"UB hosts speakers, Freedom Walk to advocate against human trafficking "

The Spectrum

As a 4-year-old, Karen* was sold to men in her community for sexual exploits. She was a human trafficking victim until she was 16 years old.

Saturday, people from the Buffalo community piled into the Newman Center to hear Karen story. Karen founded United Hands of Hope, a foundation working toward building shelters for survivors of human trafficking.

"I was told that this is how women are trained to please their husbands," Karen said. "This is how I grew up. Back then, I didn't know what human trafficking was, there was no name for it. I didn't know it was wrong. I thought that every girl was trained this way."

Karen was the first speaker in a series of advocates against human trafficking who took part in Buffalo's second annual Human Trafficking Awareness Walk, a walk and seminar aimed to provide education on and awareness of human trafficking.

After the panel and a question-and-answer discussion, attendees took part in the walk, carrying signs and calling for an end to human trafficking. The walk spanned from the Newman Center to the Natural Science Complex Center.

Christine Tjahjadi-Lopez, a senior international trade major, and Jaspreet Kaur, a junior political science major, organized Freedom Walk Buffalo.

Tjahjadi-Lopez was inspired to bring awareness to human trafficking during an American Pluralism course. Alison Albright, a global gender studies student, taught the course, which included a film on human trafficking.

Tjahjadi-Lopez was shocked at the exploits she saw represented in the film. What was more troubling to her was the lack of concern she saw on the faces of her classmates.

"When I looked around, no one seemed that shocked or even interested, and the people who were interested were all females," Tjahjadi-Lopez said. "And I thought that I must do something because this class could represent the population of [UB], because American Pluralism is required."

Tjahjadi-Lopez made it her mission to spread knowledge of the realities of human trafficking.

Human trafficking is a $32 billion industry, second only to the drug trade, according to Free-Them, a Canadian-based anti-human trafficking organization. Eighty percent of those who are trafficked are woman and children. Every minute, two children are trafficked for sexual exploits.

Freedom Walk Buffalo aimed to put a face on the statistics. Most of the speakers who attended the walk and seminar were from Western New York.

Tjahjadi-Lopez and Kaur said they wished to end the belief that human trafficking was something that happens in other nations and to other families. They wanted to inspire attendees to help end human trafficking and the sexual abuse of its victims.

Karen articulated this goal during her speech on human trafficking, stating, "It's not just a hooker on the corner, it's a person that society has thrown away. We need to stand up and say, 'No more.' We don't buy people. The slave trade is over."

Karen abuse ended on a basketball court. After pushing a girl during gym class, Karen faced a weeklong suspension. The thought of having to stay at home for seven days frightened Karen; so, she sought solace from a guidance counselor. The counselor called the police that day.

"I watched my father get handcuffed and put in prison," Karen said. "I sent my own father to jail. That is why I am standing here today."

Her story is just one of several. After being freed from the trade, she learned of several girls in her community who went through the same turmoil she experienced.

"It doesn't matter where you live. It doesn't matter what color you are, what age you are. It doesn't matter if you're a boy or a girl," Karen said. "Because the demand of what somebody wants is what a pimp is going to go out and find. We are the commodity."

Though the demand remains, tactics have changed with the development of social media. Moses E. Robinson, a Rochester police officer and counselor for troubled youths, explained the new grooming process of young girls via Facebook.

The tactics included older men befriending girls and gaining their trust, eventually luring girls away from their homes and trafficking them for sexual exploits.

Karen presented the story of one such girl who was a target of the grooming process.

Gillian was about 11 years old when she started receiving messages on Facebook from an older man. The two started talking via text message, until her parents were able to see signs of what was occurring and contacted Karen.

In addition to moving stories of survival and prevention, Deputy Elizabeth Fildes, the program director of the Human Trafficking Division in Erie County, brought a lighter tone to the seminar with a merengue-style dance. Fildes played the song "Por Una Como Ella," by Grupomania, grabbed a student from the crowd and started showing everyone the basic steps of merengue.

After lightening the mood and filling the center with laughter, Fildes spoke of her experience with human trafficking with women in the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden. Fildes explained that violence and drug dependency were used to keep human trafficking victims in line.

Often, a trafficker would get victims addicted to drugs and use the addiction to keep the victims working to feed their drug habits, or make threats to their families and loved ones. Fildes said people don't usually see these stories when they look at women selling their bodies.

Fildes challenged those in the Newman Center to try to remain aware of the ongoing victimization of women.

"Today, when you're cold out there," Fields said. "I want you to think about the girls who are cold all the time."

*The Spectrum has withheld this source's last name to protect her anonymity.

email: features@ubspectrum.com