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Land of Confusion
Author: Brandon Feller • Published: 08/18/2015
Strange place. Unfamiliar customs. An unknown language. Imagine being alone in another country seeking a better life but without friends and family. You turn to your only possible resource- people that speak your native language. Seeking employment, you search a help wanted ad placed in your language. As you dial the number in the ad, you wonder if this will be the chance for which you have travelled around the world. The lady on the other end of the line promises a fantastic opportunity with no training necessary. You are told to get on a bus and journey to a strange new place: Columbus, Ohio.
This is Lena’s story and it began in 2014 when she arrived in America, the “land of opportunity.” Lena’s bus pulled into Columbus on a chilly November morning at 7:30 am. She was met by a stern looking man from her native China and taken to a shabby nearby apartment shared by her new bosses and three workers. The room she would be sharing had no heat. The weary traveler was allowed a quick shower and then immediately transferred to a seedy massage parlor operated by her new bosses.
Most new jobs come with some sort of orientation. Lena’s orientation consisted of one sentence: “keep the customers happy.” She would soon learn what was meant and that her exciting opportunity had turned into her nightmare. Her work schedule was more than aggressive; it was barbaric. She was worked seven days a week from 9:30 in the morning until 10:00 pm. Lena resisted the overt sexual activity expected by clients and her bosses. She knew that this was not the legitimate opportunity that she was promised and she wanted out but there was no out.
“You can’t quit. We need you” she was told by her bosses. That’s not an unusual response from an employer to an invaluable employee. But, then again, most employees do not rely solely on their employer for a place to stay, transportation and clothes. Nor do they lack the ability to communicate with the outside world or have no friends or family nearby as a support network. Still, it is easy to wonder why Lena did not call a taxi and leave. “I didn’t know who to call or how to request a taxi in English” according to Lena (through her interpreter). She pleaded to leave but no one would take her to the bus station.
No chains. No guns to her head. But she was stuck. Unsure of how to get out, her only option was to simply survive each 12 hour day. What her bosses did not know, however, was that their illegal business enterprise had raised many red flags and was now on the radar of local and regional law enforcement agencies. On January 14, 2015 after months of investigation, law enforcement teams raided three massage parlors in Delaware and Franklin Counties and freed 18 women, including an exhausted Lena.
Human trafficking comes in many forms but there is one commonality: preying on a vulnerable population. Kidnapping, imprisonment and violence is messy and risky for a trafficker. A much easier way to procure labor is to employ fraud and coercion. Finding vulnerability and exploiting it is standard protocol for traffickers. And there is a bonus: generally, the public lacks empathy if it appears someone was not physically forced.
Our culture values independence, strong personalities and standing our ground. We cannot fathom how someone could be manipulated to such a degree as to sell their bodies or accept life as a slave. Surely they must want to be doing what they are doing. Until our own limitations are used against us, it is difficult to see that lies and mental chains are often more powerful than real life shackles. Traffickers are experts at filling voids. Love. Safety. A roof and food. These are powerful needs for which the vulnerable will trade their freedom.
Lena and the others are safe now thanks to anonymous tips, dedicated police officers and the comprehensive services provided by the Salvation Army of Central Ohio-funded by the United Way of Delaware County. But, there are more just like her. They too were looking for opportunity but now, like Lena, are looking for a way out.
Will you ignore them? Assume that they must have asked for it or that this life is surely better than what they would have had in their native country?
Or, will you take a stand for the dignity owed them? Will you educate yourself and those around you? Will you take action?
We have ended slavery once in this nation. It is time for our generation to do so again.
*Note: Lena’s story is told from sworn testimony that she provided against her traffickers as observed in court by the author.
About the Author:
Brandon Feller is the president of United Way of Delaware County (Ohio) and one of several leaders of the Delaware County Against Human Trafficking Coalition. Brandon has presented nationally on this issue and is committed to encouraging a proactive and collaborative response to trafficking in every community. To learn more about the work of the Delaware County Against Human Trafficking Coalition, please visit: DelawareAHT.org or contact Brandon at firstname.lastname@example.org.