Posts Tagged ‘trafficking’

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What kind of world will our sweet little boy grow up in?

This is our son Gabriel. He’s three months old. My hope for him as a parent is that by the time he’s ready to have children of his own, human trafficking won’t be the fastest-growing criminal enterprise in the world. That the threat of being trafficked won’t loom over countless young women in developing countries. That jobs and justice will both be more prevalent in places like the Philippines.

A sea change in society won’t come about with us simply carrying on with our regular lives, and this is why I write today. Some of you may already be familiar with Kickstarter, the crowd-funding platform for creative projects: someone has an idea, sets a funding goal, and if you’re interested you can pledge online to support it. (The nice part is, your pledge only goes through if the goal is achieved–and it works through the Amazon e-commerce system, so it’s easy and secure.)

I’m hoping you can spare a few clicks, and a few dollars, for Hello Forever, a movie being made by some high-profile Hollywood talent in partnership with the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women. CATW is a great NGO that has worked with Samaritana on anti-trafficking initiatives in the Philippines.

Let’s take a small step together toward the kind of world I want my little boy to grow up in: a world where women are valued, respected, and have just as many opportunities as he will.

–Nate

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Nearly a decade ago, Nate handed me a copy of National Geographic and told me I should read the story there about modern-day slavery. It was the first time we’d heard the number 27 million (in reference to the number of modern-day slaves) or the name Kevin Bales (cited as the world’s leading expert).

Tonight Nate and I will get to meet Dr. Bales and hear him speak to the hundreds of people attending The Slave Next Door in Berkeley. For people who haven’t read much about human trafficking, the name Kevin Bales might not mean anything, but for me, it’s like meeting the Michael Jordan of the modern abolitionist movement. Not only is it thanks to Dr. Bales that we learned about the topic in the first place, but his book Disposable People played a large role in convincing us to spend a year of our lives in the Philippines working with victims of trafficking.

Along with Dr. Bales, the keynote speaker, we have an all-star supporting cast. Bay Area trafficking survivor Minh Dang will tell her story, followed by a panel of local experts including Nathan George from Trade As One, Officer Holly Joshi from the Oakland Police Department, and Tashina Manyak from M.I.S.S.S.E.Y. Nate and I are also humbled and grateful to be speaking as well. The evening will end with a fair trade bazaar including artisan chocolate tasting, crafts and gifts, and a chance to meet local heroes fighting trafficking.

Sounds great, right? But we need your help.

If you’re local, please attend! Invite your friends. Tell everyone you know about it. I’ve had the chance to attend and help plan many events on this topic over the past five years, and this is the most exciting one I’ve been a part of. While the topic is grim, there’s a lot of hope to be found in this evening. The message tonight is not that life is depressing, but that there is so much we can do to make a difference. Come to be inspired. Come to make a difference. Every ticket purchase goes toward Samaritana, New Day for Children, and M.I.S.S.S.E.Y.

If you’re not local, I’m asking you to pray today and this evening (the event will take place from 7:00-9:30 p.m.). While it’s not an explicitly Christian event, I believe it is an event that God would love to bless. The Bible is filled with the message that God cares about the oppressed, and this event will benefit the women and children here and around the world who need it most. We have seen firsthand how powerful prayer can be, and know that this event will be a shadow of what it could be without it. Pray that the event will be well-attended. Pray that things will go smoothly for everyone involved. Pray that people will leave the event changed, that they will find it in their hearts to care. Pray that this would be the beginning of something big!

Thank you to everyone who is partnering with us both here in the Bay Area, and around the world.

-Laura

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“Most of the time I don’t even pay them; all I need to do is show them my baby blues. Sometimes I just give them bus fare home.”

Bob was the stereotype, the guy we all love to hate: tubby, white-haired, sunburnt, and dressed like a beach-bound slob. The guy you hoped didn’t share your nationality. I’d seen him in fast food restaurants, night clubs, videoke bars, and even aboard airplanes headed to vacation destinations. Always beside him there was a beautiful Asian woman—sometimes two—young enough to be his granddaughter. He was the Sex Tourist.

Prior to leaving for the Philippines, I’d spent over a year reading books and articles on human trafficking, and almost all of them were filled with sad victim stories. I’m glad for every person who picks up Half the Sky, Not for Sale, or Disposable People, and I wish more people were reading them. But if we want to understand the complex, sophisticated human trafficking machine, we need to understand how it works–and what fuels it.

The Low-Flying Dove, the novel that came out of my year in Manila, is my attempt to do that. The narrative follows not just trafficking victims and those trying to help them, but a pimp, a bar owner, a former stripper, and two customers. I knew that writing this kind of book would mean interviewing customers, or Johns, and I dreaded talking to people I was sure I’d hate.

But at last I enlisted the help of an NGO worker who had formerly been a sex tourist himself; I told him my objective (to get a real picture of why these guys did what they did) and within a couple of hours, I had a half a dozen meetings set up with guys of all ages and backgrounds.

But let’s get back to Bob.

I’d secretly hoped that all of the guys I interviewed would be like him: easily villainized and blamed. But the truth was a lot closer to home. Yes, there were some despicable, unrelatable sex tourists, but more frequently the men I talked to were surprisingly . . . normal. Likeable, even.

One middle-aged man from Boston sat with me for almost two hours and told me how heartbroken he was when his wife of forty years left him. He came to the Philippines looking for a wife and a second chance, and found her in the form of a 23-year-old bar girl. He met her by paying her for sex, but was indignant that men like Bob abused the girls. He thought sex trafficking was terrible.

I talked to several twenty- and thirty-something guys who had come to Asia to travel and see the world–not sex. They wouldn’t pay for it back home, so why would they in another country? But then they arrived in Manila/Hong Kong/Bangkok/Singapore/etc. and met another foreigner who took them out to a red light district, had a few drinks, and ended up at a strip club. Or they got a great deal on a massage, where their young, pretty massage therapist abruptly offered them extras.

“Normal becomes a pretty relative term after a while,” one guy told me. He’d been stunned the first few times he’d found himself in some of the situations above. But after a while, the things that had shocked him suddenly began to feel commonplace. “Guys do things here that they would never do at home,” he said. “Back home they might look at porn, but they would never go looking for a prostitute.”

Some of the men I met were traveling for work; they had wives and children whom they loved and missed. Many of them knew about sex trafficking and thought that it was atrocious. Not a single man I talked to believed that he was contributing to it in any way. Many times the girls who had convinced my interviewees that they were having a great time confided in me that they had been trafficked and were deeply ashamed of the life they were living.

It’s Valentine’s Day tomorrow, but thanks to our friend Anna Broadway, Valentine’s Day isn’t just for couples this year. Anna understands that sex trafficking and prostitution will continue to exploit growing numbers of women unless we turn our attention to the demand for sex—to the customers, or Johns.

All across the country, churches, groups, and individuals are joining Anna in praying for the Johns. We are too. You can read more about Pray for the Johns Day here, and also read an article where Anna interviewed me.

Would you join us in praying for the Johns tomorrow? You can find specific ways to pray on the PFTJ website. We’d love to hear about your experiences here, so please comment and let us know that you’re joining us!

-Laura

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After you've eaten mangoes in the Philippines, it's hard to eat them anywhere else

Since we got back, our time has been divided between me looking for work, Laura revising her novel, us trying to find health care, getting used to the idea of having a baby in March–and trying to figure out something even more important: what do we want our life to look like now?

As we’ve remarked to people who have asked us about the transition back over the last four months, one of the hardest things, we’ve found, is resisting the temptation to simply be re-inserted back into the matrix. After all, our home, car, food, family, and friends are all here for us, tempting us to pick up the Bay Area good life again and let the life-altering experiences of the past year fade into the background. Like skills you don’t use, it’s alarming how quickly memories fade.

What we’ve concluded is that just as we’re committed to exercise to stay physically healthy, we have to be committed to working for Samaritana, for other trafficking and prostitution victims, and for these issues at large if we’re to remain spiritually healthy. One way we’re doing this is sharing our story every chance we get, so we were grateful for Converge Worldwide (our missions organization) giving us the chance to do two guest posts on their blog.

If you were busy from July 2010-July 2011, but are a little curious about what it’s like to quit your lives for a year and go overseas, this is the perfect time to catch up: Laura encapsulates our process leading up to the sabbatical year, and what we did, in just two posts. Please click over to read here.

And as always, thanks to all of you who helped us get there.

We’ve only been gone a year, but my friend says I look older. At age 34, that’s the first time anyone’s ever said that to me. I’ve always had a baby face: on my 15th birthday my friends suggested I ask for the 12-and-under price at the county fair; in my passport photo (age 27), I look like a college freshman. But it seems that this year has left its mark.

So what have I seen that’s made me age? Life how most of the world lives it: orphaned siblings sleeping in subway stations. Squatter families living in cement-block shacks the size of an American suburbanite’s walk-in closet. Street women selling themselves for a few dollars or less. Sights that would change anyone with eyes to see. But my eyes have widened joyfully as well: gawking at Avatar-inspiring marine life, eating heartstoppingly-good native mangoes, high-fiving women (who’d never before exercised) as they finished their first race.

But next month, I’m returning our old fantasy life, the Bay Area. Land of data plan complaints, hybrid hypermiling, and wine even in gas stations. Beloved Bay Area folks fret about real estate values or finding organic baby food at Whole Paycheck; Filipinos we have come to love worry about buying food for six on four dollars a day, or having to return to prostitution to pay their dying baby’s medical bills. Our old friends may see the change in my face, but can they feel it in their hearts? Will they even try? After a year of being a foreigner, an outsider, and a target, I fear being an alien in my native land.

When my wife and I quit our jobs last summer and moved to Manila for a year of volunteer work, I naïvely assumed it’d be similar to family trips as a kid: live overseas, see some old stuff, then pick up where I left off. But as a young but astute friend observed, the Philippines has “ruined me for the better.” So now my face tells a more serious story; my eyes focus on things besides literature, nature, and wine. Question is, will others want to see through them?

Some of you have wondered, “Nate had all this talk about working with IJM. They’re a pretty great organization. So why haven’t we heard more about it?” A few reasons. First of all, IJM’s Manila office is a bit . . .cozy. Cozy to the point that there isn’t space for the communications intern and me. So I’ve been working remotely, and also because of that, less with IJM and more with Samaritana.

It wasn’t what I expected, but to volunteer for both has been an enriching and meaningful learning opportunity, because while IJM and Samaritana both aid victims of prostitution and trafficking, their approaches and structures are almost polar opposites: Though IJM’s staff in Manila is all Filipino, the feel is very Western, with mostly English spoken around the office, headquarters in DC, an international presence, ace legal team, high-drama, time-sensitive operations, and great organizational muscle (they do also have a number of Western interns and fellows). Samaritana, on the other hand, is very Filipino: mostly Tagalog spoken, founded here and with one location, patient, relationship-based work, small, family feel, and humble, yet amazing staff. It’s been a unique privilege to learn from both.

However, in addition to visiting the Samar office (see post here) and the Chiang Mai office in Thailand (post upcoming), one of my regular duties has been writing, editing, and collaborating on the layout for the Kalayaan, the quarterly newsletter from IJM in the Philippines (Kalayaan is “freedom” in Filipino). So to catch up and give you a sense of their work, I’ve included screencaps of the cover of the September 2010 newsletter, as well as of several articles I wrote. In the future I’ll also post excerpts from the two succeeding newsletters we’ve done; let us know in the comments if you’re interested in me emailing you the pdf of the entire 8-page newsletter.

— Nate

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If this isn’t your first visit to Free Is a Verb, you probably know by now that human trafficking victims, like a flesh-and-bone version of the Matrix, are a secret hidden all around us: on big farms, in small restaurants, high-class escort services, low-rent massage parlors, and lots more. These victims may have been moved within a country, or–to trap them further behind a language barrier–across a regional or national border. They may be men, women, or children, Asian, American, or European, but one thing most of them have in common is this: they’re poor–and not just poor in money, but poor in education, opportunity, and hope, which is why they grasp in desperation at the bait traffickers dangle, of jobs and better lives elsewhere. But where do these folks come from? We’ve read the books and articles; we’ve watched documentaries; we’ve heard presentations from NGO’s. But it was time to see for ourselves.

In the Philippines, many trafficking victims come from Samar, a poor island both geographically and mentally on the nation’s fringe. So when we say poor, how poor are we talking? Well, the Philippines as a whole is in the bottom third economically of countries worldwide, then Samar’s three provinces are in the botton fifth in the Philippines. What this means in practical terms is that a family of six in Samar limps along on the $1,600-1,800 a year or so that a rice farmer or fisherman makes, many people cook over wood fires because they can’t afford gas, and almost half the teenagers there drop out of high school because they have to work. So when we ask ourselves why any responsible parent would risk their child being trafficked, the answer isn’t that they’re stupid or uncaring–it’s that they aren’t offered a better choice.

Before we went to Samar, we secretly wondered if all of the stories we’d encountered in our research over the past few years were just the worst-case scenario.  Only in Samar did we realize that these stories were not exceptions, but rather the norm.

The stories we heard were sadly familiar: a friend-of-a-friend or visitor to the village tells a girl about a job in the big city.  She can make good money as a katulong (Tagalog for “helper”, i.e. maid), a waitress, or a nanny.  She and a few of her girlfriends take the bait, often with the blessing of their parents, and before they know it they are on a bus or boat to Manila, Cebu, Angeles City, Malaysia, or beyond.  When they arrive, their cell phones are confiscated and they are delivered to a bar or house that exists to provide prostitution to the local clientele.  They are told that they must work as prostitutes to pay off their transportation fee, but are never paid a peso or told how much of their debt remains.  Unless they are rescued by concerned parents, NGOs, or the police (who are sometimes among their customers), their dreary existence stretches before them until they get sick from STDs or simply get too old to be useful to their owners.

During our one-week visit (graciously hosted by the IJM Samar office staff), we interviewed trafficking victims, their relatives, NGO workers, a human rights lawyer, and a few government workers who worked in the department of social welfare and development (DSWD).  We recorded a number of stories, all of them confirming what we’ve read before.  We came back to Manila with a new love for this forgotten province and its people, and a deep desire to see things improve for them.

Thanks largely to International Justice Mission’s tireless work, every one of the girls we interviewed was a success story.  While all of the girls had been trafficked, and many of them had spent at least a week as prisoners in bars, all of them were rescued before they were raped or forced to work as prostitutes.

One of the girls shared with us a story of how she was finally forced by the mamasan, or pimp, to go out with a customer.  She was only fifteen years old and was terrified.  The customer took her to a hotel, but when she cried and told him that she and her little sister had been tricked into coming to Manila and had no idea they’d be working as prostitutes, he had compassion on her and didn’t force her to have sex with him.  He even offered to help her escape, but she refused since her sister was still back at the house where the girls were kept.

At the same time, the girls’ mother had contacted both IJM and the DSWD as soon as she realized her daughters were gone.  Even though she’d received a phone call from them saying that they were in Manila and that everything was okay, she suspected they were in danger because someone immediately took the phone away from her daughters before they could finish the conversation.  After a 30-hour bus+ferry ride to Manila, she helped identify the house based on her daughter’s description, accompanied the police and IJM staff on the raid, and the girls were set free.

It was inspiring to meet these girls who were so brave, and so grateful to have been rescued from what might have been.  Thanks to organizations like IJM and various aftercare partners, they are receiving an education and counseling, and some of them are even attending college.

But for every girl we talked to who had a happy ending, we heard about many whose fate was not so fortunate. Our work in metro Manila reminds us daily of how important appropriate aftercare is for women who have suffered the trauma of prostitution; our visit to Samar taught us just how essential it is to work to prevent trafficking in the first place.

* * * * *

So what can you do to help?  A few relatively simple things:

1. If you’re in the Philippines,  write a quick note or make a phone call to the political or economic sections of the U.S. Embassy here. Send an email to the director of the Philippine National Bureau of Investigation thanking them for the work they’ve done fighting trafficking and closing bars employing minors for prostitution.

2. If you’re in the U.S., call or email the chairs of the following government committees responsible for U.S. foreign aid:

House subcommittee on state, foreign aid, and related programs

Senate state, foreign operations & related programs subcommittee.

3. If you’re on the internet, become a fan of the Manila U.S. Embassy on facebook or follow them on Twitter, and comment thanking Ambassador Thomas for the time he’s spent supporting IJM’s work in Samar and other anti-trafficking efforts.

-Nate & Laura