Passover and Human Trafficking: What’s the Connection?

An article written by Rabbi Lauren Kurland of Seattle relates the story of Passover — the celebration of the Jews’ freedom from slavery and subsequent exodus from Egypt long ago — to the problem of slavery in modern day times. It is a potent reminder that even as Jewish people celebrate their freedom from slavery on Passover, which begins tonight, March 25th:

“…there are people who are still slaves. In the house down the street or the building up the way, there live people who have been trafficked. These individuals have been dealt with shrewdly and are being oppressed ruthlessly, forced to work at bitter tasks against their will as our ancestors were by cruel Pharoah and his legions.”

A series of events within the last few months got me interested again in the issue of human trafficking.  When I worked for USAID in the mid 90’s, I wrote an article about trafficking and never dreamed I would later get so interested in the topic. But earlier this year, I saw these huge bus ads and billboards about the problem of human trafficking in Seattle and was really struck by their prominence. Because of the seriousness of the problem and its covert nature, I got to thinking that this social marketing campaign could potentially be quite effective (my public health roots speaking here).

One of several examples of a Metro bus ad to raise awareness of trafficking. Courtesy of http://www.kingcounty.gov/healthservices/health/injury/humantrafficking.aspx

One of several Metro bus ads to raise awareness of trafficking. Courtesy of http://www.kingcounty.gov/healthservices/health/injury/humantrafficking.aspx

Human trafficking is defined as:

“… the acquisition of people by improper means such as force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them.” (United Nations Office on Drug and Crime)

Trafficking is present in many industries: agriculture, construction, domestic service, restaurants, salons, prostitution, massage parlors, and various other small businesses. It is the second most lucrative criminal industry worldwide, after drug trafficking, bringing in approximately $32 billion annually.

A recent article in The Guardian indicated “…while the assumption is that most trafficking victims are undocumented immigrants, in fact foreign nationals (documented and undocumented) make up only 41% of the calls the [National Human Trafficking Resource Center] hotline receives, while American citizens account for 43%.” 

Soon after I saw the bus ads, I discovered that Barbara Kavanaugh, another public health professional like myself, was doing a bike ride to raise money for Seattle Against Slavery, a volunteer-run grassroots coalition working to provide awareness about the problem of human trafficking right here in Seattle. I asked Barbara why she was doing the bike ride and this is what she had to say:

Courtesy Barbara Kavanaugh

Courtesy Barbara Kavanaugh

“I had seen a PBS special a few years back about sex trafficking  in Southeast Asia.  Shortly after that, there was a screening of a film on the same topic shown on the UW campus.  A friend from work and I went together.  Once you are aware of it, and of how hush-hush it has been for so long, you no longer want to passively sit by.  One of the organizations that had sponsored the film was Seattle Against Slavery, and I got some of their information at that event, and later went to one of their community talks. I love the idea of bringing attention to this somewhat uncomfortable topic and very practically raising money for an organization that is out there making a difference.”

Kim Caldwell, Mobilization Manager of Seattle Against Slavery, explained that “a common misconception that people have about trafficking is that it only happens within poor communities.” In fact, human trafficking is happening right under our noses, even in middle class and wealthy neighborhoods.

She related a story of two well-respected doctors who lived in Bellevue, a suburb east of Seattle, who employed a woman (I will call her Halima) from Africa as a housekeeper. They made Halima work 16-hour days, forced her to sleep on the floor, and forbade her from leaving the house except on Sundays when she went to church with them. They told her if she went to the police, she would be deported back to where she came from. Apparently, this threat was enough to intimidate her into staying.

However, when conditions at the house went from bad to worse, Halima thought to herself,

“There isn’t anything that could be worse than this. If I get sent back to Africa, so be it.”

So one day when the doctors were at work, she left the house, went to a nearby convenience store, where she tried to communicate with the store employees about her situation (she did not know English). Fortunately for her, someone who spoke her dialect was present and was able to get her the help she needed.

As Caldwell pointed out, these doctors were well-respected in their community- there was no reason to suspect them from doing anything “shady”. A recent Seattle Times article gives several other similar examples of situations like these.

Threats of deportation and confiscation of immigrants’ papers by oppressors are common, Caldwell explained. Even if the immigrants are illegal, they are still protected by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act which allows victims to remain in the United States.

I also learned from Caldwell about the Washington Anti-Trafficking Response Network (WARN), a coalition of organizations in Washington State that provide direct assistance to victims of trafficking, including:

– 24- hour urgent response

– immediate access to food and safe housing

– immigration advocacy and legal assistance

– interpretation services

– education and job readiness training

– outreach and public education

I also did a quick internet search and was pleased to see there are quite a few groups working on the human trafficking issue in Seattle and Washington State: Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking (BEST), Washington Engage, Intercommunity Peace and Justice Project , and The Hope for Justice Project.

I am thankful to Rabbi Kurland for bringing attention to this important issue and tonight, at the Passover seder I am hosting, I will be reflecting on ways we can work to eradicate trafficking, especially from my own city.

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