Starting with a photograph and an initial, the nun was able to find the woman. J.M. could not remember her family or native village. East Nusa Tenggara is the Indonesian province most affected by human trafficking. Since 2014, more than 2,600 Indonesian migrants have either died or gone missing.
Jakarta (AsiaNews) – An Indonesian woman who left for Malaysia in search of fortune and went missing 14 years ago was able to hug her elderly father again (picture 1) thanks to the incredible efforts of Sister Laurentina (picture 2), a member of the Sisters of Divine Providence (PI).
The story started in Kupang, capital of East Nusa Tenggara (NTT), an Indonesian province on the border with East Timor. "I receive a phone call from the BP3TKI,” the Agency for Placement and Protection of Indonesian Workers. “Can you help us get information on a missing Indonesian migrant?” the official asked. “We only have her initial."
A small photograph and the letter J are the only clues Sister Laurentina received. The nun is troubled, but not by what or whom she had to find.
A second phone call came to complicate things. She is told that the woman in question might be in a medical centre run by the Indonesian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. The woman cannot remember either her family or her place of birth.
Thanks to the police commander of the district of Timor Tengah Selatan (TTS) and another local source, Sister Laurentina managed to discover the first letter of her surname: M. Thanks to this information, she was able to identify a village with residents whose surname had the same initial.
The settlement is very far from Kupang. "It takes almost six hours by car to reach the local parish. From there we must continue for another three hours, then leave the car and walk along mountain paths,” the nun said.
In December 2018, Sister Laurentina travelled to Timor Tengah Selatan to visit the village of Oenlansi along with Fr Eko Aldianto, from the Commission for Justice, Peace and Care of Migrants of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Indonesia (KWI).
This was the right chance to reach the village of the missing young woman. "Together with Fr Sebastianus Kefi, the local priest in Oinlansi, we reached the remote place of Obibi, where the settlement is located.”
The two priests and the nun arrived in Kualiu (picture 2), but there was still one more effort to make: the house they were looking for stood at the top of a steep hill (picture 3).
"I was almost out of breath when reached it,” Sister Laurentina said. “However, the sight of the elderly father was a great relief for me. I was also very moved: the girl's father is sick and lives in a small traditional house.”
Known as T M, he suffers from a serious leg illness, which does not allow him to walk properly.
"Do you have a daughter named J M?" Sister Laurentina asked, showing him the small photograph. A local man offers to translate the nun’s request from Indonesian into Dawan, the local language.
"Yes,” said the elderly gentleman bursting into tears. “My family and I don't know anything about her since 2006. Is she alive, dead?"
"She is alive, she is in Kuala Lumpur,” the nun replied. “Soon she will be repatriated.”
"Sister, please bring her back to me."
For Sister Laurentina, "Things were still unclear. I didn't even know if I would ever see the father again. I wanted to tell him ‘yes, I will’, but I could not know how the matter would end . . . Then I said: ‘With God’s help, you will meet each other again,’” she said, a lump in her throat.
A friend who works at the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) told Laurentina - who has since returned to Kupang – that she was not sure that the woman was still in the Kuala Lumpur shelter.
For the nun, that led to days of despair. In the following weeks, however, she received an unexpected phone call. Fr Perno told her that he was certain that "the young woman is alive and at in the centre." However, she had some health problems to deal with before returning to Indonesia.
Sister Laurentina did not waste time, and immediately contacted the embassy to organise the repatriation.
"The young woman arrived in Kupang on 25 March, on a (state carrier) Garuda Indonesia flight," the nun explained. After dealing with some paperwork at the airport, Sister Laurentina immediately set off with J M. The road between Kupang and Timor Tengah Selatan district is long.
In Kaileu, the family had waited for J M for 14 years (picture 4). Due to widespread poverty, the remote and predominantly Christian East Nusa Tenggara province is the most affected by human trafficking.
In the past, generations of residents have emigrated to Malaysia to work as domestics or on plantations. But in recent years migrant trafficking has increased and more and more young people - especially women - fall into the trap of underpaid work or forced prostitution.
According to the BP3TKI, more than 2,600 migrants have died or gone missing since 2014. Finding the latter is almost always impossible, as traffickers change names, birthdays and addresses on migration papers.
The Church is one of the few institutions trying to prevent and counter the problem. Some priests and nuns have dedicated their lives to this mission.
Sister Laurentina has been crisscrossing the region in 2012 to inform villagers about the dangers of trafficking. She began to help victims directly in 2014, at the Migrant Care Centre in Jakarta.
Since 2017 she has been the anti-trafficking coordinator for the island of Timor and is head of the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Commission (JPIC) of the Archdiocese of Kupang, the capital of East Nusa Tenggara.
Currently, she is also involved with KWI’s Commission for Justice, Peace and Care of Migrants.
One of the tasks her Order has assigned her is caring for victims who return to their villages from abroad. But not everyone can return: some die in accidents or from illnesses; others because of negligence and abuse.
"For this reason,” she noted, “in addition to offering comfort to survivors of human trafficking, my job is also to receive coffins at the airport and deliver the remains of those who did not make it to their families.”