Rebecca, approaches the podium and nervously begins to speak to the audience. She’s anxious. It’s easy to see by her fidgeting. However, as she gains verbal momentum, all of that seems to melt away. She settles, and her words sound like they have been chosen with deliberate forethought.
“Do not feel sorry for me,” Rebecca says. “I am who I am because of the things I went through…so, no sorry, no tears. None of that is worth the time because I am a much better person.” Still, many in the audience cry throughout the narrative. Rebecca, a 23-year-old survivor of sex trafficking, maintains her composure while telling her tale. Without survivors like Rebecca, who take the difficult step to advocate publicly, the movement to end human trafficking would be without the voices it so desperately needs to succeed.
In 2004, at 13 years old, a friend recruited Rebecca into prostitution. It’s a dark account, and sadly there are many others like it. According to a report from the University of Pennsylvania Center for Youth Policy on sexual exploitation of children, the average age for a child to be trafficked into prostitution is 12–14 years old. And in 2010, 40 percent of the human trafficking cases opened for investigation were for child trafficking.
Between 2004 and 2009, Rebecca worked as a child prostitute for a pimp in the Eugene area, though she lived in Junction City with her abusive mother and stepfather. “I didn’t think it was wrong,” Rebecca says. “When you’re brainwashed, you don’t understand things are wrong…you pretty much go with it ‘til you can’t go anymore.”
Also in 2009, a case that helped lead to the largest child sex trafficking bust in the U.S. broke in Eugene after FBI agents, who were working with local law enforcement, uncovered more than 100 women and children working locally as prostitutes. As a result of the operation, 43 people — pimps, clients, and adult prostitutes — were arrested.
Unfortunately, that operation didn’t entirely solve the problem. Locations along Interstate-5 — Portland, Salem, Medford and Eugene — all remain “hotspots” on the FBI’s human trafficking radar. Fortunately, those cities’ local police and FBI special agents are not combatting human trafficking alone. There are advocates — student, civilian and professional alike — working together to help create an awareness of the issue and provide resources for survivors.
When Rebecca escaped on her own, she found sanctuary at Hope Ranch Ministries in Eugene with the help of their director Diana Janz. At Hope Ranch, a local refuge for survivors of sex trafficking, Janz and Rebecca worked together to repair years of psychological damage. With help and counseling, Rebecca has recovered considerably, and now Angela Lee, president of UO Students Against Modern-Day Slavery (UOSAMS) provides a platform from which she can share her voice.
CHOOSING TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE
The term of art “modern-day slavery” refers to bonded, forced, child or sex labor and forced marriage. According to the Global Slavery Index, nearly 30 million people worldwide are in contemporary slavery. Human trafficking, one facet of modern-day slavery, is a product of bringing people through deception, threats, or coercion into labor slavery or sexual slavery. As the president of UOSAMS, a UO student group working to end modern-day slavery “by increasing awareness, educating, and inspiring our community to take action,” it falls to Lee to find local survivors like Rebecca who are willing to speak of their experiences. Survivors of human trafficking are the best people to accurately communicate the harsh realities that they face to the public. Finding survivors who are willing to speak to a crowd about what they’ve gone through is an understandably difficult task. Some are embarrassed to admit what’s happened to them. Others never want to think about it again.
Being trafficked for labor or sex is an experience most will never know. However, in order for others to understand it better, it’s up to advocates like Lee to find survivors who want to raise their voice. Without education and dialogue sponsored through advocates, stories are never heard and the problem of human trafficking remains quietly hidden from public eyes.
During her sophomore year, Lee read a local story about a victim of human trafficking. “It was surprising to me,” Lee says. “I had no idea that it was happening here in Lane County. It was a terrifying story.” Motivated, Lee began researching ways that she could get involved. She wanted to help create an awareness of the issue. She wanted to help survivors, to do something — anything — that could make a difference. She started by reading survivor’s stories on the Internet. Eventually, she found a website that offered specific options for individuals interested in advocacy work.
“I found a list of things that college students can do,” she says. “Then I found that I could be part of an organization.” When she uncovered the steps she would need to take to begin an on-campus student advocate organization, she unflinchingly dove right in. Though there had previously been a student human trafficking advocacy group at the UO called Slavery Still Exists (SSE), Lee wanted to do something new. After meeting with the former president of the SSE, Lee discovered that there had been issues between the SSE and the UO student government stemming from financial disagreements. A former president for SSE “recommended that it would be better to have a fresh start,” Lee says.
Other universities — such as the University of Colorado, Nebraska University and Emory — all share the SAMS acronym for their version of the group. For the sake of consistency, Lee chose the same. “I wanted to use modern-day slavery in the name instead of human trafficking because modern-day slavery seemed to have more of an impact.” There’s no denying that the word slavery has emotionally charged historical significance. And, despite the word’s historical connotation, most will agree that today’s human trafficking and slavery are synonymous.
Around the world today, the number of reported human trafficking victims varies between 4 and 27 million. According to human trafficking advocacy organization The Polaris Project, the reason for the incredible difference in estimation is due to “actual statistics being unavailable or contradictory due to the covert nature of the crime, the invisibility of victims and high levels of under-reporting, inconsistent definitions, reluctance to share data, and a lack of funding for and standardization of data collection.” The estimates are educated guesses based on phone calls received through hotline records and the numbers of arrests that occur worldwide.
For example, the FBI reported the number of open suspected human trafficking cases in the U.S. from 2001 to 2007 as 751.
Of those, 327 were cases involving child trafficking. Though that may seem like few over six years, the number of reported cases of suspected human trafficking in 2013 has increased to 2515. The increase may have less to do with the actual numbers of trafficking victims, and more to do with individuals gaining the courage to speak out. What is even more difficult to identify is the number of victims who will never report to law enforcement. Whatever the case, as reported by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, “About 8 in 10 of the suspected incidents of human trafficking were classified as sex trafficking, and about 1 in 10 incidents were classified as labor trafficking.”
Appalled by the statistics and the endemic nature of human trafficking, Lee began searching for other students who would join in her campus awareness campaign. Through the UOSAMS Facebook page, and by tabling at the Erb Memorial Union on the UO campus, Lee’s recruitment over the past two years has gone well. Despite her success, Lee admits that she would love to see more students become involved. The fall 2014 quarter will be Lee’s last as president for the group, so she’s also looking for someone new to step up as president. She hopes for someone who will not only replace her, but also maintain the passionate involvement she’s sustained since the organization was founded.
Though she’s been the president since founding UOSAMS in 2012, Lee looks forward to new leadership for the group. “The good part is that they will see everything from different perspectives, and they’ll have different ideas for how they can make the club grow,” she says. The group is also open to new student members whethey they have knowledge of human trafficking or not. “One of our focuses is to educate our new members. So, if they don’t know anything about human trafficking, that’s OK,” Lee says. “They can come and learn through their involvement.”
BEING THE CHANGE YOU WANT TO SEE
Many years before Lee read the articles that would ultimately inspire her to advocate against human trafficking, Kristin Marshall had a similar life altering experience. In 2007, as a freshman at Oregon State University, Marshall attended a workshop led by former UO Substance Abuse and Prevention Program instructor Bill Hillar and UO alum Huston Hedinger, the founders of SSE.
At the workshop, Hillar provided a personal testimonial about how his daughter had been kidnapped, trafficked and murdered in Southeast Asia. After hearing Hillar’s story, “I was rocked, and pretty revolted,” Marshall says. “I definitely felt that it was a call on my life. I thought, ‘This exists? This is awful, and I need to do something about it.’ ”
Following the workshop, Marshall founded a club at OSU called The Student Abolitionists. She helped maintain the group for the next year, but then passed the torch of leadership when she transferred to the UO. Upon her arrival, Hedinger graduated and she assumed leadership of SSE under Hillar. Working closely with SAPP, Marshall and the other members of SSE established a well-known presence on the UO campus over the following two years. Prior to her arrival, SSE’s efforts were limited to the weekend workshops and some individual student activism. While she was president, however, SSE experienced a renaissance of sorts.
“We had this great visual where we put a bunch of turquoise flags in the quad to represent the number of people who were being trafficked,” Marshall says. “We were chalking the sidewalks all the time, before it was cool to chalk the sidewalks…just a lot of great visuals.” Unfortunately, some of the visuals didn’t go over so well with the UO Women’s Center, she admits. Trigger warnings hadn’t become standard for displays like this, so SSE’s attempts at gripping and compelling eye-openers ended up setting off some students who were sensitive to the subject. “We were just working to make it in-your-face enough to get people’s attention,” Marshall says.
During the Vancouver Olympics, Marshall and SSE joined with another non-profit organization and went up and down I-5 posting flyers at rest stops. The flyers had a message for trafficking victims, written in multiple languages, as well as hotline phone numbers to call. “That kind of stuff is so good for college students,” Marshall says, “It shows them something that they can do now, and hopefully shows them something that they can do forever. It’s those little things.”
According to the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, each Olympic event has come with a predicted increase in prostitution for the city where the games are being held. And though no substantial increase had ever been proven since the study began during the 2004 Olympics in Greece, the predictions remain the same, and the same precautions are taken. Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing whether or not Marshall helped to prevent any trafficked prostitutes from actually making it to the city. A reality for advocates is that they rarely get to see the results of what they’ve done. They can only hope that they’ve done something for someone somewhere.
So, by holding bi-weekly and monthly events, as well as periodic educational workshops, SSE remained active on the UO campus for the following two years. Then, without any warning, the foundation upon which Marshall’s entire movement was built came crumbling down.
Hillar, who claimed to be the real-life inspiration for the 2008 Liam Neeson film “Taken,” was accused of fabricating his entire story. Eventually, everything he’d claimed about his daughter, who was actually alive and well, including being a retired Army Special Forces Colonel, was revealed to be false. According to the FBI, in 2011 Hillar was convicted for “wire fraud in connection with a scheme to lie about his military experience and academic credentials in order to gain employment for teaching and training,” and was sentenced to 21 months in prison by a federal court.
“His story was so compelling because it was so personal,” Marshall says. “For me —being someone who I felt had been called to the issue — I was actually questioning my own involvement because the story that kicked it all off for me was potentially fraudulent. It affected everyone involved.” With SSE founders Hedinger graduating and Hillar facing a felony conviction, Marshall lost heart and developed apathetic feelings toward human trafficking advocacy. Other members of SSE, Marshall says, also took a step back to re-evaluate the reasons for their involvement.
Despite having disconnected from Hillar, Marshall found that she still couldn’t simply walk away from the very real problem that existed, she says. Her desire to make a difference still burned within her, she just needed to find her motivation. She began scrutinizing the information she used with more diligence. By the time she’d graduated, she had reformed her approach to advocacy, and ultimately decided that her participation would come from a more religious point of view. Today, Marshall doesn’t maintain any lasting resentment toward Hillar. “It totally changed my life,” she says. “I wouldn’t be where I am now if it weren’t for that lie.”
Today, Marshall works with the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship for Portland State University. “We look at issues of injustice, like human trafficking, and see what spirituality and Jesus’ call on us is in response to these issues.” And though her current work has its foundation in religion, it’s primary message is one of lasting action. “We partner with many non-profits in Portland, and encourage students to do service, instead of just being on campus to learn, get a degree and leave.”
When Marshall first enrolled at OSU, she hoped to graduate and become a veterinarian, get married, start a family and live happily ever after. But after learning about human trafficking, and creating TSA, joining SSE, and now working at PSU, she believes that her life has been called to a greater purpose. “I need to do something about human trafficking,” Marshall says. “I can’t just be a bystander.” Many human trafficking advocates echo the same message: Once you have your eyes opened to human trafficking, you’re no longer able to stand idly by and do nothing.
During college, Marshall says, students share a blissfully naïve belief that they can change the world. However, after graduation, once the reality of work and life set in, those ambitious world-changing desires seem to fade. Eating quinoa or free-trade chocolate, she says, doesn’t have the same impact as it did while still wearing the rose colored glasses. But, by maintaining the same passion for making change, a person can motivate others who are also concerned that their efforts are no longer being noticed or make a difference at all.
“It’s tough,” Marshall says. “You find yourself at a crossroads of, ‘Do I engage with this issue?’ And one of the things that we’ve struggled with is how do we invite students into engaging with the issue?” And therein lies the biggest challenge.
Some students, Marshall says, because of their chosen field of study, believe they don’t have anything to contribute to the cause. “What I’ve learned from fighting this issue,” Marshall says, “is that every person is equipped in a unique way to offer something toward making a difference. Everyone is capable.”