By Amanda Blanco

ATHENS, Greece — The first rule of survival in the red light district of Omonia is to think fast and act even faster. Built around one of the oldest town squares in Athens, Omonia used to be a center of commercial activity. But Greece’s ongoing financial crisis and the recent refugee crisis have taken a toll on the district.

At 9:30 p.m. on a typical Thursday night, men gather in clutches in front of dingy hostels and windowless bars. Their eyes sweep left to right as they swig cans of beer and survey their prospects. Young women in tank tops and jeans stand at regular intervals, their own eyes alert for danger, whether it from be a customer, a policeman or an irate pimp.

A woman leans against a payphone, her gaunt silhouette visible against the dim streetlight. Another wears glittery pink lipstick and blue eye shadow. She offers her younger co-workers a friendly smile and reassuring small talk. The way she rests her hands above her slightly swollen stomach suggests the possibility of a recent pregnancy. Amid it all, a family of tourists ambles by, oblivious to the drama in action. The children, blond and tan, scamper past a woman with a high ponytail and a baby-blue crop top. Her eyes follow them, the smallest intersection of two parallel worlds.

Across the street, Maria Galinou watches the scene unfold from her parked sedan. “Look at these people!” she exclaims, referring to the tourists. “They have no idea.” Galinou, who works for the Salvation Army, has visited this district of Omonia every week since 2014, building relationships with the women who live here. Galinou was instrumental in bringing the charity organization to her home-city in 2012. Now she directs the Green Light Project, a team trained to work with victims of human trafficking.

Galinou on the front lines. If “you touch the trafficking, you touch the girls,” she says. While she uses her motherly appearance to disarm the traffickers’ suspicions, Galinou is savvier than she may appear. After years of experience, she now notices the slightest interactions, physical gestures, and power shifts. “As they watch, we watch,” she says, “When they act, we act.”

Walking distance from the brothels is a three-story yellow building where Galinou runs a Salvation Army center. There, women can find temporary solace. In the streets, Galinou says the human traffickers are in charge. “Their territory, their word,” she says, “but when they come into my territory, it’s my rules.” Continue reading