Appearances can be deceptive - Dai's story
Updated: Mar 31
The fight against human trafficking and slavery in Wales
Appearances can be deceptive. Here I am in one of the many trendy coffee shops on Cardiff’s Queen Street waiting to meet up with a man who’s involved in the anti-slavery scene of South Wales. Since stepping off the train I’ve been aware of the buzz that only a capital city can bring – shops and restaurants, buskers, posters of concerts and events (the Rolling Stones are playing tonight) and thousands of people living their busy lives. Looking out of the window I feel proud to see our capital city growing and developing. Sitting in my chinos and smart shirt the door suddenly swings open and in walks Dai Hankey - you can’t miss him, baggy jeans, t-shirt, shaved head, and tattooed arms. For anyone looking at the scene it looks as if I’m the church pastor – but appearances can be deceptive.
We shake hands, he orders our flat whites in his Pontypool accent - Rwandan Fairtrade - and we sit down for an interview. I’d heard that Dai and Michelle and their four kids had moved back to Cardiff from Pontypool and had set up a charity and a new church and I was intrigued about what he was doing…
Thanks for taking the time to meet up, I know you’re busy, but I just had to find out what was going on.
No worries, I’m always glad to talk about the charity and raise awareness of the work.
So, let’s start at the beginning – I know things were going well in the church in Pontypool, so why did you come back to Cardiff and what are you doing here?
It was mad. I wasn’t looking to move but one morning when I was taking a Christian service, out of nowhere I just knew I was being called to help people who were trapped in the sex trade in Cardiff. That was back in 2012 and here we are a few years later having set up a new church and charity in the inner-city.
Tell us a bit about the charity.
We started Red:Community after taking some time to pray and seek to learn what needed to happen in Cardiff’s inner-city. We’d had some experience of working in difficult areas in the valleys, but this was something totally new and I was very aware that I needed to learn a lot and I didn’t want to replicate something that was already being done by others. We spent most of the first year meeting people and praying – just getting educated about the situation.
We quickly found out that there was a real problem with sex trafficking and modern slavery and we could see that it destroyed lives. These people were trapped and desperate, so we looked for ways to help. That’s how the charity started.
You mentioned slavery there – when I think of slavery I think of stuff that happened centuries ago – is it really an issue today, in Wales of all places?
Mate, it’s massive. According to the latest figures there are an estimated 46 million people living in slavery in the world today – that’s more than at any other time in history. It’s the fastest growing criminal industry. Basically somebody becomes a slave every 30 seconds in the world and it affects every country including Wales. North Wales is a particularly bad spot because of the easy links through Holyhead from Ireland – it’s so easy to get people into the UK through the ports. I know here in Cardiff people think that it’s just linked to the brothels in the city, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
What are you seeing and hearing about then?
People are trafficked and enslaved for all kinds of reasons. The sex trade is probably the one that people are most aware of, and it’s a real issue, but people also get enslaved in other ways. There’s the criminal element where people are used to grow drugs, pick pockets and do other criminal activity, but you also get people enslaved in nail-bars, car valeting and for manual labour. I recently heard about a place somewhere in Wales where you had guys cleaning cars in the front of the garage and while the customers waited they could spend time with a prostitute in the back of the garage – it’s horrendous. People can also be enslaved as servants in a house where they could be asked to do anything, from cleaning to sexual acts. One of the crazy issues that we are becoming increasingly aware of is people being trafficked and sold for their organs! It’s so sick and unjust.
So, you’re saying that there’s a lot of this happening – where do these people come from?
There’s a lot of people from the UK – they’re moved from one part of the country to another. They’re especially vulnerable if they’ve been in the care system. In Cardiff we also see people from all over the world. Albania has some real issues with criminal gangs so we’re seeing a lot of Albanian women, but we’re also seeing people from Nigeria, China and Vietnam, to name just a few. They can be men or women, old or young. It’s so wrong. These people are often not locked up, they could be walking the streets, living in houses with unlocked doors; it’s very cruel how they are enslaved.
To somebody like me, who’s lived such a sheltered life, could you explain how a person can be enslaved in this way? Why don’t people just walk away?
I’ll give you an example. Say you’ve got a vulnerable young woman who starts going out with a guy. He says he loves her and she falls for him, but he then says that he’s got some debts and he’s in trouble with some loan sharks. She’d naturally ask if she could help, and he would say something like ‘maybe if you’d just sleep with a few people we could make some money and sort this out’, and she does it to help him out. Suddenly, they’re no longer girlfriend and boyfriend, but pimp and prostitute.
But couldn’t she just walk away?
There are so many reasons why she couldn’t. Often, he’d threaten to shame her before her family or he could threaten to hurt her relatives and their kids. It’s then so twisted, because she’ll keep doing it out of a sense of loyalty and to protect her family – it almost becomes a virtuous thing. In a very real sense she’s chained by fear.
People are also trapped because of drug and alcohol addiction, violence, intimidation, financial reasons and often people are so scared they don’t know who to turn to. Many people who are enslaved from other countries are brought to the UK with the promise of work and money but once they are here they are stuck, often here illegally.
So do you rescue these people and move them to safe places?
No, we don’t do any direct rescue work, that’s not something that we have ever been in a position to do. We had to think of more effective ways to help. That’s why we started the charity.
The charity has three main aims.
Firstly, we want to raise awareness of the problem. This is one of the most effective ways we can stop trafficking and slavery. This trade works in the shadows, but through raising awareness we shine a light on the situation. When the public become aware of it there’s less opportunity for these people to be used, problems are picked up quicker and more money is raised to help victims. We now have an Impact Worker who can visit schools and other community events to speak about the issue. We’ve also produced films and resources with money from the police.
Secondly, we believe in action. This means that we work closely with support agencies and police to help where we can. We have set up a project called Embrace through which we provide emergency grants for people – say a woman has been rescued, she’ll often just have the clothes she’s wearing, so we provide money to buy clothes, toys for her children etc. There is also an Embrace befriending project that’s really encouraging. Basically, people who are rescued are very vulnerable and need support and help to be reintroduced into society and rebuild their lives. What they need more than anything is a real friend, and that’s what we’re training local Christians to do. Through relevant training and support we connect befrienders with survivors who have been rescued. They’ll meet up for at least 2 hours every week and develop a friendship where they can help, support and encourage. This happens under very strict circumstances, and we’ve received such encouraging feedback. I’m also a partner in a new coffee company – Manumit. The company is not part of the charity, but it was set up to help those who have been exploited in the slave trade by providing training, employment and support.
The third thing we do is encourage prayer for the situation through contacts with churches throughout Wales – we totally believe that prayer is so effective in this situation.
So, this is working?
Yes. I’ve just had a text off a friend who was rescued a few years ago – she’s now in work, she attends our church and her whole life has been transformed. She sends these texts to everyone in the Church every week to encourage them with Bible verses and quotes.
It’s obvious that Christianity is important to you. Do you only work with Christians – or do people have to become Christians or visit a church to be helped?
No, we help anyone, and we don’t expect anything – these people are broken and need our help. People don’t have to come to church, read a Bible or do anything to get help or ongoing support. We’ve worked with Muslims, members of the LGBT community and people who have no interest in the gospel. Do you remember the account in the Bible where Jesus heals the ten lepers? Remember what they did? Only one came back to thank him, nine went away and, from what we know, never bothered with him again, but Jesus still helped them. Our help is not dependent on people’s reaction.
So why do you do it? I mean you could be doing this work from the safety of a nice office and a big church in some affluent area of Cardiff. But you and Michelle have moved here to live in the middle of these people – your kids go to the local school and you’ve started a church in an area that has a lot of problems.
We’re no different or better than anyone else, I guess it comes down to the fact that we want to set people free because we’ve been set free.
I became a Christian because I realised I was a slave - I wasn’t chained in the obvious sense but I was a slave to sin. I was selfish, angry, lustful and prideful. I didn’t live as God wanted me to live and I was therefore under God’s condemnation. But God set me free. I saw that Jesus had died to take the punishment I deserved and by coming back to life he’d conquered death – the thing that will enslave all of us. I believed in Jesus and gave my life to him and experienced the most wonderful freedom. As a Christian I’m completely free to follow God and this is the most amazing thing ever.
God turned the most hopeless situation in my life into something beautiful and that is why I’m so passionate about working to help end the most terrible situation of modern slavery and sex trafficking here in Wales. We’re unashamedly Christian and Jesus is our passion. We work with Churches and all our workers are Christians. This is so effective because we’ve all experienced something special. You see, to be a Christian is to be set free. A verse that God has used to really encourage me in this truth is Psalm 124. It is both my testimony and my prayer for others.
“We have escaped like a bird
from the snare of the fowlers;
the snare is broken,
and we have escaped!”
Sometimes I wish I didn’t know the stuff I now know. I naturally struggle with my hopes and dreams for the kids and the life I want to give them, but I want my children to see that their father and mother are not cowards. We can’t ignore these people who need our help and we can’t turn off the call we’ve had from God to come and work here. It’s the greatest privilege to be part of this work of seeing people being set free and of seeing a helpless situation becoming transformed into something beautiful. That is what God always does.
For more information about the charity visit www.redcommunity.co.uk
First published in Ask Magazine August 2018