My blog post with Marek Pawlak on ethnographic research and migration. This is a blog related to a project on Polish female migration to Norway. https://mobilelivesblog.wordpress.com/2016/07/29/mobile-lives-musings-about-ethnographic-research-on-migration/
Like the rest of the world I woke up to the shocking news about Brexit. On a more personal note, the first thing in my Facebook feed was a blog by a colleague, Nando Sigona, on his feeling the morning after … https://nandosigona.wordpress.com/2016/06/24/unreal-extraordinary-indecen I have no words, in any language, to console Nando.
I have not lived in Europe for many years, but I am Polish by birth and American by happenstance. I fear both for my motherland and for my adopted country. I am afraid that Poland is not far away from wanting to exit the European Union. The ruling party of Law and Justice (sic!) is already making waves about being “put on its knees” by the EU! The All Polish Youth, a nationalistic youth organization, wants freedom and independence, argues against accepting refugees and immigrants. Poland after all should be for Poles! — they shout as they march through cities and towns wrapped up in Polish flags and adorned with nationalistic symbols. God, Honor, and Fatherland are their values, not diversity and acceptance. As Daniel Passent wrote on his blog this morning, the effects of Brexit will adversely affect Poles, both those living in Poland and those residing in the UK. Ironically, many of the latter ones expressed their dissatisfaction—often in uncertain terms and vulgar language—with the growing diversity in Great Britain. Now the shoe is on the other foot: 75 percent of Boston—one of the largest concentrations of Poles in the UK—residents voted to leave the EU.
On my side of the Atlantic Ocean, the Donald prized Brexit. No surprises here: The fear mongering that led to Brexit has been part of his modus operandi during the ongoing presidential campaign. UK is leaving EU, the US might become a Trumpdom, surrounded by a tall fence, and living in “splendid isolation” from the outside world. Today, the Donald calls for deportations of Mexicans and barring all Muslims from entering the United States. Who will he target tomorrow? Polish Catholics? Mixed race Americans? Who else?
We, the American voters, should not dismiss Brexit, we should fear that it will only fuel the appetites of Drumpf’s supporters. What? You say they don’t follow international politics! Perhaps not, but they certainly listen to their Fürer!
Happy to share my guest blog post on the Oxford University Press Blog. You can read it here http://blog.oup.com/2016/05/immigration-latino-education-access/
On the evening he was betrayed, Jesus “poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him” (John 13:5).
On Holy Thursday Pope Francis washed and kissed the feet of Muslim, Orthodox, Hindu and Catholic refugees, declaring them children of the same God. The root of this tradition can be found in the hospitality customs of ancient civilizations, especially where sandals were the main footwear. Many people watching Pope Francis washing the feet of refugees perceived this ritual as a gesture of welcome and brotherhood at a time when anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment has spiked following the Brussels attacks.
While the Pope’s gesture brought tears to the eyes of the migrants, the reaction in Catholic Poland was the opposite of what the Pope intended. The Pontiff wanted to sharply contrast the gesture of fraternity with the gesture of war and of destruction committed in Brussels just three days before Holy Thursday.
The reactions of the Polish faithful? “The Pope (if you can call him that) desecrated the Holy Thursday, ” “Francis! Sorry, but you keep on losing the respect of the faithful,” “It’s a gesture of submission, weakness, and stupidity,” “I wonder whether he will be washing the feet of jihadists when they bomb Vatican,” “The Pope lost his marbles!”
Who are these commentators? Hooligans? Nationalists? PEGIDA members? Unfortunately, similar sentiments are expressed by some of the Polish clergy, often from the pulpit, and politicians. Conservative Catholic politicians have denounced the key issue of the Gospel, so near and dear to the heart of Pope Francis, of welcoming the stranger and loving thy neighbor. Instead, they accuse Muslim refugees of spreading diseases, being barbarian, murdering and raping European women, and wanting to introduce Sharia law in Europe. Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of the Law and Justice Party, said Poles should be afraid of parasites and other diseases refugees and immigrants bring with them. Some journalists hoped that Andrzej Duda, the President of Poland, would want to distance himself from the opinions expressed by Kaczyński, but sadly he only reinforced these fears.
Polish citizens share sentiments expressed by politicians. According to a survey conducted by the Public Opinion Research Center in Warsaw, the majority of Poles opposed resettlement of refugees from the Middle East and Africa. After the attacks in Paris, two-third of Poles (64%) opposed resettlement of Muslim refugees. The same cannot be said about attitudes to Ukrainian refugees from areas of armed conflict. They have always enjoyed higher support than refugees from Africa and the Middle East. At present, three-fifths of Poles (60%) support giving asylum to refugees from Ukraine, while a third of respondents (33%) oppose this policy.
So what is at work here? On the one hand, Poles and the Polish government extol the virtues of adhering to the teachings of the Catholic Church, but on the other hand seem to be very selective in choosing Gospel messages to follow. It seems that a primordial ideal of national identity—ironically often equated with being a Catholic—trumps the card. Poles think that Muslim refugees would always be loyal to their countries of origin and could never be counted on defending Poland.
Poland is not a country for Catholics in the style of Francis. When the Pope visits Poland this summer, government representatives and politicians will shamelessly kiss the papal ring, promote papal masses , and maybe even pose for a selfie with the Pope, but when the Pontiff will call for building bridges, the Poles will continue to call for sealing borders.
Those were the words that welcomed weary Kosovar Albanians airlifted out of Macedonia to Fort Dix, New Jersey in 1999. I remember May 6, 1999 when the first plane carrying 453 Kosovar refugees arrived on a nearby McGuire Airbase as if it was yesterday.
These Muslim refugees were greeted warmly and compassionately not only by us—the civil servants from the Federal Office of Refugee Resettlement—but also by Christine Todd Whitman, the Governor of New Jersey at the time. Governor Chris Christie has conveniently forgotten that his predecessor, a fellow Republican, and the people of his state welcomed the Muslim refugees in peril with open arms and hearts. The First Lady, Hilary Rodham Clinton, also came to Fort Dix to personally welcome arriving refugees, as did Donna Shalala, the then Secretary of Health and Human Services.
Young Albanian Americans took off from work and school to volunteer and provide interpretation services during the three months of Operation Provide Refuge. Local, Albanian speaking Imam came to the Refugee Village–as we called the camp–every Friday to lead the refugees in a jummah prayer saying “God is compassionate. God is merciful.” They were not alone. Fifty nine percent of Americans felt the airlifts were the right thing to do and a further 22 percent hoped more would be done.
Were there suspicions of infiltrators? Of course! Many of the families that arrived in Fort Dix had sons and husbands fighting in the Kosovar Liberation Army. There were fears that Milosevic sympathizers might have followed them to the United States. Those fears were short-lived. We trusted the national security agencies to do their job to protect the country as well as we did ours to protect and alleviate the suffering of the Muslim refugees. It all worked out in the end: some 3,000 Kosovars found safe haven in the U.S.. Refugees spent just a couple of weeks at Fort Dix before they were resettled in local communities. After fighting ended in Kosovo, most returned home but others stayed on to attend university, gain professional experience or simply enjoy peace. I remember them all fondly.
Three years prior to Operation Provide Refuge, there was Operation Pacific Haven during which some 7,000 Iraqi Kurds arrived at Anderson Air Force Base on Guam. There they were screened, processed for asylum, and assigned sponsors in an effort that involved more than a thousand American soldiers and civilians. Almost all of the evacuees ended up Stateside within seven months. The Kurds were mostly Muslim. Even though in both cases the screening was done in a much shorter time that it takes to vet refugees coming from overseas refugee camps, none proved to be terrorists ready to launch attacks on Americans who welcomed with opened arms. Both groups proved to be valuable additions to the multicultural and multi-religious American society. There are thriving communities of Kosovars and Iraqi Kurds in many cities in the United States.
Call me naïve, but I hope that when the Syrians arrive in America they too will see the sign: مرحبا بك في امريكا marhabaan bik fi ‘amrika (Welcom to America!) despite the fear-mongering attempts to stop their resettlement.
The 20015 TIP report has been issued last week and, as predicted, Thailand landed in Tier 3 again. But I don’t want to dwell on the reactions to the Tier 3 ranking, rather I want to share a few thoughts about the changes Thailand might consider to revise their anti-trafficking efforts, especially when it comes to protection of survivors.
Thailand’s conceptualization of victim protection seems to be very narrow. It focuses mainly on physical safety of victims. In order to ensure the safety of victims, the Thai government runs several shelters where survivors are kept during the so-called ‘identification process.’ The term seems to be a misnomer. The victims have already been found—identified–but now have to go through a legal process, often very lengthy, which determines whether they will receive their back wages or damages. The payment of back wages or assessment of damages hinges very much on the strength of the court case against the traffickers. It seems that “identification” really means prosecution. Survivors—regardless of age–must collaborate with law enforcement to get a change to receive any money the courts might decide is owed the survivors.
I had a chance to visit some of the shelters this past month. The shelters are located on the outskirts of Bangkok, far away from any modes of public transportation. One is situated on a small island in the middle of a river and can only be reached by a boat. All of the shelters I visited were spacious, clean, and well maintained. The sprawling gardens surrounding them are luscious and beautifully landscaped with birds of paradise flowers and other breathtaking flora. While the residents can walk around the gardens to their hearts content, they cannot leave the premises unless accompanied by a government officer or guard. In one of the shelters, the Rohingya men worked and could go shopping, but never without a watchful eye of the shelter official. Women do not have the same priviledges. They have no means of transportation for one, but the shelter authorities are also worried that their charges–adults or children–may not return to the shelter if allowed to go anywhere on their own.
When I asked why the boys residing in one of the shelters could not go to school one a school bus, the director said: “They would escape in no time and return to begging in the streets.” At a shelter for women, I was told that the women don’t want to leave the premises because they are afraid of the pimps and madams that might be lurking around. Perhaps…. But there was no proof of anybody skulking around the island.
According to the shelter staff, most survivors do not identify as victims of trafficking. “They don’t know any better,” said one shelter director. “We have to convince them that that’s who they are,” she said. Most survivors eventually agree to the designation as trafficked victims. This is their only chance to attempt to recoup the back wages.
Shelter residents are provided with three square meals, comfortable beds, clean clothes, but little else. Mental health counseling and occupational therapy do not lead to development of new skills. The Thai anti-trafficking law does not provide for any immigration relief or temporary residency permits outside the government-run shelters. Work permits are also limited. The only option at the end of the long legal process is to return home—to Burma, Laos, Cambodia–to the poverty that the men, women, and children tried to escape. If they are lucky they return with a few hundred dollars at most. If they are Rohingya, they have no home to which to return.
It seems that issuing residency and work permits—even temporary ones—would go a long way towards ensuring protection of victims. The concept of protection ought to be expanded to include rights: a right to exercise one’s agency, a right to free, unescorted movement, and a right not to be locked up. Expansion of rights is also the best mental health remeay for the trauma these exploited workers endured.
The notion of protection needs to be also extended to safe return home, but that is a topic for another blog.
It is almost the middle of July 2015 and the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, which is usually released in June, has not been issued yet. Many countries are waiting with baited breath to see their ranking. Thailand is one such country.
In 2014 Thailand was downgraded in the TIP Report to the bottom-of-the-pile Tier 3 ranking the “Global Sheriff,” as Janie Chuang aptly calls the J/TIP office in the U.S. State Department, established to judge countries on their anti-trafficking activities. Many criticisms have been leveled against the TIP Report in the past: in opinion pieces and blog posts as well as journal articles. One of the most common criticisms of the TIP Report is that it exists to serve the political interests of the United States. Researchers, however, also emphasize a flawed methodology that is used to rank countries.
I am not sure if the methodology is good or bad since it’s hard to assess what methodology the J/TIP uses. The 2014 TIP Report included five sentences on “methodology.” The Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) doubted whether these sentences even qualify to be called a methodology section. Indeed, the report lists the types of organizations from which it gets information without mentioning specific government departments or agencies. There is also no information whether or how the received information is vetted, whether it is based on empirical research or administrative data or opinions expressed by those that submit the information.
The U.S. Department of State prepared this Report using information from U.S. embassies, government officials, non-governmental and international organizations, published reports, news articles, academic studies, research This email address provides a means by which organizations and individuals can share information with the Department of State on government progress in addressing trafficking. U.S. diplomatic posts and domestic agencies reported on the trafficking situation and governmental action to fight trafficking based on thorough research that included meetings with a wide variety of government officials, local and international NGO trips to every region of the world, and information submitted to email@example.com representatives, officials of international organizations, journalists, academics, and survivors. U.S. missions overseas are dedicated to covering human trafficking issues. The 2014 TIP Report covers government efforts undertaken from April 1, 2013 through March 31, 2014. 
My discussions with government representatives and NGOs in Bangkok indicate that neither the Thai civil servants nor the civil society understand how the ranking system works and against what criteria the information they provided is evaluated. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for example, did not receive a satisfactory answer to their query why J/TIP assessed the prosecutions that the Thai government launched in 2014 as low. Were these numbers assessed against previous year’s prosecutions (indeed the number of persecutions in 2014 was lower than in 2013), against the number of identified survivors of trafficking or against estimates of trafficked victims?
Solid data on trafficking is hard to come by in Thailand. The Ministry of Social Development that is responsible for funding and providing services to survivors of human trafficking does not release the data that government-run shelters for victims report to the Ministry. I visited the Kredtrakarn Protection and Occupational Development Centre (Nonthaburi Province) last week and asked the director how many victims she served last year. She wouldn’t tell me; she said this is confidential information. She did mention, however, that she could house as many as 200 victims at any given time and that 180 survivors of trafficking were living in the shelter on the day visited. I tried to play simple math with her and asked average number of victims served every year, the number of months victims stay in the shelter, but to no avail. I asked a similar question of an intergovernmental organization that provides assistance to victims and the silence was deafening. Why this fear of sharing information? Obviously, I was not asking for names of victims or any other type of data that should be protected by privacy laws.
Local NGOs were more forthcoming with information. The Human Rights and Development Foundation (HRDF) and the Labor Promotion Network (LPN) told me they had served about 500 victims each in the last 10 years. Is that a lot? Again, it is hard to make an assessment, as we don’t know to what to compare these numbers. Given the limited resources each organization has—foreign donors exclusively fund both—it seems that the caseloads are substantial. However, given the challenges of estimating the number of trafficked persons in Thailand—see a rather robust attempt by Courtland Robinson of the Johns Hopkins University, in collaboration with Sompong Srakaew of LPN, to assess the number of trafficked victims among Burmese labor workers in Samut Sakhon–these numbers are really meaningless.
Thailand is waiting for the TIP Report in an empirical vacuum and worries as it follows testimonies of people such as Mark Lagon, the former Ambassador at Large in the J/TIP office, who urged the U.S. government to sustain a tier-three ranking should the government of Thailand not show strong will to take corrective action to address human trafficking in short order.
Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think there is no trafficking in Thailand. Even during my short visit, supported by the Fulbright Program, I have seen and heard advocates and scholars alike talk about egregious labor exploitation in many industries, but especially in the fishing industry. Earlier this year—in May 2015—the Thai police discovered a few dozen graves on the Thai-Malaysia border of Muslim Rohingyas, who according to the police reports were “starved to death or died of disease while being held by traffickers who were awaiting payment of ransoms.”
The Thai government is making improvements to its response to human trafficking. On July 8, 2015 the Bangkok Post reported that authorities are setting up a special inter-agency body to strengthen investigations of human trafficking cases. The new unit includes representatives of the Royal Thai Police Office, the Department of Special Investigation, and the Social Development and Human Security Ministry.
As Thailand waits for the TIP ranking, Reuters reports that its neighbor—Malaysia—has been upgraded to Tier 2 Watch List. Some human rights advocates and U.S. lawmakers expected Malaysia to remain in Tier 3. If the number of prosecutions and convictions of traffickers is a measure of complying with the minimum standards of anti-trafficking activities, Malaysia had reported 89 human-trafficking investigations in 2013, down from 190, and nine convictions compared with 21 in 2012. If indeed Malaysia appears on Tier 2 Watch List in the coming days, we will know that foreign and trade-policy drive the U.S. ranking system more so than empirical data. Malaysia is the current chair of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations. It is seeking to promote unity within the bloc in the face of China’s increasingly assertive pursuits of territorial claims in the South China Sea, an object of U.S. criticism. Malaysia also hopes to be a signatory to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). TPP would link a dozen countries, cover 40 percent of the world economy and form a central element of President Obama’s strategic shift towards Asia.
 See Laura Augustin’s op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer (July 1, 2007) or a blog posted from 2009 http://www.lauraagustin.com/whats-wrong-with-the-trafficking-crusade http://www.lauraagustin.com/tip-trafficking-in-persons-the-no-methodology-report
 See Janie Chuang (2006), The United States as Global Sheriff: Using Unilateral Sanctions to Combat Human Trafficking. Michigan Journal of International Law 25: 437-494. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=990098
 See the full testimony here http://www.cfr.org/global/illicit-fishing-human-trafficking/p32708
The Polish blogosphere has been overtaken by ‘discussions’ about–or should I say, expressions of hatred towards—Muslim refugees and migrants. The debate intensified when the European Union proposed binding quotas on asylum seekers for its 28 member states. Poland vehemently opposed these plans.
Poles took to the Internet to express their outrage about the possibility of admitting Muslim refugees and migrants. The better mannered commentators pointed out cultural and religious difference between Catholic Poles and Muslim migrants that would prevent integration of the latter into the Polish society. Those with less restraint called Muslims ‘’lazy, passive and intolerant savages who treat women poorly, ruin whole neighborhoods, behead passerbys, and comit terrorist attacks.”
Many Poles see Muslims as a threat to European identity. They are afraid that Sharia laws will replace the Polish legal system and cite Nigel Farage who has claimed “that ‘ghettos’ in parts of the UK are being run according to Sharia law as authorities ‘turn a blind eye’ because of their ‘moral cowardice’.” I know that hatred and racism are not rational feelings, but I often wonder whether a bit more education about Islam and Muslims would positively affect the Poles’ attitudes toward Muslims. Perhaps the education should start with a historical look at Muslim minorities in Poland.
Yes, there are Muslims in Poland. The presence of Muslims in Poland dates back to the 14th century when Tartars settled in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In northeastern Poland there are villages where Muslim Tartars have lived peacefully alongside their Catholic and Eastern Orthodox brethren for a long time. I remember taking my anthropology students to Sokółka and Bohoniki to see the peaceful co-existence of different religions and cultures in the late 1970s. Konrad Pędziwiatr estimates the number of Muslims in Poland between 25,000 and 40,000 people. At a conference at the Józef Tischner European University in Krakow in July 2011 panelists talked about Poles of Syrian, Egyptian and Turkish origin—whose families arrived after 1970–who play an important role in civic and community organizations in different parts of the country. The consensus was that Muslims are contributing members of the society and should feel welcomed in Poland.
What a difference 4 years makes! When Ewa Kopacz, the Polish Prime Minister, announced in the summer of 2015 that the country would take in 60 Syrian refugee families of Christian faith, Poles breathed a sign of relief. The debate leading to the announcement was anything but welcoming. In my hometown of Poznan—that would take 10 of the 60 families—the local TV show aired a discussion between Krystian Golec of the All-Polish Youth (Młodzież Wszechpolska), a Polish youth organization based on nationalistic doctrine, and Dr. Mariusz Marszewski from the Eastern Institute (Instytut Wschodni) of the Adam Mickiewicz University. In the discussion Mr. Golec showed a great deal of ignorance about Christianity in Syria and was shocked when Professor Marszewski talked about Christian Syrians being culturally Arab. Somehow the Arab identity of Christian Syrians did not fit into Mr. Golec’s visions of cultural similarities between them and the Catholic Poles.
The ignorance of many Poles shows also in total lack of understanding of how the international refugee regime works and who bears the financial responsibility for refugees. The opponents of admitting Muslim refugees to Poland shout loudly about the financial burden refugees would place on the Polish society. In reality, ¾ of the funds needed to resettle refugees would come from the European Union’s Asylum, Migration, and Integration Fund, while ¼ would come from the Polish government. In the case of the 60 families, the total cost would be four million PLN or a little over one million US dollars. The Estera Foundation, a Polish non-governmental organization, claims that they are able to guarantee to maintain and care for 1,500 persecuted Christians from Syria. They refugees would receive a Polish language training, case management, and integration assistance. All of these actions would be financed with private money, not taxpayers’ money.
Sadly, reason and mathematical calculations fall on deaf ears. The nationalists are eager to welcome the descendants of Poles sent to Kazakhstan and Siberia in the previous century. They united in their desire under the slogan: We don’t want immigrants, we want repatriates! When Poles appreciate multiculturalism, they limit their appreciation of diversity to culinary offerings people from other countries can provide. As my friend and colleague, Professor Michal Buchowski says: They say yes to kebab, but no to Islam.
 See commentaries to an article written by Roza Thun, a Polish politician, in the Polish Daily Gazeta Wyborcza where she invites Catholic Poles to follow the Bible and welcome the stranger.
 Estera, a Polish non-governmental organization, asked the government to allow 1,500 Syrian Christians to live in Poland. The NGO said charities, businesses and churches could cover living costs for the refugees.
I spent the month of May 2016 at the Deusto University in Bilbao, Spain teaching in the Erasmus Mundus Master’s in International Migration and Social Cohesion (MISOCO) program. It was a delightful experience. While my students were learning from me about the U.S. refugee resettlement system, the challenges facing Central American children and adolescents fleeing violence and poverty in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, and debating the trend to medicalize human suffering, I was learning about international migration and immigrant integration in the Basque Country.
The foreign-born population in Spain hovers around 11%; only 2.1% of the 4.4 million immigrants reside in the Basque Country. The highest percentage of immigrants settled in the Basque Country come from Columbia (11.8%), Bolivia (9.7%), Romania (8.8%), followed by Morocco, Portugal and Ecuador (7.5% each). They are virtually invisible in the city center, however, in neighborhoods such as San Francisco immigrants—especially immigrants from Sub-Saharan Africa—constitute as much as 20% of the residents. Because of the presence of immigrants San Francisco gets a very bad rap. Some of the Spaniards I talked to—highly educated and well-travelled people—often mentioned that they would not venture into the neighborhood of San Francisco for the fear of the alleged crimes—drug-dealing, prostitution, and theft–propagated by immigrants. Popular tourist sites such as tripdvisor.com or virtualtourist.com feed these fears.
The onset of the economic crisis in 2008 further affected the negative attitudes towards immigrants as native workers faced many challenges in the Spanish labor market. Of course, immigrants faced the same challenges, but the perception that foreigners threaten the economic well-being of locals began to feed the rumor mill: the number of immigrants—especially from Africa and Roma from Romania—are on the rise; immigrants take away from Spaniards not only jobs, but are depleting the pool of money available for the basic minimum income scheme for the poor. In order to squash these rumors, Bilbao—following Barcelona—has launched a clever public service campaign to dispel misconceptions and the prejudices that many local people held about minorities and immigrants. The campaign dispatches the Anti-Rumor Network members to different neighborhoods, places where people gather informally, local civic centers, and the homes of their own family members to fight fiction with fact and a lot of humor.
For those who understand Spanish, you can see a sample of the Anti-Rumor Campaign here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3pNEZTQ7u-0
[Here is a sneak peek at the Preface to my book manuscript on trafficked children]
It was a crisp fall afternoon in 2013. I was waiting in front of the Silver Diner in suburban Maryland to meet Evelyn. Several years older than when I first interviewed her, Evelyn has not lost her exuberance. Pushing her 10-month old son in a stroller to the restaurant where we planned to have a late lunch, Evelyn smiled and waved as soon as she spotted me. With one hand holding onto the baby’s carriage, she used her other arm to envelop me in a warm hug.
Evelyn is a survivor of domestic servitude. For two years she lived in her trafficker’s house in Greenbelt, Maryland, completely isolated from outside contact: she was not permitted to speak with her family or even answer the door. She was not allowed to go to school. In 1995, Evelyn’s mother and uncle sold her to Theresa Mubang, an acquaintance of Evelyn’s maternal uncle, to settle an old land dispute in Cameroon. Mubang brought Evelyn to the United States when she was barely 10 years old. Mubang, a naturalized US citizen, traveled on an American passport, but Evelyn used fraudulent documents to cross international borders. Evelyn thought she was coming to the U.S. to fulfill her childhood dream of attending an American school, but the reality was different from the life she imagined watching The Cosby Show and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Instead of the idyllic life of hopping on a school bus every morning, learning English, and making new friends, Evelyn had been forced to care for Mubang’s young children around-the-clock and perform never-ending household chores. When she was allowed to rest, she slept on the floor. If her cleaning was not up to Mubang’s standards, Evelyn was beaten with an extension cord or locked up in a basement without food. Mubang’s son urinated on Evelyn regularly to humiliate her. When she tired of beating Evelyn, her captor scratched the girl. If ever there was a poster child for a trafficked minor, Evelyn is it.
Evelyn’s body testifies to the physical violence she had endured: she has scars and burns to remind her of the ordeal. A decade after she escaped, Evelyn still gets emotional recounting not just the scars on her body, but also the verbal abuse Mubang wielded as skillfully as the rod used to discipline Evelyn. However, the insults, the cruelty, and the violence did not squash Evelyn’s spirit. Throughout her ordeal Evelyn refused to give up. She persisted, day by day, with a defiantly hopeful outlook and a head held high.
When the opportunity arose, Evelyn escaped. She found help, first from a distant relative and then from the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LIRS). In 2003, when Evelyn was nearing her 13th birthday, the U.S. federal government officially recognized Evelyn as a trafficked child. She was now eligible for federally funded assistance to victims of child trafficking—help was on its way. Evelyn is grateful to LIRS, to her foster “auntie”, and first and foremost to her pro bono attorney, Melanie Orhant. With Orhant’s expert legal assistance, Evelyn received a special visa for victims of trafficking (T-Visa) allowing her to stay in the country, be placed in foster care, and attend school. Throughout this lengthy process, Evelyn observed Orhant, at the time a managing attorney for the Break the Chain Campaign, helping other victims rebuild their lives in America. Melanie’s passion and dedication inspired Evelyn. During our first interview in 2006, Evelyn told me she wanted to be like Melanie: advocate on behalf of trafficked victims, participate in anti-trafficking activities, and lead support groups for survivors. Truth be told, I was a bit skeptical about her ability to accomplish her goals. Evelyn has proven me wrong; she has achieved her dream of becoming a self-described “activist against modern day slavery.” Evelyn speaks at events for Break the Chains Campaign and collaborates with Survivors of Slavery, a non-profit organization, which, ”supports survivors of modern slavery who want to lend their voice to the 21st century abolitionist movement.” Recently, Evelyn went on a retreat with a group of young women who had been trafficked for sexual exploitation. She said that she drew strength from the retreat and hoped that sharing her story was helpful to the other women.
Evelyn’s strength manifests itself in many different ways. An excellent student in Cameroon with a strong yearning to learn new things, Evelyn was told over and over again that she was “dumb”, “dirty”, and “unworthy”, and that she would never amount to much. Though she struggled in high school in America, these insults did not prevent Evelyn from pursuing her dream of attending college. While her spoken English was passable, she was illiterate in English. Reading, writing, and solving math problems posed insurmountable challenges at times. Discouraged, she dropped out, but not for long. She enrolled in a GED program and after getting her diploma went on to earn an associate degree in social work from a local community college. With a new boost of confidence, she enrolled in an online BA program in homeland security at University of Maryland. She will graduate in May of 2015.
Strong and determined to succeed, Evelyn continues to show incredible resiliency in the face of adversity. Unfortunately, her life is not free of struggles. A few years ago a stranger in the street raped her at gunpoint. She thought that she would not be able to trust a man ever again. Yet a few years later she found a loving partner in Malcolm, the father of her son. Their son Molima, “My Heart”, as his father calls him, is the center of Evelyn and Malcolm’s lives. Evelyn and Malcolm are engaged to be married. They are hopeful for a good family life.
A few dark clouds still overshadow Evelyn’s happiness. For a long time, she could not understand why her mother sold her to a stranger. How could a mother give up her own flesh and blood? The inability to understand her mother’s actions weighted so heavily on Evelyn that she fell into depression. She thought that the only way she could shake off the feeling of despair would be to confront her mother. With the help of an older brother living in Europe, Evelyn saved money for an airline ticket and in 2012 went to Cameroon. Evelyn shared with me excerpts from the journal she kept while visiting her family in Cameroon.
She left her homeland a little girl of nine, taken across the ocean by a stranger, but returned on her own terms, a young woman of 27. Although bitter about her mother’s involvement in her trafficking, Evelyn was startled by her own joy and excitement at seeing her mom. Tears ran down both of their cheeks as they hugged for the first time in almost two decades. Evelyn’s mother would not let go of her daughter even when Evelyn’s siblings came to embrace her. Surrounded by family members, mother and daughter held each other for over an hour.
A few days after visiting her mom and then her dad, Evelyn finally met her maternal uncle, a man she used to call father. Burdened by the thought of being treated as chattel, Evelyn confronted her uncle. Looking him in the eye, Evelyn wanted to know what role he played in her trafficking. At first he said he merely arranged for Mubang to take Evelyn with her to the States, but later admitted that money changed hands. Fearing that other people in her hometown might treat their children like disposable goods, Evelyn spent a few days organizing meetings and speaking to parents, children, and civil society groups about child trafficking and its effects on young victims. Ever the activist, she hopes that these discussions will raise awareness about trafficking in children.
Today, Evelyn is not free of economic difficulties. Recently, she lost her job as a security guard. “It was one of those ‘he said, she said’ stories; my word against my co-worker’s word,” she told me. The company let her go. Unfortunately, Evelyn did not qualify for unemployment benefits. As a result her fiancé is now the sole breadwinner. An artist from Cameroon, Malcolm has to supplement rare artistic commissions with a job as a manual laborer. They try to economize as best as they can, but some days they go to bed hungry. Evelyn is ill-prepared to understand the intricacies of networking and job-hunting in America. She wishes that the programs providing assistance to survivors of trafficking focused less on mental health counseling and more on employment services.
As we finish up our lunch, Evelyn says she has faith that things will improve. I do not doubt that Evelyn will persevere. Afong is Evelyn’s middle name, given to her by her grandmother, and afong means strength in the language of Evelyn’s childhood.