The Secret No One Wants to Talk About
words by: Elaine Tomski
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.”
– Luke 4:18 –
40,000,000. Forty million people are slaves, and we are not even aware. According to International Justice Mission (IJM), “there are more children, women, and men trapped in slavery than ever before in human history. People are beaten, raped, and starved for the profit of others around the world.” The reality of forty million people enslaved by human trafficking cuts to our hearts. Each number represents a human being, made in the image of God, not a commodity to be bought or sold.
When an act is this horrible, we are tempted to turn our eyes away because the reality is too hard to see. Surely, such an evil cannot be happening in our communities, right? The truth is human trafficking happens everywhere vulnerable people live. This month and next, we will present the difficult subject of human trafficking to you because leaving forty million defenseless people in the dark is not what Christ-followers can do. In the four years I have been writing for Plain Values magazine, human trafficking is the most challenging subject I’ve yet to research and write. Please know, I have written this with sensitivity, bathed in prayer, with the hope of informing you about this difficult topic.
What is human trafficking? According to Jocelyn Hamsher of Toward the Goal Ministries, “Basically, it is someone stealing someone’s freedom for profit.” A person’s freedom is stolen through force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of labor or commercial sex acts. In this issue, we will examine labor trafficking. Expect the hard facts, true stories, and information we all need to help shield, protect, and rescue vulnerable people from slavery.
Foli and The Ghana Fishing Industry
Little Foli loved to follow Grandpa into the fields, hand-packing the soil around newly planted seeds, and tending the plants until harvest. Foli wanted to be a farmer, just like Grandpa. One day, as Foli went with Grandpa to market, the sweet man was struck by an automobile. Now confined to his bed for recovery, how could Grandpa care for Foli? A relative stepped up to say, “No problem, I will take Foli and see that he goes to school.” Grandpa agreed, “Go, Foli. Things will be better for you there.”
The next morning, Foli’s relative did not take him to school. Instead, an uncle took Foli to the lake, pushed him onto a fishing boat, and forced him to spend long hours diving into the water with other young boys. Their job was to untangle fishing nets caught on trees along the bottom of the lake. Foli said, “The first time I went to the lake, I wanted to escape, but I didn’t know the way.”
Day after day before dawn, Foli’s uncle doused him with a bucket of water to rouse him from the sleep he still needed. In the darkness, they traveled to the lake where he and other boys spent nineteen-hour days of dangerous diving. Kept in line with threats of punishment and refusal of food, Foli was helpless to escape. Even as authorities in rescue boats came near, Foli and the other boys were instructed to hide underwater.
One of the other trafficked boys was Foli’s best friend. “Fofo helped me,” said Foli. Then one day, Fofo was commanded to dive into deep water to free the net. Both boys knew the water was too deep. Foli waited and waited for Fofo’s ascent until only air bubbles rose to the surface. ‘The air bubbles stopped, and the water went still. Foli’s best friend was trapped in the net, lost to the lake.
Day after day, as Foli plunged off the boat, muffled splashes filled his ears, and silent prayers went up. Foli was not with Grandpa, but he felt God nearby.
God, don’t let the nets go into the deep places.
When the net holds me under the water, give me breath.
Keep me alive today.
Not only was Foli in danger, but he was also missing out on childhood, school, and soccer. Foli was trapped, a slave, until the day he could take it no more. As a rescue boat sped their way, Foli’s uncle shouted, “Get into the water!” But Foli would hide no longer. He remained in plain sight. The police pulled alongside Foli and invited him onto the rescue boat. “Don’t be afraid,” they said. For the first time since Foli was enslaved and taken to the lake, someone cared enough to give him a life jacket. He no longer needed to fear. Foli was finally free.
After two traumatic years on Lake Volta, Foli was returned to Grandpa’s loving arms, and his uncle received justice.
International Justice Mission in Action
Foli’s story demonstrates how labor trafficking works. By definition, labor trafficking is the use of deception or violence to force another person to work for little or no pay. People who are already impoverished make easy targets for traffickers because they think no one will come to their defense. Poor people who have been enslaved cry out for justice; meanwhile, their abusers become wealthy.
According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), human trafficking is a 150-billion-dollar business. Even more devastating is that many abusers have a personal connection to the person who is trafficked. Much like Foli’s uncle. Out of the forty million people who are trafficked, ten million are children. That means one out of every four victims of human trafficking is a child.
After his rescue, IJM continued to help Foli by giving him the care he needed to heal. They helped him recover from the trauma of slavery and grow in the strength he needed to live freely again. Loving, respectful people helped Foli find the courage to tell his story so his healing will be complete and others can come to understand the dangers of human trafficking. Aftercare is an essential part of what IJM does, but they do even more. IJM’s model is three-fold:
Rescue and Restore Victims – We find enslaved people, bring them to safety, and walk alongside them until they are restored.
Bring Criminals to Justice – We relentlessly pursue justice in court. We ensure that traffickers, rapists, and other criminals go to jail so they cannot abuse, exploit or enslave others.
Strengthen Justice Systems – We provide training, mentoring and support to police, judges and other community leaders to slow down and stop the cycle of violence.
According to Jenn Petersen, Director of Church Mobilization for the U.S. Northeast Region, “IJM is a global organization made up of social workers, leaders, pastors, and everyday Christians who have the heart to see human trafficking end. IJM is an extension of the gospel. We are a community of spiritual formation doing the work of Jesus.”
Founded in 1997 by Gary Haugen, the work accomplished at IJM begins with prayer and moves forward with integrity. Every IJM office around the world stops twice a day to pray. They schedule thirty minutes of personal stillness every morning so that IJM team members across the globe can connect with God. Then each office joins for corporate prayer at another time during the workday. Jenn says, “We stop at 11:00 a.m. to pray together every single day. So, we get to share the ways we see God at work.”
An incredible answer to prayer came early this year when IJM rescued four thousand labor slaves from a brick operation in South Asia. This amazing rescue of men, women, and children happened even amid worldwide Covid-19 restrictions. Much like the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, these people worked twelve-hour days in blistering heat under close supervision and the threat of violence. Now they are free.
From its base in Washington, DC, IJM reaches worldwide with operations in Latin America, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe. Across the globe, people work together to end slavery and violence for good.
When Jenn Petersen speaks at churches, she says, “My role is to come alongside churches to say Jesus invites us into partnership with him pointing to the Kingdom of Heaven and the way God intended things to be.” Jenn explains the work IJM does through the Hebrew word shalom. Shalom means “peace,” and it is commonly used as a greeting (Jesus uses it as a common greeting, see Matthew 10:12). But it has a deeper connotation: peace between people, harmony and safety within a group of people. The interconnectedness of shalom can be thought of like woven fabric. “You can throw thousands of pieces of thread on a table, but that doesn’t make it fabric. What makes it fabric is when all of those pieces are connected. The more interwoven they are, the stronger that fabric becomes. It is God’s heart that we would have that strong, beautiful fabric (shalom). But injustice comes in and breaks that fabric. We go to those places where the fabric is broken and help repair it. Obviously, we don’t do it ourselves. It is the work of the Holy Spirit within us.” As the church, we get to be part of Christ’s call to proclaim the Good News to the poor and bring them into shalom: harmony, wholeness, completeness.
Who is Vulnerable?
Anyone can be a victim of human trafficking, but certain risk factors increase vulnerability.
- Low self-worth or feeling unloved
- Unstable home life
- Lured by promises of a better life
- History of childhood sexual abuse
- Involvement in the juvenile justice or child welfare system
- Substance abuse/addiction in the family
- Young people exposed to substance abuse
- Unaccompanied minors
- Homeless or runaway youth
- Has a developmental disability
Jocelyn Hamsher says, “We’re getting churches involved along with community members so all can be aware. People sitting at our dining room tables can be victims of trafficking. That’s how well it’s hidden. That’s how much victims are manipulated and controlled. We need to start talking about it in our homes, with our children, in our churches, and our communities.” Secrecy allows evil to grow and thrive. Openness prevents crime, helps victims, brings recovery from trauma, and provides strength to live freely again. Being open and honest about the harsh realities of human trafficking supplies courage for victims to serve other victims, brings healing full-circle, and repairs the broken fabric.
Preventing our children from becoming vulnerable to traffickers begins in the home. When we raise our children to know they are made in the image of God and therefore valuable, they have real confidence. When we love our children and treat them with respect and dignity, they are more likely to see through the false flattery of someone who wants to use or abuse them. When we help our children develop a love relationship with God, we give them a reality so much more important than rules. We present them with true freedom.
Not Only There, But Here
“We’re (the U.S.) one of the biggest consumers of labor trafficking. It’s not something that happens across the world. It’s something that happens here.”
– Brock D. Nicholson, special agent at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security
Many of us are shocked to discover human trafficking happens in our communities. Jocelyn Hamsher is the director of Toward the Goal Ministries (TTG) in Sugarcreek, Ohio. The mentoring arm of TTG works together with Tusc Against Trafficking in New Philadelphia, Ohio, to end human trafficking in Tuscarawas County and its communities. I spoke with Jocelyn to learn how human trafficking happens locally and how we can help. The stories shared took place near where I live, but the same evil likely occurs where you live, too. According to the Associated Press, as many as 180,000 unaccompanied minors live in the U.S. in conditions unknown. Human trafficking is hidden everywhere.
In 2019, eighty-three unaccompanied minors were placed in Tuscarawas County from Guatemala. Often, these children are sent to the U.S. by family members who are promised a better future for their children. Family members arrange the children’s passage with an organizer, known as a “coyote.” In exchange for safe passage to the U.S., the child then owes the coyote money for travel and entry expenses. However, instead of offering the child safe passage, some coyotes exploit the situation. Instead of the promised chance of a better life, the child is labor trafficked for little or no money with no possible way to pay the debt. They are trapped, enslaved in the U.S. as illegal aliens with nothing but threats to keep them obedient and working.
In 2018, ten Guatemalan victims, two adults, and eight minors were convinced by a trafficker that a better life awaited them in the U.S. They were delivered to Trillium Farms, an Ohio egg farm, with a $15,000 debt for the opportunity. Housed in filthy trailers with no running water, these enslaved victims were forced to work long hours with no breaks. They received only a tiny portion of their paychecks, making it impossible to pay off their debt. If they dared to protest, they received death threats in return. Given so little freedom, it took four long months before one of the teenagers could secretly phone his uncle in Florida for help. Two months later, federal and local authorities found and rescued the victims in the trailer park where they were being held.
People with cognitive disabilities also fall victim to trafficking. Sue (name changed to protect her identity) is one such person. For more than two years, Sue and her five-year-old daughter were forced to perform manual labor for a couple in Ashland, Ohio. The woman and her boyfriend forced them to cook, clean up after the dogs, and do other household chores. They exploited Sue’s welfare aid and made her use that money to buy them groceries. They humiliated Sue by ordering her to eat dog food and crawl on the floor while wearing a dog collar. The couple threatened Sue and her daughter with snakes, pit bulls, and guns. During the hours she wasn’t required to work, the woman and her boyfriend locked Sue and her daughter in their cold, damp basement with no bathroom.
Sue was bodily injured three different times and taken to the emergency room for narcotic pain medication prescriptions. The couple then used the narcotics to satisfy their drug addictions. It is difficult to imagine why Sue did not admit her abuse to the hospital staff, but she must have felt threatened into silence.
Finally, the day came when Ashland police became involved. Desperate, Sue hoped to be arrested for stealing a candy bar. When the officer stopped her, she asked to go to jail because the people she lived with were abusing her. Sue found the help she needed, and her traffickers were sentenced to prison for more than thirty years. Beyond justice served, these two criminals can no longer manipulate vulnerable people like Sue.
Red Flags Mean Danger
If trafficking happens so secretly, how can we know if someone is enslaved and victimized? There are danger signs, possible red flags, of human trafficking we can see. A trafficking victim may:
- Be fearful, anxious, passive, and avoid eye contact.
- Look malnourished and show signs of physical abuse (bruising, burn marks, cuts, etc.)
- Have a parent or older boyfriend who seems too concerned or controlling.
- Not be allowed to speak for self.
- Have gifts or cash that can’t be explained.
- Suddenly lack needed clothing or be improperly dressed for their age.
- Continue to run away or stay in other people’s homes.
- Not be in control of IDs or money.
- Be unpaid, paid very little, or paid only through tips.
- Work unreasonably long hours or live where they work.
- Lack personal possessions, be unable to provide their address, claim they’re just visiting, or not know where they are.
- At school, a child who is often overly tired, stays to themselves, doesn’t have friends, or may have trouble learning; has unexplained absences from class or a drop in grades.
The above lists provided by Tusc Against Trafficking serve to educate us, but Jocelyn suggests we need to listen to “our gut.” When we see something strange happening to another person, something off, we need to pay attention to that still small voice. The Holy Spirit is often prompting us to help. So, how can we help? What action is the best to take?
Jocelyn Hamsher says, “collect as much information as you can and call the police. Victims can get beat up or even killed by their trafficker if we try to intervene.” Make a note of the time, location, vehicle, license plate, physical features of both the child and suspected trafficker to share with the authorities. Anything you can communicate will be helpful. The State Highway Patrol, Sheriff, and local police have the proper training to handle traffickers and release survivors. Jocelyn says, “Please, don’t be afraid to call.”
In case of emergency, call 911. For more information, to report concerning activity, or for the trafficking victim to receive help, call The National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-7888 or text HELP to 233733. Trained people are available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, to help protect and free victims of human trafficking.
You may want to schedule a human trafficking awareness presentation for your church or youth group. The following groups are all faith-based organizations who are willing to provide education and awareness in their communities.
In the Tuscarawas area of Ohio, church groups can make contact at www.towardthegoal.net or call 330-231-7121 during the day for resources and to schedule an awareness talk. Jocelyn says, “For general trafficking information visit the website www.TuscAgainstTrafficking.org, or call them at 330-339-2504.”
In the Goshen, Indiana, area, Steve Riikonen of the Bashor Children’s Home is willing to receive your call at 574-875-5117.
In the Lancaster, Pennsylvania, area, you may visit the North Star Initiative website at www.northstarinitiative.org or call 717-568-2700 and ask for Janelle.
Together, we can stop human trafficking in our communities.
Across the globe, IJM brings hope and change through consistency. They continue to train people, social workers, judges, police, churches, and communities to rescue and help survivors heal and thrive. They step into God’s heart for justice around the world. A meaningful way to help trafficking victims is to pray for the work of IJM. Jenn Petersen asks, “Please, pray for the church around the world, that Christians would share God’s heart for justice and for the most vulnerable. Pray that we would use our voices, prayers, gifts, and actions on behalf of those trapped in slavery and suffering from violence. Just as Jesus left the ninety-nine to go after one lost lamb, may we be willing to sacrifice our comfort to come alongside the one who is trembling at the hand of violence.” For more information about IJM, visit www.IJM.org.
There is hope. There is help. Forty million people are counting on us to talk about modern-day slavery even though it’s uncomfortable. Together we can help the poor and vulnerable. Their freedom depends on it.
Elaine Tomski is the author of Pregnant and Praying, a gift book for expectant mothers. She and her husband call Ohio’s Amish country home. elainetomski.com