Davin Ellicson for The New York Times
THE 15-year-old had been “trained” in prostitution in a nightclub in the southern Romanian city of Calarasi. Now, the sex traffickers were getting ready to sell her off to a Turkish brothel for $2,800.
Iana Matei, Romania’s leading advocate for the victims of trafficking, had made contact with the girl and offered to wait outside the nightclub in her car, ready to take the teenager away if she could get out on the street for a cigarette break. But the girl had tried to escape before, and had been beaten severely. Ms. Matei was not sure she would have the courage to try again.
Then she appeared, bolting for the car and scrambling into the back seat. The hitch came a few minutes later.
As Ms. Matei gunned the engine and raced down unfamiliar streets, worried that the traffickers would follow, she got totally lost.
“I kept shouting at her to tell me where to go,” Ms. Matei said. “And she was not being very helpful, and I was not being very nice to her. And finally, I stopped the car and looked back and the face I saw…
“I realized it was me who was being dumb. She was so scared, there was no way she could help me.”
For more than 10 years, Ms. Matei, a psychologist by training, has been pulling young women out of the hands of traffickers, sometimes by staging “kidnappings,” sometimes just by offering them a place to stay, heal and rebuild their lives.
Time has not dulled her indignation. Until a few years ago, Ms. Matei’s shelter here was the only one in Romania for victims of traffickers, though the country has been a center for the trade in young girls for decades. Too often, she said, Romanians see the young women as nothing more than prostitutes.
“They are victims,” she said recently. “They are too young to be anything else.”
Almost always from poor, abusive families, the girls are sometimes sold into the trade by their own parents. Some are lured to foreign countries with promises of jobs or marriage. But once out of the country, they are sold to gangs and locked up in brothels or forced to work the streets.
MS. Matei does little to disguise her disgust with legal systems around the world that fail to take trafficking seriously enough.
“When these guys get caught, they get what? Six years? Maybe. They destroy 300 lives and they get six years. You traffic drugs, you get 20 years. There is something not right.”
On a recent Saturday afternoon, Ms. Matei was staying in a small hotel on the outskirts of Constanta, making sure that two young residents in her shelter in Pitesti, Romania, were available for their bit parts in a movie on trafficking being made by the Romanian director Cristian Mungiu. Mr. Mungiu won critical acclaim three years ago for “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” a film about abortion in the waning days of Communism.
As she waited for the girls, Ms. Matei chain-smoked, occasionally darting off to tend the 3-year-old twins she adopted recently. The twins were born to a victim of trafficking, who abandoned them.
“Some people say to me that they are very lucky to have me,” Ms. Matei said, “but really, I am the lucky one. They are my joy.”
At 52, Ms. Matei seems to have the energy of a teenager, and is just as irreverent.
“They offer 10 days for ‘reintegration,’ ” she said of one of the Romanian government’s newer efforts to provide shelters for victims of trafficking. “That’s very nice, don’t you think? Ten days.”
Most of the young women who arrive at her shelter, where they can stay for up to a year, are in a terrible state, she said.
“They no longer feel normal, and even getting dressed is difficult,” she said. “They can’t choose their clothes. They want to know if they will fit in. They try on all sorts of things because they think it shows what has happened to them.” A few times traffickers have showed up at Ms. Matei’s shelter — a spare house in a residential neighborhood surrounded by a high fence — trying to get the girls back. Once, Ms. Matei said, she confronted them in the narrow street outside, using her car to block their vehicle.
“Afterwards, I wondered what they must have been thinking,” Ms. Matei said. “Here I was, short, blond, old and yelling my head off. I was very lucky the security showed up within a minute.”
MS. Matei started out life thinking she would be a graphic designer. She married, had a child and then divorced.
In 1990, as Romania was emerging from Communism, she participated in daily street protests. But one day when the police arrived, she dropped her handbag in the mayhem. When she called home the next morning, the police had been there already.
She decided to flee the country, walking alone along the banks of a river leading into the former Yugoslavia, making progress at night and sleeping during the day. She eventually arranged for her son to join her and was resettled in Australia. There, she earned a degree in psychology and worked with street children.
But in 1998, after bringing her son to Romania on a holiday, she decided to move back and began working with street children here. Soon, the police called asking a favor. Would she take three young prostitutes they had just rounded up to a doctor? Afterward, she was just supposed to release them.
“I was annoyed until I got there and saw these girls,” Ms. Matei said. “The mascara was running all over their faces. They had been crying so hard. Journalists had been there and made them pose. And they were minors. They were 14, 15 and 16. But no one cared.”
One of the girls was pregnant. All three would be in the hospital for two weeks. But afterward, Ms. Matei said, child welfare services would have nothing to do with them.
“Eventually, I got an apartment for them, and more girls kept coming,” she said. “That’s how it started.”
Over the years, she has cobbled together all sorts of financing, pleading with various embassies. Right now, the shelter is supported by an American ministry dedicated to combating human trafficking, Make Way Partners in Birmingham, Ala. But Ms. Matei would like to see it become self-sustaining. She has an idea for a hotel where the young women could get job training.
In the meantime, she makes do. More than 400 girls have stayed in the shelter, and most of them are still in touch, she said. All three of the teenagers at the police station are now married and have children.
Ms. Matei says she admires the girls for the strength it takes to pick up their lives. “When they are back in school and all the boys are offering them money for oral sex because they know, that’s not easy.”