Slaves in Your Church's Backyard
David Batstone more from this author »
Deeply engrained in the American psyche is the notion that slavery ended in the 19th century. The brutal fact is that girls and boys, men and women of all ages are forced to toil in the rug loom sheds of Nepal, sell their bodies in the brothels of Rome, break rocks in the quarries of Pakistan, and fight wars in the jungles of Africa. Go behind the façade of any major town or city in the world, and you are likely to find a thriving commerce in human beings.
Maybe we are not shocked to learn that slaveholders press children to labor against their will in the cacao plantations of the Ivory Coast. But it would be unthinkable that a slaveholder might be an upstanding citizen living on our block.
IN MY OWN BACKYARD
I first encountered human trafficking in one of my neighborhood restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area. As it turned out, the restaurant served as the hub of a trafficking ring that brought over 500 teenagers from India into the United States for forced labor.
In some respects, slavery feels invisible inside the United States. Just as my wife and I never suspected for a moment that our favorite restaurant had become a hub for the slave trade, slavery likely crosses our path on a regular basis without our awareness. We may pass a construction site and never think twice whether the laborers work of their own volition. Or we might drive through the city at night, see young girls on a street corner peddling their bodies, and wonder how they ever could "choose" such a life.
Kim Meston certainly wishes that slavery did not exist in America. In a rural town near Worcester, Massachusetts, the minister of the local church used her as his domestic sex slave for five years without raising the slightest suspicion in the community.
Kim's parents were Tibetan exiles living in a refugee camp in southern India. When Kim was in her teens, her sister's husband introduced the family to a church minister visiting from the United States. The reverend offered to bring Kim to America, where he would provide a formal education and opportunities for a better life. "He told my parents that he would treat me as his own daughter," Kim recounts.
Her brother-in-law lobbied the family persuasively to let Kim go. He even offered to accompany her to Delhi, where he could help her to secure a visa to travel to the United States. Unbeknownst to the family, the brother-in-law had his own financial arrangement with the minister to exploit Kim.
At the age of 16, Kim began a double-life with the minister in America. Everything may have appeared normal to the casual observer: Kim attended the local high school, ran on the track team, and attended church on Sundays. The minister even had a wife and a stepdaughter living in his home. But behind closed doors, the minister sexually abused Kim regularly over a five-year period. Kim also labored as the household servant, doing most of the cooking, housecleaning, and ironing, and even maintained the church grounds.
Kim had little comprehension of American culture or its legal system. The minister threatened to have her Tibetan family in India thrown in jail if Kim told her friends about her condition. As a result, Kim suffered in silence, and no one in the church or the broader community thought to ask how she might be faring. They simply assumed the minister and his family had the best of intentions. "His deception was well constructed," notes Kim. "The minister was a pillar in the community, and I was viewed as the poor child from the Third World who was the lucky beneficiary of his generosity."
Finally, at the age of 21, Kim escaped her tormentor. She initially planned to run away and never look back. But then she received news from India that the minister had trafficked two of her cousins into the United States to take her place inside his home. With the help of caring friends, Kim mustered the courage to take her case to the local police. The minister was subsequently arrested, convicted, and sent to jail. Today, Kim owns a retail store in the Boston area and volunteers her time to prevent more vulnerable women from falling into sexual exploitation and enslavement.
SEIZED BY LOVE
Moved to action by this story and the experience in the local restaurant, I began an international investigation into the slave trade in February 2007. I traveled to northern Thailand, since my research indicated that large numbers of women and children in the region were being held captive and forced to labor for the profit of slave masters.
Shortly after my arrival, I bumped into Kru Nam, an unlikely modern-day abolitionist. She was an artist from Chiang Mai, the second largest city in Thailand. So what gift might a painter have that would transform her into an abolitionist? An absolute dedication to the destiny of children. Every day as she walked the streets of Chiang Mai on the way to her studio, she saw kids living on the riverbanks. One day she took empty canvases down to the river, handed out tins of paint and brushes to the kids, and asked them to paint their stories. Once she turned the kids loose, they created a series of disturbing images that added up to a horror story.
Kru Nam could not comprehend how these kids, ranging from eight to twelve years old, could know such tragedy. "Most of us are not from Thailand," they explained. "We come from Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and as far away as China." They went on to explain that some had been kidnapped, others sold by their parents, and still others were told that they could attend school if they crossed the border into Thailand. All of them ended up in the child-sex brothels of Chiang Mai.
The kids told Kru Nam that they were the lucky ones. After all, many of their friends were still locked up in the bars, forced to submit to the pleasures of sex tourists who traveled the globe to find pleasure with children. These river kids had escaped, yet remained ever wary that they could be captured and returned to captivity.
Kru Nam did not exactly have a plan when she marched into the city that evening. Only her mission was clear: Rescue as many of the young kids as she could find. Upon entering the first karaoke bar, she did not even seek to negotiate with the owner; she knew it would be a waste of her time. But to her disappointment, only three kids sat at tables entertaining the male customers; the others were out on "dates" with johns.
She approached the table where the kids were sitting and calmly said, "Let's go. I'm taking you out of here." Within minutes, she was leading two girls and a boy out the door and to a safe destination in Chiang Mai.
Upon meeting Kru Nam, I was overwhelmed with her expression of love. I immediately knew I had to do something more than write a book about the global slave trade. I had to stand alongside Kru Nam and other abolitionists I encountered to help free the captives. Over the next year, Kru Nam rescued over 125 kids from sex brothels and border crossings in northern Thailand, and I launched the Not For Sale Campaign so that I could help her build a village to protect the children and offer them a future.
The Not For Sale Campaign has gone on to intervene in cases of modern slavery around the globe and offer a future for freed slaves in Cambodia, Peru, Uganda, Honduras, Thailand, and the United States. We are not content to only help victims, however. As our work progressed, we realized that helping survivors was simply not enough. Traffickers will continue to prey on new victims until the political, economic, and moral forces that undergird the slave trade change. So we turned the Not For Sale Campaign to address the causes of injustice that allow the vulnerable to be sold like commodities.
Because there were so few tools to combat the problem, we began creating our own. The first hurdle was to make this "invisible" crisis visible. At the time, most ordinary citizens in the United States had a hard time believing that trafficking was happening in their own cities and towns. The justice system—both law enforcement and the courts—seemed oblivious, while social service agencies were ill-prepared to provide protection and services to trafficking victims.
So, as a first step, we began investigating cases of human trafficking in our own backyards, and in doing so inspired students at the University of San Francisco to identify and map slavery cases in Northern California. The students and faculty at USF achieved some remarkable successes, which allowed us to replicate and expand the model. We designed SlaveryMap.org to empower researchers to track cases of slavery in their own backyards, producing material for the use of grassroots abolitionists around the globe.
Beyond investigation, the Not For Sale Campaign created grassroots networks that are finding solutions to prevalent forms of slavery. In essence, we sought to stimulate action on slavery close to home. Now, our fifty-five regional operations across the U.S. link together law enforcement officers, universities, government officials, social service organizations, and faith-based groups to seek out and coordinate effective action.
Slavery is a business, and we are all linked to it. Our consumer purchases may inadvertently fuel this tragedy. For example, seventy percent of the world's chocolate is produced in Western Africa, where the plantations are rife with children sold into bonded labor. If you consume chocolate made by Cadbury, Nestle, or Mars, you are playing a role in driving the demand for the slave trade.
The taint of forced labor on everyday consumer products is coming out of the shadows. Forbes Magazine in February 2008 devoted its cover feature to the trafficking crisis, boldly declaring, "Child Labor: Why We Can't Kick Our Addiction," highlighting the plight of children in India who harvest cottonseed for the Monsanto Corporation. The article singled out giant retailers like IKEA, Home Depot, and The Gap for their links to child slavery. Note that Forbes did not ask, "Does it exist?" or "How common is it?" but explained the nation's "addiction" to minimizing consumer prices and maximizing corporate profit.
My encounter with irresistible love sent me on my search for justice. Justice is a rational pursuit, a calculated decision to balance the scales and ensure that all individuals are treated with dignity. Love, however, moves us to transcend what we calculate as reasonable. Justice moves me to search for answers; truthfully, that's my natural inclination. But love takes me to depths of compassion. Not everyone is wired the same way, of course; becoming an abolitionist does not indicate one kind of activity. The movement needs educators, preachers, entrepreneurs, counselors, law enforcement officers, prosecutors, prayer warriors, athletes, and students. But in the throes of love, however, all recognize the conditions that day in and day out make people vulnerable to greed and exploitation, and they seek answers that only justice can provide.
Love is patient. It does not get discouraged when the world does not change overnight. And that's what makes love so revolutionary—its persistence. Anyone can revel in the emotion of a moment, but love is steady in the rough.
Love is kind. It does not decide who deserves it, but embraces whomever it encounters on the journey. It is not in our power to determine the times in which we live, the events that will challenge us, or the individuals that will cross our path. To us, however, is given the choice to live with kindness, to embrace our moment with an overwhelming love.
Love is not envious, or boastful, or arrogant. It frees us from a false self—what we are told we must look like, must buy and possess, or must achieve in order to be of value. Immersed in love, we do not sell our destiny for a pot of porridge. And because we are freed from the false self, we do not look on others as a threat or a competition for love. We know our true selves, for love rejoices in the truth that we were made in freedom, so that we could freely live.