“It’s good to take risks,” she said, head cocked to one side with a twinkle in her eye. We were deep in the heart of rural Masaka, a Ugandan district renowned for its lush villages, paved highway, proximity to a known cannibal tribe, and delicious pork. This interview was the third in our first full day of field research on vulnerable communities’ knowledge, attitudes, and practices regarding human trafficking.
Willow international has empowered and supported me a lot. I was hopeless but Willow gave me hope. I have learned many different skills and I am ready to be a job creator not a job seeker. Willow is like a real mother when it comes to healing broken hearts. I was heartbroken in so many ways.I had not shared my painful story, but when I came to Willow I got the courage to share my story and Willow taught me how to overcome my pain. After graduation, I want to be exemplary in my village.
Large sunglasses and a scarf with the words “I love Jesus” covered Adie’s head and face as she stood before a room full of the country’s most powerful leaders. Adie’s Willow case manager sat on her right, holding her hand tightly. To Adie’s left, sat 3 other brave survivors of sex trafficking. The room was silent as she took the floor.
Millions of men, women, and children around the world are living in slavery today. Many of us hear about it and want to do something, but the issue can seem overwhelming. We created a list that outlines 10 easy ways to help fight human trafficking. Together, we can help end human trafficking and provide restorative care to survivors.
- Human Trafficking happens all over the world, even in the United States. You can learn the indicators of human trafficking so you can help identify potential victims.
- Save the Human Trafficking Hotline number in your phone. If you see something that looks suspicious call 1-888-373-7888 or 911.
- Host an awareness event in your home. Invite friends and family to watch a documentary and discuss human trafficking.
- Host a fundraiser. Partner with Willow International or other nonprofit organizations to raise funds necessary to combatting human trafficking and providing necessary care to survivors.
- Raise awareness on campus. Join or start a club to raise awareness in your community. Many students have written research papers and even hosted fundraisers at their school.
- Use the power of social media. Share articles, re-post, and invite your friends to join the cause.
- Learn your slavery footprint. Be an informed consumer. Check out the Department of Labor's List of Goods Produced by Child and Forced Labor. Encourage businesses to prevent human trafficking in their supply chain.
- Write your local, state, and federal officials to let them know you care about ending trafficking and would like to learn how they are addressing the issue.
- Encourage local schools to include modern slavery in their curriculum. Learn how traffickers target school-aged children.
- Donate time and/or money to anti-trafficking organizations. No act is too small.
At 10am on November 15th I was asked by two different men if I was for sale. It was the morning after a late night of outreach in the red light district of Bangkok. I was walking the same streets to grab a coffee and process what I had just experienced. Resisting the urge to slap them in the face, I simply said no and kept walking. As I began to sip my coffee, I realized what had just happened and started to cry – not because I was offended, but because I had the freedom to say no. The night before I had talked to countless Ugandan women forced to work the streets. Enslaved young women with pimps demanding they sell their bodies to pay off an enormous debt. Women who didn’t have the freedom to say no, though every single fiber of their being yearned to.
It was my first time finally walking the same menacing streets I heard of through the many women our organization has served. Each one of them told me, “there are so many Ugandans there.” I heard those words and believed them. In fact, I committed to fight for them, but the depth of the darkness and exploitation these women endured hit me on a deeper level than ever before.
In Bangkok, the Red Light district is seen as the world’s largest adult playground. But for those it holds captive, the countless men and women it exploits, it’s a living hell. Traffickers tell them beautiful stories of jobs abroad – a life of luxury and the opportunity to finally pull their families out of poverty. But when they arrive, they are beaten and raped. Their passports are stolen and they live in constant fear of being arrested. Just last month, a woman was murdered by the man she was forced to sleep with. There is no protection or justice for these women because they are not seen as human beings, they are seen as objects to be purchased, used, and thrown away.
When the horrors of the night finally wind down each morning, these women retire to closet-sized rooms where they sleep with no windows, often two to a room. But sleep does not come easy when your mind is filled with fears of contracting HIV, threats from your pimp, your suffering children back home, and the reality that you may not live through another night. However, this isn’t a reason to give up – it’s a reason to fight.
Desmond Tutu said, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all the darkness.” Even in the dark corners of the red light district, there was hope. That night, women belly-laughed when I began speaking to them in their local language. They couldn’t believe there were people out who knew about their suffering and wanted to help. We shared long embraces, memories of home, and the hotline number, thus starting the process of rescue. We shared hope.
Our board member, Ann Mahoney, put it into perspective - "It’s only by pure luck that I’m not in their circumstance." She is right. This could be you or me. This could be our children, our sisters, our nieces or nephews. No human being should be forced to endure this kind of torture.
Today I urge you to take a stand. Because you can make a difference. Monthly donations allow us to continue the important work of rescuing victims, providing the aftercare they need, and implementing programs on the ground to prevent trafficking before it happens. Partner with us – together we can end slavery.
In the late hours of Friday, September 21st, the Ugandan Human Trafficking Task Force led a heroic raid of a brothel in Kampala, rescuing six girls that were placed in our care. To tell you the story first-hand, Willow’s in-country director, Joylyn recounts last week’s experience:
The phone rang early Friday morning. The head of the Ugandan Task Force was on the line with an urgent request. His team had raided a brothel in the Kiseni slums and found children being sold for sex. The task force needed the help of a trusted partner to provide housing and aftercare for the girls they had removed from the brothel. Phones kept ringing as we banded together to prepare the home and follow the proper procedure to receive these girls. We were made to do this work, to open our homes to these precious girls and provide them the shelter, love, and dignity they deserve.
Six girls were headed to our aftercare home, ages ranging fourteen to seventeen years old. Fourteen years old. Try, for a moment, to picture what you were like as a fourteen-year-old. Do you remember your thoughts, worries, joys and dreams? Now, picture yourself stripped of your basic human rights and forced into sexual exploitation. Imagine how it would feel to have your own parent send you away with a stranger who had promised they would find you a good job, but instead sold you to a brothel. Imagine sleeping, waking, and living in squalor where you couldn’t even afford to take a bath because the woman who "owned" you took all the money you made sleeping with strange men and kept it for herself. It’s difficult to imagine coping with such things at fourteen years old, isn't it? This was the reality of the newest survivors who came to us on Friday.
When the rescued girls arrived to our home, they had already spent the night in jail. Their clothes were tattered and filthy, skin bruised and caked in dirt, and they were so very skinny. When the girls walked through the door to our home, their relief was tangible. Their eyes widened as we invited them to sit on the sofas. As the Willow staff introduced ourselves, the girls smiled so brightly that it was hard to picture that these six young girls had just been rescued from such heinous conditions. The girls had arrived with no belongings, filthy clothes on their backs, without even a pair of shoes on their feet. The veteran Willow girls picked out clothes to share and helped the new girls get settled into their new bedrooms. As we distributed toiletries and bedding, they received and held each item as if it were gold.
I don't know how exactly to describe that day. I don't know how to explain the feeling of purposefulness that came over every single person involved in the rescue and reception of these girls. Every staff member at Willow, including myself, somehow felt a strength and a joy come over us. We listened to their stories, we saw the state they arrived in - stinking, tattered, bruised, starving, barefoot- still, somehow, utterly beautiful because they were finally free. I kept remembering a verse in the Book of Isaiah, "He has sent me to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and freedom to the prisoner..." On Friday, we were able to experience that mandate from heaven in the most real and practical way. The work we do isn’t easy, but in the darkness we continue to find hope, purpose, beauty, and freedom.
- Joylyn Edwards
You and I were blessed to celebrate our freedom and independence this weekend. We often take our precious freedom for granted and forget about the 20+ million people in the world who are desperate for the freedom you and I enjoy everyday. These are the people desperate to break free from sexual slavery, forced labor, and exploitation.
At Willow, we are charged with helping women and girls escape sexual slavery. Our rescue scenarios vary greatly as human trafficking looks different for each victim in its wake. In Uganda, poverty, unemployment, and death of parents are among the most common reasons that women and girls are left vulnerable to trafficking. We see parents conned into sending their children away with strangers with the hope of work that will feed them, orphans coerced into prostitution by family or village members who view them as burdens, teens tricked into going to "school" or taking “jobs” in the city – only to be forced into sexual slavery. We rescue bright young women, once small business owners, so eager to lift their extended families out of poverty that they've sold what little belongings or prospects they had in pursuit of a better life. Futures are stolen from such women as they hand over their livelihoods only to be forced to sell their bodies against their will.
As each girl we encounter shares her experience with our team, we learn of more unique inconceivable atrocities. Partnerships with international organizations and continued outreach with city, community, and village leaders lead us to our survivors. Removing a victim from captivity is always a unique challenge but is only the start of leading a victim to freedom.
Even after a survivor is rescued, the road to achieving independence is a long one. Research indicates that severe trauma leaves a neurochemical mark that can be discerned in every system of the body. The impact of this sort of trauma is more pervasive than most of us can imagine.
Survivors of human trafficking need and deserve long-term, high-level care in order to heal and gain the coping skills and confidence to break free from the chains of trauma and exploitation forced upon them. At Willow, we honor freedom as a complete process- from initial rescue all the to way through full recovery effort. We are dedicated to providing the best care available in order to make true independence a reality for our survivors. With your help, we can offer this freedom more girls. We can give independence back to those who have had their basic human rights and dignity stolen.
When I think about Natasha, I first reflect on a morning in March of 2013. It was pitch dark outside. The city of Kampala was sleeping. Although Natasha was in high spirits, I was not because it was 4:30 am, Natasha was very ill, and we were about to wait in line for the one radiation machine in the entire country. Amongst other life-threatening illnesses, Natasha was fighting stage 4 cervical cancer. She was fighting hard for her life, but her attitude and demeanor didn’t show it. She was peaceful and filled with unexplainable joy.
As I turned the key in the ignition, nothing happened. Battery trouble again at a terrible time. Natasha laughed off the mechanical issue and told me to open up the hood of the car. She got to work, then told me to try to turn over the engine again and the car roared back to life. My friend, the cancer patient, the one fighting for her life, had fixed the vehicle without hesitation and with that twinkle in her eye I loved so much. That twinkle will forever remind me just how strong, bold, and spirited Natasha was.
The doctors told us that the cancer in Natasha’s body would kill her. The radiation treatments were meant as an attempt to ease Natasha’s pain and bleeding. I'll never forget the shock on the doctor's face when she pulled me aside after getting the results back post-radiation. She told me that Natasha would be able to sustain chemotherapy. It was a miracle. With the radiation machine in Uganda being 10x less strong than the machines used in most countries, her response to the treatment was remarkable. Still, even with Natasha being a candidate for chemotherapy, we were warned that chemotherapy would only help her live longer and with less pain. The cancer was just too large.
Natasha did not accept that cancer would kill her. After chemo treatments she would be so sick, but would still wander out of the house hours after treatment with music playing, asking me to dance with her or having her own private dance party. Natasha, dancing with herself to the music in her headphones, is one of the sweetest things I've ever seen.
Faith was an important part of Natasha’s struggle with cancer. Though raised Muslim, she made a choice to continue praying to the Christian God because she believed He had kept her alive. She believed He would save her from dying of cancer. And He did. A couple months after treatment was over, I got the call that Natasha was in remission and her cancer was gone. I sank down under my desk and cried tears of gratitude. I had experienced a true miracle.
At just 34 years young, on Monday February 22, 2016, Natasha passed away. Though she had beat cancer three years ago, other health complications took her life. I guess God thought the world needed Natasha and her light for another 3 years. I’m left wondering if God may have spared her life a little longer for all of us who loved her so dearly. We could not have bared to see her go three years ago when she had fought cancer so hard.
Unfortunately, Natasha’s struggle with health was not the beginning of her story. Natasha was a survivor of human trafficking. She was taken from her home country of Uganda and sold as a sex slave in both China and Thailand. After being told she had received a well-paying job as a receptionist abroad, she was tricked and forced into sexual slavery. When Natasha was rescued, sex trafficking had left her with HIV, stage 4 cervical cancer, and hepatitis B. Every single disease she contracted was a direct result of the exploitation her body endured.
Natasha did not ask for such a life and she is not alone in having her life, health, and freedom stolen from her. Each year countless numbers of Ugandan women are trafficked abroad. They are told that they can get jobs that will help them lift themselves and their families out of poverty. Dozens board planes everyday without knowing that they are being trafficked for labor and/or sex until they reach their destination. The exploitation is unimaginable.
I sit here trying to process my grief, asking myself, “who is to blame for this?” In most cases, trying to place blame on an individual or circumstance for the loss of a human life is an unhealthy exercise, but in this case it seems fitting for me to discuss the culprit. The true criminal is the horrendous abuse and exploitation Natasha endured. Sex trafficking. If it hadn't been for this travesty, Natasha would still be alive. She would have lived to see her daughter graduate high school. She would still be dancing, singing, and bringing joy into the world.
I can't sit in silence in my own grief and I know Natasha wouldn't if she were in my shoes. She proclaimed truth at all costs and would expect me to share her story and call upon others to fight this fight.
I know that there is no better way to honor Natasha’s life than to share her story and invite more of you to embrace this cause. Together, we can make a difference in the fight against human trafficking. We can bring hope to victims, restore dignity, and provide opportunities for survivors to heal from trauma and live full lives. I hope that you will join us in honoring Natasha life by sharing her story and joining the fight against human trafficking. Click here to make a donation in her honor.
The Journey of my Life in Willow