By Ilana Herr
“And who are you?” It’s a question I’ve been asked again and again over the past two years. They look at me with a raised eyebrow and doubtful eyes, usually a doctor, a nurse, or a welfare officer, and I can tell they don’t understand why I’m in the room. “I’m her case manager,” I say. “Oh,” they reply, “You can translate then?” Or they ask to see proof, and I present my employee ID. Often, they are defensive and annoyed that I’m disrupting protocols.
Who am I and why am I there? They are simple questions on the surface. Working for Sanctuary for Families, an organization dedicated to assisting victims of gender-based violence and human trafficking, it is my job to be there. The job can vary from day to day, and even from moment to moment. Sometimes I’m there to provide support in moments of emotional distress, as when one of my clients was assaulted and required medical attention. Other times I do serve as a translator, having been raised in a bilingual household by my Colombian mother. Often, I go to assist my clients in navigating the bureaucracy needed to seek medical intervention or safe shelter. Above all, I am there to ensure that they are not wrongfully denied assistance and to speak up when they cannot.
As a case manager, I work primarily with victims of sex trafficking. At first glance, there may not appear to be much that separates me from my clients. We are young, female, and struggling to define ourselves and our roles in society and in our communities. But the differences between us are huge, hard to ignore and a reminder of how easily our paths might never have converged.
I was encouraged by my parents to study and finish school, something I took for granted for many years. The majority of my clients are immigrant women from Central America who speak little or no English and were lured to the United States under false promises of a job or a committed relationship. Once here, they were forced into prostitution, often at the hands of people they had come to trust or love. The abuse they endured is horrific, their resilience inspiring. But again and again, I have seen that the factors that make my clients vulnerable in the first place—extreme poverty, limited education, childhood sexual abuse, cultural norms of patriarchy, and gender-based violence—do not disappear once they escape from their traffickers.
When I began this work straight out of college, first as an AVODAH corps member and then as a staff member, I felt unprepared but I knew this was what I wanted to do. I had grown up watching and hearing about my parents’ own personal commitments to helping others. I saw my late father struggle as a civil-rights lawyer to advance the interests of the disabled in the courtroom and, later, as a law professor, in the classroom and clinic casework. Along with my mother, an activist in her own right, my parents inspired me to continue their work to combat injustices.
Their path was not easy, and my time at Sanctuary has led me to appreciate the obstacles they faced. Every day I learn how difficult it is to disrupt, let alone end, patterns of abuse and neglect. The institutional barriers my clients confront sometimes feel insurmountable and require relentless advocacy. The imbalances of power are as hard to ignore as the needs of my clients for medical care, education, job training and most important, safe housing.
I quickly discovered, however, that I could use my own privilege as an educated professional fluent in Spanish and my experiences in a multi-cultural household to help my clients overcome these obstacles. I do this by teaching them to advocate for themselves, when for example their Medicaid application is denied despite a special immigration status granted to victims of human trafficking, or by accompanying them to sites, like a Social Security office, to help them cut through the endless red tape.
Working alongside immigration and family law attorneys, I have become acutely aware of the limits of my position and my skills, and I have seen firsthand how critical legal interventions have been in the lives of clients. Now at a crossroads, I am moving towards a legal career of my own as I begin law school in the fall. My goal is to continue helping people like my clients, but also to ensure that I play a larger role in creating systemic change. Taking the skills I acquired from my time as an AVODAH corps member, I hope to become a stronger advocate on behalf of other underserved populations and to advance the cause of social justice.
Ilana Herr is originally from Baltimore, MD, and a graduate of Tufts University. She served as a 2012-2013 AVODAH corps member in New York City. She continued working at her placement, Sanctuary for Families, a not-for-profit organization that provides comprehensive services to domestic violence victims and human trafficking victims until May 2015. She will be attending law school in the fall.