By Rhonda Miska
St. Josephine Bakhita was born in 1869 in Sudan, where she was kidnapped and sold as a slave to an Italian diplomat. She was taken to Italy where she was freed with the help of the Canossian Daughters of Charity, the community she later entered. At her canonization mass in 2000, St John Paul II said of Bakhita, “Her life inspires not passive acceptance but firm resolve to work effectively to free girls and women from oppression and violence.”
While slavery may be something that many imagine happening in the past in distant lands – as in the case of St Josephine Bakhita – in truth, modern day slavery exists in the form of human trafficking: the selling of men, women, and children for commercial sex or forced labor. An estimated 30 million men, women, and children are trafficked in the world today, though women and girls are disproportionately affected. The US State Department estimates that 14,500 -17,500 people are trafficked into the US annually. Trafficking is a $9.8 billion industry in this country.
At a 2014 meeting in England, Pope Francis called human trafficking – also known as trafficking in persons (TIP) – “an open wound on the body of contemporary society, a scourge upon the body of Christ. It is a crime against humanity.” In 2012, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) committed to “collaborate to abolish human trafficking.” Through the Bakhita Initiative of U.S. Catholic Sisters United Against Human Trafficking, sisters across the country educate about trafficking, advocate for stronger laws, and assist survivors of trafficking.
Ursuline Sister Dianna Ortiz – herself a survivor of kidnapping and torture – helped to create the video “I Am Miriam” which recounts the experience of an Ethiopian woman who was trafficked.
“Chances are we interact with a trafficked person weekly, maybe even daily. Slavery is not a thing of the past,” said Sister Dianna, the editor of Education of Justice, a project of the Washington D.C.-based Center of Concern.
Sometimes human trafficking is referred to as a crime that is hidden in plain sight. Yer Vang, immigration attorney for Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese said, “It is important for people to understand that human trafficking in Iowa may not be easily detected or visible.”
Dubuque Sisters from several communities are working to raise awareness of human trafficking around the Archdiocese of Dubuque. The Coalition Against Human Trafficking in the Tri-State Area is “a collaborative, faith-based network that engages in education and advocacy in an effort to eradicate human trafficking. The Coalition collaborates with other area groups who are also working to spread awareness of this modern day slavery.”
Dubuque Franciscan Sister Lou Ann Kilburg, OSF, said there are many misconceptions about trafficking, including that “it’s only in the big cities, or…in foreign countries, not the US.”
Dubuque Franciscan Sister Mary Lechtenberg, OSF, agreed, saying that even though “people think certainly human trafficking is not in Iowa,” there have been cases reported in various parts of the state, including Fredicksburg, Sioux City, Decorah, Dubuque, Des Moines, and Cedar Rapids.
“It can happen to anyone,” said Christi, a Dubuque native and survivor of sex trafficking whose story is shared in the documentary film “Any Kid Anywhere,” along with the testimonies of two other Iowan women who are trafficking survivors.
In the film, Christi described herself as “very involved with church and was a good student” who was “stripped of everything physically and emotionally” when she was exploited by traffickers. The film was created by the organization Braking Traffic and is one of the educational tools used by the Coalition to raise awareness. One of the Coalition’s major projects to date was organizing the “Journey to Freedom” exhibit at the Roshek building in downtown Dubuque in October 2015. The exhibit was up for two weeks and “began awareness around the Dubuque area,” according to Presentation Sister Sheila Dougherty.
The Coalition is aware that both sex and labor trafficking are linked to other social justice issues, including worker justice, immigration reform, the objectification of women, and the drug trade. Sister Mira Mosle, BVM, said that is why “our congregations pay attention to the supply chains that companies have in terms of investments. We’re part of Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility… advocating for companies to be transparent in production and distribution and working conditions. It’s why we encourage fair trade.”
The Coalition encourages people to know the signs of trafficking. Persons who are trafficked may be accompanied by a controlling person or boss, may have lack of control over their schedule and travel documents, may have an ability to leave their job, and may show signs of physical abuse like bruises. Presentation Sister Sheila Dougherty recommended the acronym SOAR –“stop, observe, ask, respond” – as a tool for how to react if you suspect you encounter someone who has been trafficked. Vang said that “if you suspect that someone is a victim of human trafficking, for instance the person is not free to make decisions because she/he is being forced or coerced by someone else, then report it to the proper authorities.” Sister LouAnn said trafficking is “a huge and complicated problem – it takes health care, police, teachers, hospitals, social services, churches working together to really put an end to it.” BVM Sister Irene agreed on the necessity of collaboration.
“Our own congregations have taken corporate stances on human trafficking. It’s such a big issue it’s going to take all of us,” she said.
Parishes or community groups interested in the Coalition’s educational presentations can contact Franciscan Associate Lisa Schmidt via email at email@example.com. Cedar Rapids Sisters in Cedar Rapids are also working to raise awareness of human trafficking through partnering with the police, local government, churches, and schools. “We encounter human trafficking here,” said Mercy Sister Emily Devine. “Even though there has been headway, people don’t think it’s here. They think it is someplace else.”
She cited the example of Brittany, a Cedar Rapids native and survivor of sex trafficking in the documentary film “Any Kid Anywhere.” Efforts to raise awareness have been effective, Sister Emily reports, citing the example of a young woman from Clive who was kidnapped and rescued. While in the parking lot of a gas station, a trucker saw the young woman in the back of a camper waving her hands for help.
“Since truckers have been educated on trafficking, he observed what was going on, called the trafficking hotline with the license plate number of the camper, and local police stopped them,” said Sister Emily. “The young woman was freed. If people become aware, they can take action.”
• Network Against Human Trafficking www.iowanaht.org
• Information on Human Trafficking in Iowa www.brakingtraffik.org
• Four minute testimony, “I Am Miriam” www.against-humanity.org/watch
• US Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking www.bakhitainitiative.com
• National Human Trafficking Resource Center, call 888-373-7888
PHOTO: Members of the Coalition Against Human Trafficking in the Tri-State Area meet at the BVM motherhouse.” (Photo by Rhonda Miska)
This article was first published in “The Witness,” the official publication of the Archdiocese of Dubuque.