mind, my body and soul, but here I’ve found it.
“I have swum in the deepest of waters but now I walk along beaches with a seashell in my pocket for every step I take toward my peace.”