The Avodah Blog

Hidden in Plain Sight: One Story of Human Trafficking

Ilana HerrBy Ilana Herr

It’s my second week on the job and I am sitting in a doctor’s office awaiting test results. And I’m nervous. I’m nervous to be sitting in an unfamiliar doctor’s office. I’m nervous because it’s only my second week at a new job. I’m nervous because I have a feeling that the news I am waiting for is not going to be good news.

Except these aren’t my tests results and the anxiety I feel can’t even begin to equal that of the patient, who is in fact my client. While I have enjoyed regular and easy access to medical care my whole life, my client has not. For years, my client, a twenty-eight year old Mexican woman who I will call Maria, has felt severe abdominal pain but was never seen by a doctor. This is not the only cause for discomfort as we sit in the doctor’s cluttered office; my client does not speak English and cannot follow the conversations that are happening around her. I witness this again and again as I accompany my client to various pre-operative visits. Doctors and nurses are too busy or too apathetic to stop, to slow down, to take those extra couple minutes to explain what they are doing and why, to make sure my client understands what is happening and what they are doing to her body. So I’m there to translate, to interrupt, to navigate, to ask the questions that my client may not be comfortable asking or has not thought to ask.

The news is worse than I expected. My client has a large ovarian tumor. The mass is so large that the ultrasound technician struggles for a long time to find her uterus until she realizes that the uterus has been pushed to one side by the tumor.

During the course of multiple hospital visits, we meet a doctor who asks my client how long she has been feeling this pain. Three to four years, she answers. But why did she wait so long to seek help, the doctor asks me incredulously as he does not speak Spanish. Because, I answer, she is a trafficking victim who only recently escaped from the control of her traffickers.

In my placement as an AVODAH corps member at Sanctuary for Families, I work primarily with immigrant women victims of sex trafficking. While many people think that human trafficking is an issue that only occurs in developing countries, the unfortunate reality is that human trafficking is happening all over the United States. Although the name suggests that this is a crime related to transportation and movement, trafficking is primarily about the exploitation of people and is a form of modern-day slavery (watch President Obama’s speech on human trafficking). Human trafficking victims in the United States are both foreign-born and U.S. citizens. While labor-trafficking victims are forced to work for little or no pay in almost every industry, including agriculture, nail salons or as domestic servants who cook and clean seven days a week, the vast majority of trafficking victims are women and children who are being trafficked for sexual exploitation.

As explained by Ambassador Luis CdeBaca, Director of the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, “In the past, slavery’s victims were born into bondage. Today, traffickers prey on the vulnerabilities of those seeking a better life.” This is true of all my clients; women who came to the United States because they were promised a life of opportunity and upward mobility. Like Maria, my clients had no idea that they would be forced into prostitution for months or years. The vast majority of my clients are uneducated, unable to read or write in their native Spanish and come from extremely poor villages. It is these vulnerabilities on which their traffickers preyed. While traffickers used physical force to maintain their control over my clients, they also used threats of violence against their families and the threat of deportation as invisible restraints.

All of these factors make it difficult for my clients to navigate the complex systems that await them as they try to reenter mainstream society. Although they have escaped from the immediate dangers of their trafficking situation, every day my clients face obstacles that make it difficult for them to obtain essential services. Navigating the subway or filling out medical forms and applications is extremely difficult for my clients who are illiterate even in their native tongues. After 7 years of being trafficked, Maria has finally obtained the medical care she needed and had a successful surgery to remove her tumor, but she is still struggling to learn English and find a job that will enable her to support herself.

My clients are often turned away from receiving services to which they are entitled because the social service providers they regularly come in contact with have no idea that trafficking exists or what it means. This lack of awareness is dangerous because it allows traffickers to flourish and continue operating in plain sight within the United States. Trafficking victims often times do not self-identify as such, which is another reason why it is difficult for them to seek help independently.

What I’ve learned since I started this work is that the Jewish community is not immune from the dangers of trafficking. It is a critical but often unacknowledged part of our history; impoverished Eastern European Jewish girls were trafficked to brothels in the United States as part of the White Slave trade in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although they make up a small minority, even today there are Jewish victims of trafficking.

Current and future victims of trafficking depend on our increased awareness so that we might one day spot them in plain sight and help free them from their bondage. Victims may have a hard time speaking out because of language barriers. Take some time to acquaint yourself with common trafficking indicators. In the meantime, if you come into contact with someone you believe may be a trafficking victim, important questions to consider include: is the victim in possession of his or her identification and travel documents? Was the victim recruited to engage in one type of work and forced to engage in another? Was the victim forced to perform sexual acts, is that victim a minor, is the victim able to move around freely? Is the victim able to contact friends and family? Has the victim been threatened with deportation or other action?

Victims can be found on street corners, in brothels, and in agricultural fields throughout the country and around the world. If you’ve ever been to a large sporting event, a nail salon, or a massage parlor, then you likely have contributed to a system that enables and supports trafficking.

Report tips on potential human trafficking activity to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-373-7888

Click here to read the State Department’s 2012 Trafficking in Persons Report.

Ilana Herr is originally from Baltimore, MD. She recently graduated from Tufts University where she majored in Architectural Studies and Art History. Ilana is currently an AVODAH corps member in New York City, working at Sanctuary for Families, a not-for-profit organization that provides comprehensive services to domestic violence victims and sex trafficking victims.

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