After 37 years as a missionary in Africa, Sister Kay Lawlor, D68, returned to the United States in 2013. It wasn’t long before she took up a new challenge: helping victims of human trafficking. She volunteers at Bakhita House, a shelter for women recruited as laborers or sex workers through force, coercion or fraud. The first safe house of its kind in Massachusetts, it was set up by Boston Intercommunity Ministries.

Lawlor, now 77, had seen slavery in the developing world, but she found it hard to believe how common it is in the United States. Experts estimate that about 1.5 million people in this country are victims of human trafficking. Sometimes they are brought here as domestic help, only to be paid pennies an hour and have their passports confiscated by their employers. But more often, the women Lawlor meets are Americans who are trafficked for sex. Many victims come from homes marked by “poverty, abuse, and lack of love,” and are coerced into prostitution by an opportunistic pimp—often the first person to ever tell the girl that he cares for her. “There is a tendency to see [victims] as runaways, druggies, loose women—who choose and like what they do,” Lawlor said. “The truth is very different. They are vulnerable and exploited. They are victims of a system.”

At Bakhita House, Lawlor’s role is to provide acceptance, understanding, and support, whether the women are staying for a night or up to a year. That may mean letting them storm out of the house when they get frustrated, or holding her tongue when one of them calls her former pimp her “boyfriend.”

From Africa to the US

Lawlor, who grew up in a caring family in Beverly, Massachusetts, entered the Medical Missionaries of Mary right after high school, hoping to serve in East Africa. But first, she had to be trained. After predental studies, her mother superior told her to apply to dental school at Tufts, where she and another nun became the only two women in the class of 1968. (Her classmate, Sister Jean Clare Eason, died in 2015.) Lawlor, known then by the name Sister Stephen Julie, loved many of her classes, but Crown and Bridge was a struggle. “I lost many a night’s sleep,” she recalled, fretting over the five-unit bridge she had to provide to a patient.

Her first assignment in Africa was in a rural, 100-bed hospital. Her dental clinic was an upright chair with no light, a slow-speed electric drill, and a small sink. There was also a foot-powered drill, which she carried with her to provide cleanings in other villages. Her thorough medical education put her in high demand throughout the hospital, where she helped with everything from X-rays to anesthesiology.

After five years, Lawlor’s order called upon her to take up a leadership position, overseeing fifty-two other nuns at four hospitals in Tanzania. She eventually became the order’s area leader for all of east and central Africa, facing some of the continent’s most dire health and humanitarian crises. In the 1980s, she went to Uganda, the center of the AIDS epidemic. Although much was still unknown about how the disease spread, Lawlor was eager to jump in and learn more about it. “I don’t get panicky,” she said. (A television interview she gave about the AIDS crisis led to a letter from an old dental patient—the one with the five-unit bridge. “My bridge is still fine,” he wrote.)

Although she never returned to dentistry, Lawlor credits it with helping her in many ways. “The fact that it was so difficult for me to master some of it made me a stronger person,” she said. And working closely with patients led her to pursue a master’s in pastoral studies and human relationship skills.

Today, she marvels that the women at Bakhita House are such survivors. Although she has seen many slip back into drugs or prostitution, others have been able to find a job, get an apartment, start real relationships. “The whole idea is to create a loving environment where they are accepted as they are,” she said. “They are challenged to grow, and guided into different programs, but allowed to be themselves.”

Julie Flaherty can be reached at julie.flaherty@tufts.edu.