The longer that I am involved in the fight against human trafficking, the more I feel that understanding the plight of victims is like dancing on the tip of an iceberg. Their stories that are recorded in video, music and books make us feel as if we know them. We emotionally connect and hopefully, that connection leads us to action. But do we know the real stories? What would you do if you were standing beside a victim? Would you feel empowered? Connected? When it happened to me, I was surprised at the answer.
The first human trafficking victims that I met were living at care centers in the Netherlands. Interviews were scheduled during a weekly case manager meeting. I was very excited to meet these survivors, because I thought that I knew their stories. I thought I understood the Protect and care processes. When I entered the building, I sensed a tenseness in the air. When I was introduced, a silence fell over the room. I saw eyes that would not meet mine. Any connection I assumed with these survivors through research evaporated.
As I left, an Albanian woman grabbed my arm, “Please, please,” she whispered. “Do not put this story on the Internet. He will find me!” The lump that rose in my throat almost choked me. I represented a threat to these European women.
The second round of interviews occurred one week later with Nigerian women. Six women had agreed to speak to me. Yet when I arrived, they stared at their hands. They huddled together against an intruder. I found that I had no questions. They had no answers. There was simply no connection. Their lips remained closed with silent stories.
Raise Your Voice
In 2019 I attended a conference on human trafficking. The agenda included four young men who were sex trafficking survivors. On stage they were passionate about raising their voices against human trafficking. They said, “Look at us and see human beings. Do not see age, race or gender. Do not think rich or poor. We will not tell our stories. We will sing to you about our pain.”
The audience was a mixture of care organisations, police, mayors and interested parties. While the young men talked and sang, we sat together in a whirl of raw emotions. My hands lay clenched in my lap. I saw the depth of the iceberg underneath the stage floating on a black sea of despair.
The young men stood on the conference sidelines the entire day. The crowd surged around them like a stream rushes over stones. I walked by them several times but I couldn’t think of anything to say. I wanted to connect. I wanted to tell them that I saw human begins. But I could not raise my voice. I spoke to a colleague about my moral dilemma. His answer was simple. “Thank them for sharing their stories.That is enough.”
Write a New Story
At the end of the day, I did find my voice. I walked up to the young men and I thanked them. I searched in their eyes and I saw the silent stories behind the gazes. It was those untold stories that have remained on the dark side of humanity’s conscience since ancient times. Those stories cannot be changed and we must stop them from being re-written. Although Sustainable Rescue is not directly involved in social work; our vision is to write a new story about giving anti-trafficking organisations the ability “to see human beings” that can be told to generations to come.