You may choose to look the other way…

March 17, 2015

“You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.” ― William Wilberforce

That saying ended the presentation by Christie, a human trafficking survivor, at last night’s event at the Milford United Methodist Church in Milford. Christie was by far the most compelling speaker because she was sharing her own experiences of having been trafficked when she was a pre-teen and her more recent experiences as she ministers to and tries to save children who are now going through that experience. She could not help but tear up while telling her story and hers weren’t the only eyes that weren’t dry by the end of her 10 minute presentation. Her tale of being gang raped and beaten while she pursued her efforts to rescue others and her devotion to continuing to try were sobering and inspiring. You may choose to look the other way…

The information presented about this problem probably shocked most in the audience – that Michigan is the 4th leading state for human trafficking (some say it is 2nd) was an eye opener. The fact that, in Michigan there are as many young boys forced into lives of prostitution as young girls, was certainly a surprise to all who heard it. The explanation of what constitutes human trafficking – someone taking advantage of the vulnerabilities of another for purposes of making a profit – certainly widened the audience’s view of the problem. The point was made that victims can be anyone and anywhere, and that many don’t fit neatly into the stereotypes that many have of trafficking victims. You may choose to look the other way…

The fact that almost half of the human trafficking in Michigan is labor oriented instead of sex oriented was also something that most had not thought about. Certainly we have seen stories locally about families who have imported slave house workers. Michigan’s large, but mostly unregulated farm labor industry, is certainly a contributor to the trade in human beings, with migrant workers being easy targets; however, the victim might also be the waitress who brings you your coffee at the local fast food place. Our long and relatively open border with Canada and our relatively good transportation infrastructure (current potholes aside) also contribute to Michigan being a prime location for this human trafficking and as a pass-through state for children being transported elsewhere. You may choose to look the other way…

Christie also touched upon the ways that some rationalize not doing more about this problem, such as the thought that these victims could just walk away from this life if they chose to do so. The lack of understanding that it takes to embrace that point of view is almost at the same level as that shown by the Missouri Senator who claimed that women who have been raped can somehow shut down their own reproductive system to avoid getting pregnant and so they ought not to be allowed to seek abortions in cases of rape. The boys and girls and the adults who fall into these human trafficking traps are held there by physiological and sometimes physical means that few can understand. Many victims also become drug dependent and their owners/pimps become the source for that and everything else that is meaningful in their lives at that time – drugs, food, shelter, protection and, many believe, even love. Christie shared that most of the time it takes three interventions (rescues and rehabs) to finally get a boy or girl truly free. Many times these victims suffer from a form of post-traumatic stress syndrome which we commonly associate with wars and soldiers. Many have have been living a life of daily trauma for years, so just turning that off and going on with a “normal” life is impossible. You may choose to look the other way…

One of the final points that Christie made is the need for a change in the attitudes of the general public towards these victims; starting with the acknowledgement that they are truly victims and not living those lives because they want to. Christie asked the audient, “Do you know of any child who has ever told you that they want to grow up and be a prostitute?” Do you know anyone who aspires to be a drug addict or to be gang raped? How many children that you know want to go out into the fields and pick fruit for 12-14 back-breaking hours so that they can go back to their one room cabin with 6-8 others and have a meager meal before bed? These are most often vulnerable children who see no way out of the places and circumstances that they find themselves in; and not responsible adults with the choice to walk away.  How do we greet them on the street when we see them? Do we stop and ask if we can help or do we look the other way and hurry past them? You may choose to look the other way…

Oakland County Councilperson Eileen Kowall also spoke about the work that was done on this issue while she was the local State Representative. Apparently Michigan, while high on the target list for human traffickers was only so-so in terms of the laws that were on the books to deal with the issue. Eileen served on a task force that Governor Snyder put together to review and strengthen the laws that could be used to combat the issue and increase the support and services for victims. You may choose to look the other way…

The bottom line on all of this is that it’s a big problem, it’s a local problem, it’s our problem. It is ugly and unlikely to get better without a lot of hard work from a lot of people. These practices flourish in the dark spaces in our society, those places that we have been reluctant to shine a light upon and in which we have been fearful of becoming involved.  I hope this post helps you understand the problem a little more because – “You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.”

For more on the problem and some local groups that are trying to make a difference, click on the links below –

http://www.michiganabolitionistproject.org/

http://www.spinalcolumnonline.com/news/2014-07-02/Front_Page/New_Milford_Community_Group_Aims_to_Combat_Human_T.html

https://www.vistamaria.org/

http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/investigate/civilrights/human_trafficking

http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2011/05/sex-trafficking-201105

http://www.commdiginews.com/life/trafficked-boys-vandalized-innocence-hidden-in-plain-sight-26356/

http://www.michigan.gov/som/0,4669,7-192-53480_56421-348984–,00.html

“You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.”


Slavery and human trafficking…it can’t be happening here; this is Oakland County, Michigan!

March 14, 2015

I live in Oakland County, Michigan, arguably the most affluent county in Michigan. Yet I also live in a county that is in a hotbed area of modern day human trafficking and slavery. No, I’m not trying to say that boatloads of slaves are somehow making their way through the Great Lakes to be sold to Detroit-area slave owners for back-breaking work on the farm.  Modern day human trafficking is much more likely to involve young girls being sold into lives of sex trafficking or ignorant young people from foreign lands being sold into lives of servitude by their parents.

Why didn’t I know about this and how can it be happening without being noticed?

Modern day human trafficking often slips under the daily newscast radar unless someone is killed or causes some huge scandal for a prominent member of the community. Many of the victims live out their misery in the seedy parts of town and are only seen out at night plying their age-old trade. Some are literally held slave chainsas hostage/servants within the homes of their “owners”; maybe occasionally seen through a window or at an open door by a neighbor. Many of them do not speak English, nor do they understand what people might be saying to them. Some of them started as confused and frightened runaways and are now far from home and totally dependent upon their captor/owners for everything in their lives. Some were actually sold into slavery by their parents, which may be the ultimate betrayal of parenthood obligations. They are alone, fearful for their lives and unable to see any way out. No wonder we never see them or hear about their plight.

Many of the “owners” of modern day slaves are well to do members of their communities- doctors or business owners. Many are first generation Americans young prostitutewith strong cultural ties to their homes of origin. What we fail to understand sometimes is that what we call slavery is an accepted practice in many of those countries. That doesn’t make it right; just helps to explain why it happens. It is sometimes easy for a wealthy immigrant to reach back into his native land and “buy” a servant to do the housework and a whole lot cheaper than paying for a local maid service. It is also relatively easy to keep an ignorant young person who doesn’t speak the local language isolated and under control.

Yet, a few of these modern day slaves do make it out. Sometimes they get lucky and are swept up in police actions that just happen to include the place where escapethey are being held.  Sometimes neighbors just stop believing the false stories that their owners made up to cover their presence and they report their suspicions to the authorities (if one can find an authority with any interest in pursuing such matters). Sometimes the victims finally screw up enough courage to run away from their captors and find someone to whom they can turn themselves in.  Some hear about programs like MAP (Michigan Abolitionist Project) and find a way to get in touch with them. It is almost beyond belief that we still need a group of abolitionists in modern America, but we do.  John Brown’s body may lie “a moldering in its grave”, but the slavers have returned.

I had the opportunity to meet one such survivor/victim at a Chamber of Commerce event at a local credit union  that featured a speaker from the Vista Maria Home in Dearborn Heights an one of the slavery victims whom they havegirl crying helped . You sort of stand there listening in disbelief as the story of the young victim’s life unfolds –  a pre-teen runaway who ended up being sold into the sex trade in the Dearborn area. You want to believe that “this can’t be happening; not here; not in this day and age”; but it does happen It is happening every day and it needs to be stopped and the victims helped to recover their lives. None of us can continue to pretend that this problem doesn’t exist in America or in our own back yards.

You will hear about the experiences of one such survivor of the local salve trade at the upcoming panel discussion Youth Trafficking / Modern Day Slavery in Oakland County on Mar 16. The panel begins at 7 pm. Doors open at 6:30 to visit tables hosted by organizations involved in various aspects of anti-trafficking support. The event is being held at the Milford United Methodist Church, 1200 Atlantic St., Milford, MI 48381 and is co-sponsored by the North West Oakland Optimist Club and the Milford chapter of the Michigan Abolitionist Project MAP/NOAH. The panel will include Oakland County Commissioner Eileen Kowall, Kelly Carter, an Assistant Attorney General for Michigan; Chrissy a Survivor; and a MAP Representative.  If you thought that this is just a problem in Africa or the Middle East, think again…it’s happening right here in your own back yard. Click here to view the poster for this event. My advice is to bring some Kleenex because the things that you will hear might make you cry. The hope is that they will also make you mad and make you want to help.