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What is a Professor of Poetry? How can poetry be professed?

~W.H. Auden

 

An Amirah Special Event and Panel Presentation: “Anti-Human Trafficking in America: Messy, Difficult, and Gratifying Work - from the front lines”

 

EVENT OVERVIEW

 

Over 130 people were in attendance at The First Baptist Church in Beverly for Amirah’s July 10th event titled “Anti-Human Trafficking in America: Messy, Difficult, and Gratifying Work - from the front lines.” The event was introduced by an Amirah Board member, and was emceed by Amirah’s House Director Carmen Maianu—with additional commentary by First Baptist Senior Pastor Kent and musical interludes by an Amirah resident and by First Baptist congregant Rebecca Smith. Panelists included: Vendita Carter, 2014 CNN Hero and Founder of Breaking Free; Erin Albright, Regional Director of Give Way to Freedom; and, Hanni Stoklosa MD, Human Trafficking & Forced Labor Fellow at the FXB Center for Health & Human Rights. Brooke Bello, founder of More TOO Live, was also in attendance.

 

Audience members ranged from Amirah volunteers and residents, to community members who were new to the human-trafficking issue, and community professionals who had dealt with the issue in their field but wanted to learn more.

 

Proceedings began in celebration and in memoriam of former Amirah House Coordinator, Ifeyinwa Amalu. On June 25th Ify (or, as Amirah residents affectionately called her: “The Ifster) was killed in a car accident with her cousin, and two passengers from two other vehicles. Ify was with Amirah only three short months. She was joyful, thoughtful, gentle, generous, driven, wise, and a jokester. As a live-in House Coordinator, she had many hats to wear: she introduced residents to their new life at the safe home, listened to difficult stories during many late night conversations, provided rides to appointments, and she exemplified Amirah’s values in her own life. Ify was supremely dedicated to fighting for freedom and served others with dignity, and courage. She humbled herself to serve women who had no voice and gave selflessly and faithfully. Ify was raised in a family of diplomats who had emigrated from Nigeria.

 

After a moment of silence, a musical interlude commenced; the hymn “Amazing Grace” was sung by an Amirah resident in Ify’s favorite Zimbabwe melody.

 

THIS YEAR AT AMIRAH

 

Before the panel presentation, an Amirah Board member gave a brief update about Amirah. Here is a paraphrasing of her commentary:

 

Amirah has been around for a while in name—for about four years. It’s been eight months since residential home for women survivors of trafficking was finally opened. Opening the home has been messy and difficult, but immensely gratifying. The Amirah Safe Home is now a model of “whole person care” and is considered a success, as hoped. Whole person care addresses six aspects of personhood: emotion, spiritual, mental, physical, social, vocational needs. To that end, Amirah has built a network of professionals to make this care effective. In the cycle of survivor aftercare, what comes first is building trust with community as well as with survivors. Carmen used what she learned in Breaking Free programs in MN; and she developed a 12 week course for survivors in Boston. Now her knowledge is utilized at Amirah where we have the space, skills and support for women to reflect on—and come into awareness of—what they’ve experienced in “the life,” and of their value, and to regain control over their own stories. Amirah would like to provide more of direct service programs for these women. In the first six months we ran the safe home at half capacity—now we’re able to run at 10 beds. Eventually, we want to run 13 beds. This will be the only program with a whole person care model in New England. The safe home is center of all Amirah does and it’s a microcosm of Amirah community.

 

What is next for Amirah? We want to fill the beds; hire a full-time Survivor Program Leader to build, guide, and operate direct service programs; hire a full-time Case Manager to increase resident and non-resident service capacity; and, hire a full-time Director to run strategic operations.

 

THE PANEL

 

“You don’t stop when it gets hard, you just work harder and invite more people into the circle.” ~Amirah House Director, Carmen Maianu

 

The purpose of the panel was to educate the community about the causes of, and the fight against, human-trafficking in America.

 

Panelist and CNN Hero and Founder of Minnesota’s Breaking Free program, Vendita Carter began this segment of the event by referencing the panel title—she said, “Messy, difficult, and gratifying—perfect title for my job.” She shared about how she started working in the sex industry right after highschool which eventually led her to working with trafficked women in 1989. Right after highschool she wanted a summer job before college, so she and a friend answered an ad for a “dancing job” which promised $1000 a week; it led to stripping, which led to prostitution. “I never did go to school,” she said. Five years ago she ran into that friend, whose boyfriend (“Really, her pimp,” Ms. Carter said) had just died—he’d kept her in the life well into her fifties. “This is not a Pretty Woman episode. This is real life,” explained Ms. Carter. Up until 1989 she’d never told anyone about being trafficked because there’s a lot of embarrassment and shame that goes with living this life. She’d joined a church and met another women there who’d lived the life and told her about a job at WHISPER in Minnesota: “The women involved in prostitution never told their story because of their shame. So I started to tell my story.” She worked as a program director to create programs to help women get out of the life. In the 80’s communities weren’t keen on helping trafficked women. WHISPER eventually closed but she’d learned every aspect of the work and then applied for a grant to establish a new group called Breaking Free as a 501c3 non-profit. She wanted to focus on the lack of housing for the trafficking survivors. She worked with landlords at first and then obtained funds to house the women together in a transitional facility for up to two years: “Hardcore women. Women who’ve never had their own place to stay…have criminal records and can’t get housing.” Breaking Free gives these women time to heal, to ease into a regular job, to understand what happened to them. SOS is a core program at Breaking Free. It addresses the shame inherent in prostitution. She set out to build a relationship with law enforcement, to educate them about trafficked women and girls. Important facts include: the average age of entry into prostitution is 12-13 years old—and usually these little girls are runaways; Breaking Free has worked with up to 400-500 women a year and 85% started as little girls; 75% were sexually abused in their home before they were trafficked. “You don’t hear that,” she said. “Prostitution is violence against women. It’s not a choice.” She drove home the point that education for the community is important in order to help these women heal and to stop trafficking.

 

Erin Albright started seven years ago fighting against human-trafficking in America. She’s a lawyer who works with foreign national victims, trafficked here or after they arrived in the US. Labor trafficked victims constitute most of her workload; this includes folks who’ve been trafficked in: construction, home health, forestry, restaurants, and more. “Usually specific populations are focused on to the detriment of others. It’s all slaver,” Ms. Albright said about her work with labor-trafficked survivors. “I don’t want to share any stories,” she concluded, “They are not my stories to tell.” She welcomed questions when the panelists had finished sharing.

 

Hanni Stoklosa, MD, said, “I’m a newbie to this field. But I want to share what brought me here and maybe that’ll be an inspiration.” She grew up in a pastor’s family in a small town in Indiana and started working in the medical field helping with patients, in rural China and Philadelphia, who had contracted HIV/AIDS. During medical school, at an AIDS leadership training conference, she met director of Polaris (hotline to report human-trafficking for both community members and victims) and she knew she wanted to dedicate her life to working with survivors. Since she’s a physician she uses that skill set and her specific community to address issues for survivors. She’s created a network of medical professionals who want to work on the issue of trafficking. It’s called the HEAL Network. She recognized a lack of data, from a medical perspective, about how to care for survivors—so, she uses her research skills to collect data to share with fellow professionals. Data includes: how to identify victims and how to proceed with helping them recover and heal.

 

“She said she went from victim, to survivor, to thriver, to champion.” ~Carmen Maianu about Brook Bello, founder of More TOO Life, who was also in attendance.

 

PANEL Q&A

 

Panelists collaborated on their answers to various questions from the audience:

 

Q: What happens to the trafficker when a victim is rescued?

 

A: The process relies heavily on the victim which can be re-traumatizing, so many laws look at financial aspects in order to prosecute traffickers. Civil statutes are being instituted so that victims can sue their trafficker—this is becoming popular especially in cases where other charges don’t move forward.

 

Q: Are there institutes where the purchaser are being charged and arrested.

 

A: Minnesota has a school called the Offenders of Prostitution Program (colloquially called “The John School”) and it’s an all-day class that includes a hefty fine—offenders can only attend if this is their first offense. They listen to testimony from trafficking survivors and other professionals about the realities and detriments of their offense. This is part of a nation-wide shift to viewing the prostitute as the victim of sexual-violence (a la the “Nordic model”) and the buyer as the criminal. Over 1000 men have attended the class. There has been a low recidivism rate.

 

“Pornography is prostitution on paper.” ~Vendita Carter

 

Q: How does pornography feed into the demand for prostitutes?

 

A: Porn and prostitution are one and the same. The women go into that life and come out of that life with the same issues as the women involved with prostitution. Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s right, or healthy or doing any good for those involved in it.

 

Q: What do I say to a friend or colleague who insists that it’s a woman and a man’s right to engage in prostitution? Who call trafficking: “sex-work.”

 

A: One thing to say is: trafficking is systemic and it starts for girls at a young age when they are abused in their own home. Another answer could be: the second a person prostitutes themselves they become incredibly vulnerable to that act being non-consensual. Also, tell them about “house-slaves” in pre-Civil-War era America who didn’t think their life was so bad and would say they liked their lives and would fight to keep their lives as they were—even though “field-slaves” who were more severely treated wanted out. So, in our modern era: we have to remember that trafficking is about buying and selling human beings. The few so-called “sex workers” should consider the hundreds of thousands of trafficked victims and how prostitution is affecting them and the community detrimentally.

 

“I freed 1000 slaves. I could have freed 1000 more if only they knew they were slaves.” ~Brook Bello quoting Harriet Tubman, who had trouble convincing slaves that they were indeed slaves.

 

Q: What can be done about the demand for prostitution?

 

A: You need people who see this is harm—harm for the entire community for the laws to change, for the law-makers to assist in changing the laws. Pimps don’t discriminate against class, race, gender—the demand is so high buyers and pimps don’t care who you are. Communities need to understand this and that prostitution is about a sex act—that women have reported doing 40 or 50 sex acts a day. But we have a soul…and it’s affected by doing so many sex acts. It’s going to take all of us to stop it. Also, the CARD program is similar to OPP (another sort of “John School”) which operates out of Worcester MA. Contact your local and state governments.

 

Q: What can I do to help?

 

A: Reflect on your own skills and abilities to figure out what do to help the cause. Also, donate to, and volunteer with, a local anti-human-trafficking organization—like Amirah.

 

by Jennifer Jean (copyright 2014; do not reprint without permission)