Sr Imelda Poole IBVM has described receiving her award in the Queen’s Birthday Honours as a “really great recognition” of the work being done by Religious in the field of anti-trafficking and an acknowledgement of the challenging work many “humble and hidden” people are involved in. Speaking from her base in Albania, Sr Imelda said becoming MBE still hasn’t hit home and she has been flooded by countless emails and by people constantly talking about it – “but I’m just ordinary me, getting on with a job!”
The award was given for her achievements and services to end modern slavery. Sr Imelda heads up a network of European Religious fighting trafficking and exploitation - RENATE. She became President of RENATE after more than 11 years working in Albania where the IBVM founded an NGO called Mary Ward Loreto.
Sr Imelda has been overwhelmed by the response from Religious involved in anti-trafficking globally and said that the award actually honours all the people involved in this work, noting that Sisters around the globe are involved in the struggle to fight traffickers: “despite the difficulty, they carry on as each human being is worth a lifetime’s work.”
Tributes have poured in following the announcement of the award. The British Ambassador to the Holy See, Sally Axworthy, expressed delight: “It is well-deserved recognition of Sr Imelda’s outstanding service in combatting human trafficking and modern slavery, through the European religious sisters’ anti-trafficking network RENATE which she leads, and through Talitha Kum, the religious sisters’ worldwide anti-trafficking network. Sister Imelda is a key ally in Her Majesty’s Government’s campaign to eradicate modern slavery. It is wonderful to see such a distinguished friend of this Embassy honoured in this way.”
On Twitter, the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, who is president of the Santa Marta Group which works to prevent human trafficking and modern slavery, offered congratulations: “Sister Imelda, and her many colleagues in other religious Congregations, have long been champions in this important work. Her hard work, determination and her compelling advocacy constantly bring support and encouragement to all involved in this struggle, myself included."
The Mary Ward Loreto NGO in Albania has led to numerous projects being set up. One of these is called Mary Ward Loreto Women in which six Mary Ward centres have been established to work on prevention, advocacy, awareness, and rescuing of women. The centres have worked with 3,000 women, and set up 16 economic empowerment businesses. They also have a project for men aimed at changing patriarchal culture and promoting gender equality. The work with men is to address depression, anger and fear, drug and alcohol addictions related to unemployment and their changing role in society. Mary Ward Loreto is also promoting ethical and democratic best practice in Albanian schools and in all of the projects.
Sr Imelda recalled how it all started through a conversation with the Bishop of Tirana who pointed out that speedboats were being used to smuggle teenage girls into Italy. Years later, the work in Albania is still growing – a new shelter is about to be opened in the north of the country and Sister Imelda is still very active in the field; the conversation for this article had to wait until she had returned from a trip into the mountains.
Three different organisations in Britain have asked Mary Ward Loreto for assistance in helping women trafficked from Albania. One of the staff members based in Albania is currently working online to help Albanian women in the UK who can’t speak English. Also in the UK, a project is currently underway to survey Religious Congregations in order to map the work they are engaged with in the field of anti-trafficking. The Arise Foundation will be collating the results to produce a report in a few months time. Sr Imelda stresses the importance of building networks for collaboration and in receiving the MBE, paid tribute to other Religious: “In anti-trafficking, no one can work in isolation. This award is recognition of all of those we are working with. We rely on a massive number of networks.”
Reflecting on her many years in Albania, starting up the work from scratch, Sr Imelda says it’s been tough work, but also joyful and enriching: “We’ve taken many risks but I do feel it’s been step by step. There’s a sense of being led, of being nudged. As Hildegard of Bingen wrote, it feels like being a feather on the breath of God.”