By Charlotta Smeds
The first question you ask yourself when you meet her is: how can this woman, who has survived so many terrible things in her life, have eyes that convey such profound peace and joy?
Meeting the Pope
I met Elise Lindqvist when she came to Rome to attend the Pope’s General Audience in May. There was only one thing she wanted: to thank Pope Francis for his efforts in combatting human trafficking.
Elise Lindqvist is the same age as Pope Francis: both were born in 1936. She has the same tireless energy, condensed into a body that is only 5 feet tall. To shake the Pope’s hand after the Audience, Elise had to climb onto the lower rung of the railing.
"I have heard about you", said the Pope. "You do a wonderful job!”
He was referring to the nights Elise spends offering support and comfort to women working as prostitutes on the streets in Stockholm. She has been doing that for over 20 years: mothering them and reminding them there is a life beyond the street.
She understands that better than most, because she was one of them.
A dramatic childhood
Elise Lindqvist was born in a small Swedish village. She was sexually abused from the age of five. It was not her father who abused her, she clarifies, but individuals who were close to her family. Terrified into submission, she became convinced that abuse was something all children had to endure. "When they told me to come over and eat at their house, I knew the price I would have to pay”, she remembers. Then she would run back home, threatened with death if she told anybody.
Part of Elise's pain was not being able to trust adults. Any adults. She was abandoned by those who should have defended her. Her own mother looked the other way when men took her to another room. At school, the teacher used to send the pupils out to play during recreation, making her stay behind alone with him.
Her father was the only one who occasionally gave her some signs of affection. Everyone else punished her for being "ugly and stupid".
"Without those little gestures of tenderness from my father, I don’t think I would have survived”, she says. Elise’s father died when she was 10 years old, and life became even harder. Her mother's new partner was an alcoholic and attacked Elise constantly. "One day, when I was only ten, he pointed a gun at me”, she says. “I begged him to pull the trigger because I didn't want to live anymore".
He did pull the trigger. But the gun wasn’t loaded. "The Lord wanted me alive”, she says, “even though I didn't yet know He existed".
“You are so pretty"
Elise ran away from home when she was fourteen. A kind family in a nearby town took care of her. "When the mother of the family undressed me on the first night, I was resigned to the fact that everything would continue here as before. Instead, she only took off my clothes to wash me, which she did very gently".
Elise’s expression becomes serious as she recounts the following chapter in her story. "What happened to me next is what happens to thousands of girls today. Pimps recognize the perfect victim and know how to catch them”. In the case of Elise, it was a woman who approached her one day and said: "You are so pretty..."
"She was a beautiful woman. No one had ever told me I was pretty before, and from that moment, I was completely in her power. I would have done anything for her. I called her ‘Mamma', and she bought me clothes and makeup. One day she told me I had to work for her, selling my body to her clients. I was 16. I did as I was told".
Elise does not know exactly how many years she worked for this woman. She does remember how she stopped: after suffering a particularly violent beating by a client. She went back to her mistress and told her she could no longer work as a prostitute.
"I was lucky. If a girl refuses to continue working as a prostitute today, she is killed and her body disappears. My mistress opened the door and threw me down the stairs: 'You have nothing more to do here', she told me”.
At this point, Elise began living like a homeless woman, scavenging food from garbage cans on the street. "I only knew about destructive relationships, and I ended up with violent men. To console myself I mixed alcohol and pills, and fell into an increasingly desperate addiction".
The light of Jesus
I look at Elise and see a face that radiates only peace and joy. There is no trace of her violent story, no bitterness or resentment.
"In 1994, I was admitted to a recovery centre. Everyone was afraid of me. If anyone approached me I would kick them, and if I saw a man, I would spit at him out and swear at him. All I knew was rage”.
To start with, Elise thought people behaved strangely at this centre: "Everyone smiled”, she says. “I thought I had ended up in a lunatic asylum... After a while, I began to believe those smiles were induced by the use of fantastic chemicals. So I started asking for the "pills" they were taking”.
Instead of pills, they took Elise to a chapel where they began to pray for her. Distrustful and trapped in her anger, Elise did not understand what they were doing.
"I knew nothing about God and about prayer. For me the Church was a place of death”.
At a certain point, what could be described as a "supernatural event" took place. Elise describes it like the physical sensation of taking a shower, but a shower of light and peace. She realised Jesus was the only one who could heal her. “I was an impossible case”, she says. And that is what happened. Jesus did heal her. At that moment, she was "reborn". “When people ask me how old I am, I answer "25": because 25 years ago Jesus gave me life and I learned to walk in His love”.
No healing without forgiveness
Months went by. It took time for Elise to start seeing with new eyes, as she began the first steps of her journey of faith. It was then that her spiritual Father suggested she take a further step: she had to forgive.
"Again, I reacted with anger”, she recalls. “How could he expect me to forgive the evil that so many people had done to me?” At this point, however, Elise realized she could never be completely cured if she did not forgive.
"It was a long and painful process. I was always in the chapel praying: name after name. Finally, I managed to forgive my mother, who failed to love and defend me. I understood she just couldn’t do it, and that she too was a victim.”
The Angel of the Prostitutes
For over 20 years Elise Lindqvist has used her own experience of suffering to help other women: "The first time I visited the Stockholm street where the prostitutes gather, the Malmskillnadsgatan, I saw myself. I realized this was the place where I had to work”.
That work consists in offering a maternal, consoling presence: someone who listens, hugs, distributes food and drink, and warm clothes on cold winter nights.
"The best gift is managing to save a girl from the street. But, above all, my presence gives them comfort and courage, letting them know there is someone who loves them, that they are not alone". That is why they call her "Mother".
On 18 October 2016, on the European Day against Human Trafficking, Elise was invited to address the European Parliament. In her speech, she stressed the responsibilities of institutions to adopt concrete resolutions that ban human trafficking outright. All European Member States are already fully aware of the problem.
"I concluded by saying I will come back when I turn 90 to see if they have fulfilled their commitment”, she adds.
Crossing St Peter’s Square at the end of the Papal Audience, I ask her why she is limping. "They threw me off an escalator some time ago”, she responds. “My presence among the prostitutes annoys a lot of people".