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Courtesy of Marelyn Garica

Marelyn Garcia before entering the Dream Center in 2006.

Human trafficking in Chicago leaves many struggling to recover

by Ashley Gork
Jan 17, 2013


Chicago Dream Center

Marelyn Garcia at the Dream Center     

Organizations against human trafficking in Chicago

Chicago Dream Center



 Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation



The Salvation Army - STOP IT Program


24 Hour Hotline: 877-606-3158


International Organization for Adolescents



Marelyn Garcia’s boyfriend promised he’d take care of her. He said he would take her off the streets, support her heroin addiction and show her what real love was. Then after a few months of financial hardship, he told her one more thing: she needed to sleep with his friend for money.  

Garcia had been a victim of sexual abuse when she was 7 years old and again between the ages of 11 and 14. “So that opened the door to promiscuity,” she explained. “When I got into human trafficking it wasn’t hard for me to do because that was already robbed from me.”

Garcia had been a prostitute for 13 years before she went to the Dream Center, a collaboration of ministries fighting against injustice, poverty and oppression in Chicago.

“In 2006, I came to the Dream Center very broken, very confused, didn’t know what life was all about,” she said.

At the time of her entry into the program, Garcia had been a victim of both emotional and mental abuse. Cathy Zimmerman,a mental health researcher with the Gender Violence and Health Centre of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, reported that it is very common for victims to suffer from high levels of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Her 2006 study showed that 75 percent of trafficked women had severe recurring thoughts and memories of terrifying events, 67 percent had trouble sleeping and 65 percent felt like they didn’t had a future.

“There is little doubt that these experiences affect women for the rest of their lives,” Zimmerman said. She references the way one victim explained her mental state: “‘it feels as if they have stolen my smile and I will never get it back.’”

It is estimated that 16,000 – 25,000 women and girls are involved in the commercial sex trade in Chicago, according to a Preliminary Prevalence Report at the Center of Impact Research. Many of these victims grew up in drug and alcohol prevalent environments, had been victims of domestic or sexual violence and had one or more parents incarcerated. These women are often recruited as a result of their vulnerability.

However, women such as Garcia show that there is hope for those who feel stuck in these environments. The Dream Center of Chicago offers a two-year program that gets women off the streets, offers classes in anger management and domestic violence prevention, helps them find jobs and apartments, and assists them with reconnecting with their families. It is one of the many organizations in Chicago that offer assistance to human trafficking victims.

“We walk with them literally from a street corner until they go into their first apartments,” said Associate Pastor Trishia Kholodenko. She also leads a group of members who go into bars, massage parlors and strip clubs in order to alert human trafficking victims of their options.

“I hear the statistics,” Garcia said, now as the transitional living coordinator at the Dream Center. “But I’m living witness that because of God’s grace, because of people reaching out, because of people coming to seminars, and people getting training on this issue and having passion about it, I’m living proof that it does matter.”