← Back to Stories

Zoe's* story

Believing her whole life that she was an orphan, a survivor reunites with her mother thanks to the persistence of an incredible case manager.


Zoe looks out from a boat from the Kalangala Islands

I. Torn from Her Mother and Robbed of Her Safety

When Zoe* was less than a year old, her parents divorced. Her father, insisting he owned Zoe, took her away from her mother. They lived on an island in Kalangala, an archipelagic district of 84 islands on Lake Victoria. Despite his insistence on having sole custody of Zoe, he was unable to care for her, and would often leave her with others.

One day, a neighbor who was tasked with caring for Zoe, sexually assaulted her.

Zoe was just four years old.

When her father found out about the assault, he took Zoe to the police station and left. He never returned.

For many vulnerable children in the region, effective systems of safety and security are scarce. Coupled with gender-based discrimination and patriarchal biases, girls are especially at risk of abuse. Which is why—despite being in the care of the authorities responsible for her protection—Zoe was thrust into exploitation yet again. 

She was taken to a “shelter” run by a German national who frequented the police station, claiming to offer care for girls who were victims of abuse, an all-too-common strategy for traffickers looking to exploit children with no other resources available to them.

At his shelter, he made the girls call him “Papa”, and Zoe was the youngest one.

“Papa” convinced Zoe that her parents were dead, that he was the only one in the world who could care for her. He made her massage his whole body and tend to his leg wound. The older girls at the shelter were forced to repay him for their care through sexual acts. When Zoe turned 8 years old, he made her share a room with him.

When she was nine, some of the older girls reported “Papa” to local law enforcement. 

II. A Persistent Case Manager, A Tireless Search

Zoe arrived at EverFree Uganda, where she was able to receive crucial care and—finally—a safe place to heal. She was assigned a case manager, Successor Ainembabazi. Unbeknownst to them both at the time, this marked the beginning of what would become a years-long (and quite literal) journey to reunite Zoe with her mother.

Over the years she worked with Zoe, Successor noted certain details here and there—leads tracing back to Zoe’s roots.

Accurate data and full files are often absent in many cases involving children who were exploited through fraudulent and abusive shelters. Successor knew she had to investigate outside of the limited information she received. 

Successor traveled from EverFree’s office in Kampala to the Kalangala Islands.

She found the initial report that contained Zoe’s father’s name. Chasing this lead, she embarked on a canoe and began her search through the archipelago. 

Successor went from island to island, searching day and night for days. Often, they wouldn’t leave the lake until midnight.

After asking around the island communities, someone recalled meeting a man from Southwestern Uganda. Successor remembered noticing Zoe’s surname, one that was characteristically from that region. She followed this tip until she found a man laying under a palm tree. 

Successor cautiously began to talk to him and, every detail fell into place.

Successor asked him about Zoe’s mother. He had lost contact with her, but managed to recall some details on where her parents, Zoe’s grandparents, still lived. 

It was enough information for Successor to find them.

A police escort on the canoe Successor used in the search

I still remember the day they told me her mother existed,” Successor recalls. Though she lived on the farthest side of the country, her parents gave Successor a phone number.

“She thought it was someone in the village pulling a prank,” Successor says, remembering the phone call.

III. The Way Forward

Zoe and her mother were essentially strangers. What’s more, her mother’s area was too dangerous for them to stay any longer than a few hours. Successor and the EverFree team arranged for the two to undergo counseling sessions in Kampala.

Meanwhile, Zoe continued to receive care and pursued her vocational education at EverFree’s Freedom First Institute, a vocational training program where survivors are empowered to pursue their career goals and safe and dignified opportunities. There, Zoe enrolled in culinary courses and training towards financial independence. And in December of 2023, she graduated.

Successor with Zoe a her graduation

As a case manager you’re not doing this for yourself. I looked at this little girl, she had not gotten reunited with her parents...As her case manager I owe it to her to do everything I can. She deserves the chance to be with her family, to know her ancestral home.

Play Video

Zoe’s mother relocated to a safer area, so that she could get her home ready for Zoe to move in after graduation.

“Her mother owns a shop and is hardworking,” Successor notes. “She wants to make up for the time they didn’t have.” 

Successor continues to do counseling sessions over video calls with Zoe and her mother, to ensure the adjustment goes well for them both. Zoe is reintegrating into her community with a newfound freedom denied to her at her trafficker’s shelter. She participates in community events and attends church with her family. 

She hopes to open a bakery of her own someday and is eager to practice her skills making cakes, chapatis, and samosas with her mother. 

For most of her life, Zoe thought she was an orphan, with no one in the world to care for her. 

But then she met Successor, a case manager who refused to give up.

“I always want to do my best,” Successor says. “I need to do everything I can. Everything I can. As a case manager you’re not doing this for yourself. I looked at this little girl, she had not gotten reunited with her parents. She needed closure. As her case manager I owe it to her to do everything I can. She deserves the chance to be with her family, to know her ancestral home.

This is the chance that all survivors deserve.

Yet systems of protection are often either absent or fail to protect vulnerable young girls from exploitation. They are left without care, at risk yet again of re-exploitation. 

Case managers like Successor and the whole frontline staff of equally dedicated professionals at EverFree are disrupting this pernicious cycle.

Zoe’s story is one that exemplifies the absolute passion and hope that drives EverFree to ensure that lifesaving care is within reach of survivors. A team of brilliant advocates and legal professionals also conduct trainings and partnerships with the justice system, community leaders, and families not only to improve the identification of human trafficking and hold perpetrators accountable, but also to ensure survivors are met with trauma-informed, survivor-centered approaches focused on their well-being. 

In this way, EverFree confronts human trafficking on all fronts. In this way, all survivors like Zoe are given a chance towards true and lasting freedom.

Your Support Helps Survivors Like Zoe

At EverFree, our caseworkers in Uganda and the Philippines are truly exceptional. And support from dedicated supporters make their work possible. Give today and make an impact in the lives of survivors as we work to end human trafficking around the world.

Our 2023 Annual Report is here.

“The impact you see in this report is tangible – it reaches so many lives and has the power to transform the entire fight against human trafficking.”

– EverFree CEO Kelsey Morgan