Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Modern Day Slavery is Closer to Home Than You Think

Just before Passover,  a holiday celebrating Jewish freedom from slavery in ancient Egypt, I attended a conference on modern day slavery at the Jewish Community Center in Whippany, NJ.  It was presented by the Polaris Project, a Washington D.C. based non-profit organization dedicated to the abolition of sex and labor trafficking in the United States. 

Slavery in the United States in 2012? That's right. It's closer to home than you think. 

The staff of the Polaris Project  New Jersey office described how they rescued a young woman from Guatemala who was forced into domestic servitude.  The 18 year old thought she was coming  to the U.S. to work for a family, learn English and go to school.  The family sponsored her visa, then confiscated her documents and made her work 18 hrs/day for 6 years for no pay  in the suburbs of New Jersey.  The teen was told that she was legally bound to do anything she was told to do by her employer. Then she was restricted from almost all outside contact, forbidden from using the phone and physically and sexually abused. The one thing she was allowed to do outside the  home was to go to church on Sundays. Over time,  her church experience led her to realize that she was being deceived and mistreated and she reached out to the trafficking hotline.

Two local survivors spoke at the conference.  Dara (not her real name) was a woman who grew up in an affluent town in New Jersey and went to college in Boston.  While away at college, she was invited to a party, but when she got there was told it was the wrong night. The man invited her out to dinner and paid her a lot of attention.  He became her "boyfriend" and one night told her to get dressed so they could go to the "track". When she got there she found out that he expected her to "walk the track" to make money as a prostitute. Dara felt betrayed, trapped, degraded and humiliated and didn't know how to get out of the situation. After a week she got up the courage to stand up to him. She told him to "shove it" and he beat her.  He kept her totally isolated , would only let her call home when he was monitoring the call and continued to beat her for supposed  infractions of the rules.  She was afraid to do anything to cross him. 

Dara's  pimp  made her work as an escort by day starting at 8 AM and then change her clothes and walk the track from 9 PM to 6 AM. From 6 AM-8 AM she could eat or sleep; she always chose sleep.  Dara said that she fortunately managed to stay away from doing drugs.  This enabled her to stay aware of her surroundings and  get out of dangerous situations; otherwise, she believes she would be dead. After two years, her pimp surprisingly allowed her to go on vacation with her family and she found the courage to tell them what had happened even though she was afraid they would reject her. Her family was supportive and she never went back.  She completed her undergraduate college degree back home in New Jersey and finished a year of graduate school.  She's been married 5 years and has 2 children and volunteers at the Polaris Project to help others victims of sex trafficking.

The night before the conference there were over 180 ads for massage parlors in NJ on Backpage and Craigslist.  And it's not just in low income communities; 15 were listed for Morris County, where the conference took place.  According to the Polaris Project, for every two Starbucks in this country there is a massage parlor.  In NJ the ratio is 1 to 1. There are 500 massage parlors in this state alone.  Sex trafficking is not uncommon in these massage parlors. Late night hours, video monitoring of the street, and blacked out windows are some of the telltale signs. 

In New Jersey, mostly Asian and Eastern European women are brought to the U.S. under false pretenses and forced into debt servitude in these massage parlors.  First they are promised the American Dream, then they are charged exorbitant fees for being smuggled into the country, and for food and substandard housing, but the massage parlor fees are collected by the  "mamasan" who runs the massage parlor and all this money goes to the house.  The women are forced to engage in the commercial sex trade to make any money towards trying to pay off their debt. 

For answers to questions about possible trafficking situations, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) hotline at 1-888-3737-888. It is confidential and available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, every day of the year. The NHTRC is a program of the Polaris Project, a non-governmental   organization (NGO) not affiliated with law enforcement or immigration authorities.  For further information go to : http://www.polarisproject.org/what-we-do/national-human-trafficking-hotline/the-nhtrc/call-vignettes

In my next post, I will give examples of child labor and sex trafficking, describe warning signs and actions you can take on the legislative and grassroots levels.

9 comments:

  1. It breaks my heart to hear stories like these. Have you read "Half the Sky?" That book opened my eyes to issues like this one in entirely new ways. Thank you for helping raise awareness for these women and men who are modern-day slaves.

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    1. Hi Rachelle,

      I agree with you that it is heartbreaking. I have not read "Half the Sky" but thanks for the recommendation.

      Warmly,
      Andrea

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  2. Hi Andrea - Wow thanks for this important post. I watched a Dr Phil show abt this last week. It is shocking and disgusting. I am appalled this is happening in NJ. I am outraged. I am looking forward to your next post. I want to support an organization in this cause. Appalling.

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    1. Hi Kathy,

      I share your outrage. The Polaris Project is in the front lines on this issue so they would be a good organization to support. You can learn more at www.PolarisProject.org.

      I appreciate your comments.

      Warmly,
      Andrea

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  3. Andrea,

    This is such an important topic. We have had several talks on this issue in Kansas City recently. Because we sit at a crossroads of both north/south & east/west interstates, Kansas City has become a hub for human trafficking from Mexico & Central America. It was really eye-opening and distressing to realize how much of this is happening right here and right now. We want to believe that this is an issue of the past. Thanks for lending your voice.

    Warmly,
    Ann

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    1. Hi Ann,

      You make a good point about our wanting to believe this is an issue of the past. It would be much easier to live in a state of denial. I was shocked when I first realized slavery still exists and shocked again when I realized how close to home it is.

      It sounds like it is a big problem in Kansas City. I'm glad to hear it is being discussed. Getting the message out is so important. Thanks for adding to the conversation.

      Warmly,
      Andrea

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  4. Thank you for writing about this very scary and disturbing topic. It is so important that we not turn away and pretend that this is not happening. We need to stand up and speak out for those who are trapped and abused. You are leading the way.

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    1. Hi Allison,

      The urge to turn away is strong when it comes to such a horrific topic. I like what you said about having to stand up and speak out for the victims who are trapped in slavery. I view it as a moral imperative.

      Warm regards,
      Andrea

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  5. Greetings
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    ReplyDelete