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How a restaurant job helped a human-trafficking survivor escape exploitation

The Hamilton Spectator | Hamilton Region

Nicole O’Reilly

Apr 27, 2022

Read The Original Article Here | By: Nicole O’Reilly

When Michelle Furgiuele escaped human trafficking, she didn’t know how she was going to earn a living, so she returned to the only work she knew.

For a time she lived a double life, speaking about exploitation at human-trafficking awareness events, while also working in hotels on weekends. She felt like a bit of a fraud, but didn’t think she had other options.

It wasn’t until her boss took a chance on her and hired her to work at a Burlington restaurant that she had the ability to completely leave that life behind her.

“I found belonging, self-acceptance and community through employment,” she said.

Furgiuele was trafficked starting at 15 years old from her family’s home in Oakville. For five years, she lived with her parents, while secretly being forced to work in the sex trade by people she met on Facebook. At first her new friends were fun. It was the best two months of her life.

“I finally felt like I belonged,” Furgiuele remembers.

But things changed suddenly when she was taken to an apartment one day and told to knock on a door and do whatever the man inside said. If she didn’t, they would show family and others videos they had of her performing sexual acts. When she got home, she blocked her traffickers online. But a week later, under a new account, they contacted her again.

“They’re not asking like this is a big deal, maybe I have it all wrong,” she remembers thinking. She was also missing their attention.

She had no idea what human trafficking was.

“My idea of prostitution was ‘Pretty Woman’ or seeing women on Jarvis (Street in Toronto),” she said.
She thought she could stop if she wanted. But soon she was being given $5,000-a-day quotas and threatened.

She said her parents, whom she described as busy “hockey parents,” didn’t notice until $20,000 was missing from a line of credit. They thought she was a drug addict when it was actually her traffickers who took the money.

She thought if her parents went to police, her traffickers would go to jail. But the police said Furgiuele would face charges too, since she gave them the card and PIN. This was at a time before police had training on human trafficking and it had only recently been made a crime.

One day as she walked to work at a Tim Hortons, Furgiuele said her traffickers found her and beat her. This time, she wouldn’t talk to police; she was pulled back in and things got worse and worse. The final straw was her brother being followed home and having a gun flashed at him, she said. She was out of the house.

Furgiuele eventually found her way to Walk With Me, a former rescue organization based in Hamilton. She relocated and was safe, but Furgiuele said she didn’t do anything to address the issues of why she was trafficked. She was broke, so she returned to sex work. The only problem was she’d never advertised or booked clients herself.

“I was recruited by a pimp immediately,” she said. It became “round two of the same cycle.”

She eventually escaped him, too. But at that time, all her friends were escorts and the idea of working minimum wage with teenagers, when she was now in her late 20s, was daunting.

“I was not being exploited but also not in the sex trade by choice,” she said. She thought she’d work until she saved enough money.

Then she got the opportunity to speak and share her story. It was empowering.

“Suddenly people valued my opinion,” Furgiuele said.

She made a little money off speaking, but not enough, so she kept working in hotels. She was always careful not to say that she was out of the life, but didn’t admit in her public speaking that she was still in the sex trade.

It was her little brother who dragged her to a job interview at the Burlington Montana’s, on Davidson Court, where he was working. She didn’t have any experience, but she was hard-working, and her boss gave her a chance.

That first day going to work was “the scariest thing.” But it went well. It turns out that chance her boss gave her was exactly what she needed. She thought she would be judged, but soon learned she’s not that different from other people.

“I found a level of confidence and worth,” Furgiuele said. That was three years ago in February. Now, she’s general manager of the restaurant.

She also continues her human-trafficking advocacy work at Restorations, an organization that supports survivors of sexual exploitation and trafficking through housing and survivor-led programing. Furgiuele works as a peer advocate and outreach facilitator.

In a “full circle” life moment, she is organizing a fundraiser for Restorations at her Burlington Montana’s. The restaurant has agreed to donate 15 per cent of all food sales on May 1 to help fund a three-day retreat for survivors in the peer support program.

“So many people have given me a shot,” she said. There are so many people who deserve a chance.
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