Dear Mr. President (1/4 Letters from Survivors of Human Trafficking for Inauguration Day)

To: President Obama

Dear Mr. President,

I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for all your efforts to end the growing problem of human trafficking globally.

I am confident that the world will see this horrible problem drastically reduce or stopped altogether with your continued good works.

God bless you for this.

Sincerely,

These letters were part of a series clients we serve wrote to the President after his speech at the Clinton Global Initiative. We’ve removed our clients’ names for their privacy and safety.

Bending the Arc Towards Justice

When we hear about a child being raped, it provokes horror, revulsion, and for those who have survived sexual abuse, the potential for crippling flashbacks.

Yet, when we hear that someone has paid to rape a child, this is a particular brand of gut-punch awful. With every new story I read about children being bought and sold for sex, I question whether we can ever atone as a society for not protecting them, and whether we can ever create a world where all kids can grow up safely. It is a crime which degrades our common humanity and sometimes it is hard to see the future without slavery we all work for.

At these dark moments, I think of Dr King’s famous quote, inscribed in the wall of his recently finished memorial in Washington DC:

"We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bend toward justice."--Dr King

“We shall overcome, because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.“

There is something profound in this, but it seems from the quote that the arc bends by itself. I work for a free future because I believe nothing changes unless we change it, just as no children would be raped if no one raped them. President Obama’s interpretation of that quote in his speech as a Senator on the anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination in April 2008 helped me see differently:

“Dr. King once said that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice. It bends towards justice, but here is the thing: it does not bend on its own. It bends because each of us in our own ways put our hand on that arc and we bend it in the direction of justice.”

Every day, I see people bending that arc by communicating with each other online—the status updates reminding friends to vote, the questions about why this law is better than that one for protecting children, the RTs which alone only touch a few dozen people but which together amplify our messages to hundreds of thousands.

As we approach Martin Luther King Jr Day, I have one such opportunity to move that arc towards justice that I’d like to ask your help with.

We are working to pass what are known as Safe Harbor laws in 7 states this year: Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Texas. We have a petition that anyone in the country can sign. You should sign it. But you should also consider forwarding it someone you know in each of these states.

It is our hands which must bend the arc of the moral universe towards justice. Our hands and our actions can build a free future. Thank you for reading and for acting.

This Human Trafficking Awareness Day, Let’s Pass Safe Harbor Laws

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Tracey’s life changed forever on a walk to the corner store. She was 15 and trying to get a few minutes of peace away from her abusive home.

A guy she knew from around the neighborhood pulled up next to her and asked if she was ok. He offered her a ride and listened to her talk about how much she wanted a new life. After a few months of “courtship,” Jay began to get abusive and forced her to engage in commercial sex. When she wanted to stop, he and his friends beat and raped her.

Before long, even though Tracey was a victim of child sex trafficking, the local police arrested Tracey for prostitution and placed her in juvenile detention. Tracey’s future dimmed. She was getting punished for an act that she couldn’t even legally consent to. She was a kid who needed help and support, but she was being treated like a criminal.

I’m Director of Client Services for Polaris Project, an organization dedicated to ending human trafficking. Tracey’s story is the story of girls I work with every day. Tracey is a kid, not a criminal. She didn’t deserve to be locked up.

There are better policy approaches and better options, ones that literally save the lives of children and teens.

Safe Harbor laws are that better option. These laws define these sexually exploited children as victims of abuse, help them find protection and support, and grant them immunity from prosecution for prostitution while they are under 18 years of age.

Safe Harbor laws also can increase funding for specialized services like long-term housing, mental health care, educational support, and job training to help these children recover. Thirty-nine states lack these basic Safe Harbor protections – including Texas, Michigan, Nebraska, and Louisiana. Every state can do more to increase services for child victims of sex trafficking.

According to national estimates, there are 100,000 children in the commercial sex trade in the United States. Safe Harbor laws help all of these children get the care they so desperately need.

Polaris Project is trying to make 2013 the last year a 15-year-old can be tossed into jail and treated like a criminal despite being a victim of commercial sexual exploitation.

I cannot believe these laws have not been passed in every state. I cannot believe any lawmaker—any person—would look at an abused 15-year-old and think: jail. We must do better. Your signature tells your state legislators that you support these kids and support Safe Harbor laws to protect them. Thank you.

*Tracey’s story is the story of the 100,000 kids who are hurt by commercial sexual exploitation. To protect our clients, we’ve woven together a few of their stories.

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Between pronunciation lessons, a friendship forms between a volunteer and a survivor.

When I first received the email from Polaris Project New Jersey asking me to attend a volunteer orientation, I was nervous and excited at the same time. I had heard many stories about sexual and labor exploitation, but being a Ukrainian American, most of my knowledge was confined to that population. It was not until my volunteer experience with Polaris Project that I began to understand how the crime precariously ingrains itself into every aspect of American culture.

My first volunteer opportunity was to work with Nina, a client in need of English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. Upon my first meeting, I began thinking about how our class would go. I was feeling tentative and unsure of how to act. Should the mood be somber or happy? Should I smile a lot or a little bit? What if Nina decides I am a terrible teacher? What if she wants to talk to me about her trafficking situation and I respond incorrectly? All these questions and concerns continuously rotated through my mind. Yet, upon meeting my student, I saw the kindness in her eyes and her smile was genuine. I returned it and the concerns melted away.

I began working with Nina two times a week for an hour and half each day. We always conducted our classes the same way. Nina would write a journal entry at home about very basic and neutral topics such as a favorite food, movie, song, etc. We then moved onto dreams and aspirations. Describe your dream job. If you could visit one place in the world, where would it be? She would bring the journal entry for me to correct, and read it aloud so I could help her with the words she had trouble pronouncing. We then moved onto other pronunciation exercises. Little by little, in between exercises and journal reading, Nina began opening up about herself. She began regaling me with stories about her childhood and her home country. Since she did not have a large community in the U.S., she saw Polaris Project as her substitute family and she saw me as an essential member of that family. Although learning English was the main purpose for our meeting, our classes culminated into a time where she could just speak to a friend.

I was grateful that through volunteering, I was given the opportunity to meet a resilient and strong woman who craved a trusting community. Many times we overlook how simple, friendly conversations can provide lasting, emotional support. I was also glad to rid myself of the sensationalized picture of what the media has painted as the stereotypical human trafficking victim, because at the end of the day a victim is no different than anyone else. This volunteer position provided me with an invaluable experience that truly changed my life.

U. Tatunchak: Volunteer July 2010 – August 2011, current staff member at Polaris Project New Jersey.