Today, we visited three different organizations that work with victims of human trafficking. In the morning, we went to the Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition (BSCC), followed by STARS (Striving Together, Achieving and Reaching for Success) at San Diego Youth Services, and finally. In the late afternoon, we drove to the Orangewood Foundation’s monthly forum on sex trafficking.
At every stop, I felt like there was an added layer and a new perspective that surprised me each time. At BSCC, we learned about unique cases, including one victim who was discovered in San Diego while on a trip with the Saudi royal family. At STARS, we discussed what it is like to be intensively involved in managing human trafficking cases and the important considerations that come with it. For example, most victims are quite uncomfortable with working with male advocacy staff until years after counseling.
The most compelling visit though was with the Orangewood Foundation at their forum. We arrived an hour and a half before the forum actually began, and had a chance to have a conversation with Jim, a victim advocacy expert with over 25 years of experience, and Oree, a confident, powerfully-voiced survivor who was nothing short of inspiring. As I listened to her story, the factors that allowed for her to fall into “the life,” namely the complacency of those around her were particularly shocking and disgruntling. She noted specifically her lack of familial support, and remarked to our surprise that much of the pain associated with her trauma did not stem from being trafficked and abused, but rather from the feeling of abandonment and despondence she felt from never having anyone she could trust. She had seen various professionals, including teachers, counselors, nurses, and doctors who should have noticed the glaring signs that something was wrong. She had the name of her pimp tattooed on her neck at age 12, and usually did not have an ID in her clinic and hospital visits but was accompanied by a man who did. As I plan to apply to medical school this summer, this was especially troubling to me. How could a professional whose job it is to care for people, specifically ones from vulnerable populations, be so dismissive of these red flags?
I talked to Oree about this, and our conversation reinvigorated my original interest in coming on this trip. For all that Oree went through, much of the harm could have been avoided or at least reduced if someone had paused to ask her if she were okay. Even those best equipped to ask that question and respond appropriately failed to do so. Oree and I discussed how this was caused largely by ignorance of the issue of human trafficking in particular, but also general out-group labeling and the bystander effect that results from it. I mentioned earlier that this issue is unique in how it’s relatively easy for awareness and the influence of one individual to have an impact. I see this especially being true in a medical career, both within the context of human trafficking and beyond it. I hope to never forget that.
Finally, in our group reflections, we discussed extensively the concept of intersectionality, with particular focus on the societal factors that Oree highlighted as contributing to her becoming a trafficking victim: gender and socioeconomic status. Though we were repeatedly reminded human trafficking can happen to anyone, it is clear that being a poor, Black female left her susceptible to exploitation. When we first sat down, Oree picked out the three males in our group to speak about why we are interested in this issue. We were admittedly caught off guard in the moment, but in our later reflections we agreed on our responsibility in being active agents for changing misogynistic attitudes that ultimately manifest themselves in their worst form in domestic violence and sex crimes. I see this being a topic of further conversation during our trip, and so I’ll save a longer reflection about this for closer to the end, but I relish our openness and comfort as a group with having civil discussions about contentious topics. All in all, it was a long, informative, and eye-opening day that has left each of us with a lot to process, but I can tell a lot of personal benefit is going to come from it in the next few days.