Wednesday, February 9, 2011

There Are Still Slaves in America

This past weekend, the Michigan Journal of International Law hosted a symposium on human trafficking. A lot of it was high-falutin' mumbo jumbo on a legal topic about which I don't really know anything. I was also all hopped up on DayQuil, so most of it was pretty incomprehensible to me. However, the opening segment, in which two women told their stories of being trafficked at a very young age, stung me.

Shockingly, there is a lot of human trafficking that goes on in the United States. Some of the other speakers decried Americans' apathy or ignorance as integral to the perpetuation these crimes. Sex trafficking, labor trafficking, both child and adult - all of this goes on throughout the U.S.

I'm not too ashamed to admit that I was among the people who were surprised to hear of the prevalence of modern slavery in the United States. So when the two young women from West Africa began to talk about their experiences as the victims of labor trafficking, I was prepared to be utterly horrified.

And it was horrifying. The two young women, Didi and Nicole (not their actual names), described being brought to America under the false pretense of getting a good education, only to be pressed into service at a hair braiding salon in Jersey. They worked seven days a week for years, often only getting two hours of sleep a night. They were forced to lie to customers about their age: one of them said that she was 18 for five years. Once, the apartment where they were kept caught fire. Firemen came - and left. One of the other girls that lived with them said her hope died then, when the men who were supposed to be the good guys did absolutely nothing, even after seeing that many young women living with a single man.

These parts of their story were debilitating in their hopelessness. But the most meaningful aspect of the event for me was how upbeat they were about their lives now. The tone throughout was of two women describing their childhood. It was a childhood that had been stolen from them, but they didn't seem to be resentful of that fact. They laughed throughout the telling, and even recalled some things fondly. I was amazed - and also made extremely grateful for freedoms that I take for granted. Being able to go to school. Or have friends. Those are nice things - things which these two women have not had for the majority of their lives.

Didi and Nicole did impart some wisdom at the end of their talk for how everyone can help spot trafficked persons. If you see a child working at the same place year after year, being cagey about his or her age when prodded, that's a bad sign. Look at how employees are treated, especially children. Ask questions and pay attention: there are still slaves in America.

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