I became aware of the problem of human trafficking a few years ago. I don’t know exactly what brought it to my attention first, but over the years, I have come to a deeper understanding of this global issue through television (one of my favorite shows, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit has had many story lines that dealt with human trafficking and CSEC, or the “commercial sexual exploitation of children), film (“Frozen River” is an excellent film and blurs the lines between right and wrong while engaging the issue of trafficking people from Asia into the US via Canada), literature (I was one of the early readers of Corban Addison’s “A Walk Across the Sun” several years ago, when it was still a manuscript in search of a publisher) and music (one of my favorite singers, Sara Groves, has written songs inspired by stories she has heard and has become a spokesperson and advocate for International Justice Mission, and has used her celebrity platform to spread the word about the work of this wonderful organization.)
Through my work with International Arts Movement and my podcast, IAM Conversations, I had the chance to MC an event in 2009 where we screened the documentary film “Branded,” which explores teenagers being trafficked in Phoenix. I interviewed the director and law enforcement personnel from Arizona about the work they were doing to reduce the number of teenagers being victimized in the sex industry and prosecuting the johns and pimps who exploited them. And earlier this month, I interviewed IJM’s Vice President of Government Relations, Holly Burkhalter, on a panel about human trafficking.
I’ve also become aware of many new organizations that have been started in the past few years to address the issue of human slavery, including Not For Sale, Love 146, Free the Slaves, Polaris Project, the Project to End Human Trafficking, and a host of others.
I have proudly taken on the title of “abolitionist.” I have rallied against sweat shops and committed myself to not shopping at stores that support them. And I have donated time and money toward these causes and prayers and spiritual encouragement toward those working on the front lines.
But on December 21, I learned that, when it came to actually getting involved in a rescue operation, I was not quite ready for the rubber to meet the road.
My husband and I were at SEA-TAC heading to my parents’ home for Christmas. It was a 7:30 a.m. flight, but the airport was already buzzing with travelers. Because we were toting clothes for three weeks, heaps of gifts for my family and even some fly fishing equipment for my husband, we had to stand in a line to check our bags before going through security.
That’s when I noticed something very suspicious. A thirty-something year old man with four children ranging in age from 9-13 or so. The children were all the same race as the man, but they did not look like they went together – they did not look like siblings. (Of course, I have a niece and nephew from Ethiopia, so that shouldn’t be too odd to me.)
But the strange part was their behavior.
When children travel in airports, they have a lot of energy. They are laughing, perhaps even bickering. When kids that age are standing in line together, they are pushing one another, asking their parents questions… but these kids were doing none of that. They all looked quite serious, followed one another, and only looked to the man for instructions. At one point I heard the man say to one of the boys, “When we go through security, make sure you stay with her and tell them she’s your sister.” At that my heart began to pound.
Now, I must say at the outset that I do not know for certain that these children were victims of trafficking. There are plenty of explanations for their behavior and for them being with this man. They’re cousins and someone in their family died and he’s a relative taking them to the funeral. That would explain why they didn’t really look like siblings, and they were unusually somber. That was just one of many possibilities I came up with later.
But the bottom line is, I witnessed suspicious activity and I felt like I needed to do something, and I became paralyzed with fear. What if I’m totally wrong and I embarrass this family? They’re not white – what if I accuse this guy of something and I’m wrong and people think I’m racist? Who do I even talk to? My husband had already been called to check in his bags, so I couldn’t even whisper my suspicions to him. Plus, we were cutting it close for our own flight and still needed to get through security.
My mind was a blur. I did not know what to do. I started walking up to one of the boys who had already checked his bag in, intending to strike up a conversation and see if I could find out, but then my husband came to me (completely unaware of what I was thinking about) and said, “Let’s go,” and I took one more look at the boy and then walked on with my husband.
As we stood in line for security, I kept an eye out for the man and four children, but I never saw them again. They must have gone through security at the other end of the airport.
It wasn’t until we were in the shuttle train to our gate that I told my husband what was going on. “Why didn’t you say something? We could have tag-teamed.” I responded by explaining that I didn’t know what to do. But we then discussed what we would do if this ever happened again.
As if that helped me now.
I felt horrible.
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Last Saturday, I attended a human rights conference, where some friends of mine were leading an anti-human-trafficking workshop. I described the scenario I saw at SEA-TAC and asked for input. Everyone agreed that the circumstances I described sounded suspicious, and they gave me some good input and suggestions for what to do in a situation like this. (See below.)
But this experience told me that, even with all my passion and righteous anger about this issue, I was not prepared for an actual encounter with traffickers (or possible traffickers). I was informed enough to spot warning signs, but I was not equipped for an every-day encounter.
I will be haunted by that experience for a while, I expect. I have spent time in fervent prayer for those children, and if I’m wrong about them specifically, I’m not wrong about the many like them who are victims of trafficking.
So, in honor of National Slavery and Human Trafficking Awareness Month, I am offering a few ways that you – and I – can be prepared to respond if we see suspicious activity that might be related to human trafficking.
1. Be informed. Get to know the issue. Check out some of the web sites I hyper-linked above. Don’t be naive of the fact that there are more human beings in slavery today than ever before in history. And they come in many forms. Corban Addison’s great novel, “A Walk Across the Sun,” is not only a deeply engaging story, but it is an education in the forms of human trafficking.
2. Be prepared. Save this telephone number in your mobile phone: 1-888-3737-888. This is the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline. Here you may report a tip, which they will investigate. Or you may connect with anti-trafficking services in your area. Or, you can request training and other general info and resources.
3. Be responsive. I know now that I could have gone to a TSA agent and told them what I suspected. At the very least, they could have done a “routine” inspection of the man and the children’s papers. If you are downtown and you see a teenager who shows signs of being victimized, engage them in conversation. One thing I learned from talking with a survivor of trafficking last Saturday was it’s OK to strike up a conversation with someone you think is in danger. It is often just way too easy to go about our business. But with knowledge comes power, and there are many organizations today making sure that we have knowledge.
4. Be political – on a national scale. President Obama’s declaration of January as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Awareness Month is a huge step forward in this struggle. By raising the level of awareness, he is opening the door for new legislation to be implemented that address the many threads of injustice that make human trafficking such a profitable venture. Lend your voice – and your vote – to push the problem further forward in public and political consciousness. Join IJM’s 100 Postcard Challenge. Check out other ways you can join a justice campaign.
5. Be political – on a local scale. Christianity Today magazine’s “This Is Our City” project recently ran two pieces on getting involved with local government: “Celebrating the Unglamorous, Effective Work of Local Politics” and “Where Christian Civic Engagement Begins.” Both articles give great advice on how to make a difference locally. You can also join lobbying efforts on behalf of anti-human trafficking legislation. Learn more from “Portland’s Quiet Abolitionists.”
6. Be thoughtful. One aspect of human slavery that comes up every now and then – but not nearly as often as it should – is the heavy reliance those of us in a highly consumerist society have on sweat shops to keep us clothed in $5 tee shirts. Even expensive, brand-name clothing is often made by people who are not paid fair wages or protected by fair labor laws. It isn’t just Wal-Mart and the Dollar Store that keeps sweat shops in business. However, there are companies that are running today with a “triple-bottom-line.” Yes, they aim to be profitable, but not at the expense of paying their employees fair wages or giving them labor protections. Research these companies and, when possible, buy from them rather than stores where you can’t know the source of your purchase. (In the interest of full disclosure, I am guilty of not doing this all the time. I shop at Target often, and just yesterday bought a tee shirt off the clearance rack. I have no way of knowing whether the person who made that shirt was paid fairly or not.) But, in general, I try to ensure I am not directly supporting a sweat shop by shopping at charity thrift stores for most of my clothes and even some gifts. Shopping at local street markets supports local business and artisans. And shopping online at Fair Indigo, Ten Thousand Villages, or other “fair-trade” stores can help vet your sources. (For more on this, please read this excellent article from Green America.)
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Sometimes when we are passionate about something for a season, that passion eventually wanes. I have been a militant vegetarian who has slipped into a “ethical meat” eater who has slipped into a “I’ll just run to the local store instead of the co-op this one time and get some factory chicken for this soup recipe.” Then, I hear a talk by the president of the National Humane Society and am reminded why I stopped eating meat in the first place. (For the record, I am an omnivore, but my husband and I only buy ethical and humane meat. We’re pretty firm on that now. Ethical meat or no meat.)
But every now and then, we need something to come along and remind us why “this” – whatever “this” is – matters.
This month, our nation is getting a reminder. And my experience at SEA-TAC on December 21 was my shot in the arm to not be caught off guard the next time the rubber meets the road in my own anti-human trafficking efforts.
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What advice would you add to this? What are some things you have learned that you could share here with others? What organizations are you aware of that are working to address this horrible crime against humanity? Please share here and help me – and others – be better equipped to not just be aware, but be engaged in the fight to end human trafficking.