Ending the ills of modern-day slavery

Not many took a second glance at the two children selling videos outside the entrance to the Foggy Bottom Metro station. After all, the pair seemed to be raising money for a school fundraiser. But the reality was much more sinister.

The young boys were collecting profits for a man who watched them from a van parked a few yards away. The man’s gaze ensured they did their job – a job they were forced into against their will. At just five and seven years old, the boys were victims of human trafficking.

This was the story recounted by senior Katie Reyzis, who took professor Michele Clark’s course on the subject last year. Over the years, the class has been the impetus for several students to devote their careers to the issue, which affects 12 million people around the world, according to the United Nations.

Making this decision was easy for Reyzis. Along with senior Jordanna Sussman and alumna Joanna Cori, she joined the Polaris Project, a nonprofit organization established in 2002 to combat what it deems the “modern-day slavery” of human trafficking – whether sexual or labor-related in nature.

To do this, the project engages in activism on several fronts, ranging from direct victim outreach to advocating for stronger state and federal anti-trafficking legislation.

At the end of the day, Reyzis said, education is the best tool to raise awareness of human trafficking.

“I think the most important part of identifying potential victims is getting educated about the issue and erasing some of the misconceptions, like, ‘I thought this only happened in Africa,’ ” said Reyzis, who serves as a fellow at the project.

It turns out human trafficking is rampant in the United States, too. According to the U.S. Department of State, between 14,500 and 17,500 foreign nationals are trafficked into America each year and subjected to what amounts to de facto enslavement.

Cori, who is the Polaris Project’s director of fundraising and development, agrees the problem is not salient in most Americans’ minds. As much as the public believes trafficking dominates countries like Cambodia, India and Thailand, it is woefully unaware that victims also exist in Washington, she said.

“What is really important for people to realize is that [human trafficking] is happening right down the street from us,” said Cori, who added the problem was particularly common in the D.C. suburbs, where many immigrants are promised a job or an education but instead lead lives of domestic servitude.

She said the use of children in the D.C. sex industry is also widespread, as they are often found working in massage parlors and brothels. In 2000, Congress enacted the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, which classifies those coerced to perform sex work under the age of 18 as victims of a “severe form of trafficking.” But in spite of legislative enactments like these, the problem persists locally.

Forcing it back on the political agenda involves traditional tactics such as fundraising, but also methods of communication such as social media outreach. Sussman, another fellow at the Polaris Project, works in this area, coordinating events on Facebook, Twitter and Change.org – a site that collects petitions for social progress from members of the public.

But given the lack of knowledge about trafficking, the job can be hard.

“Working with the public and the community and trying to raise more awareness is a huge task, especially since this crime has been under the radar for such a long time,” Sussman said.

A potential comfort can be found in that the Polaris Project is not the only group dedicated to mobilizing its resources on the issue. On-campus student organizations with similar goals also put in a significant effort. Two such groups, Trafficking Free GW and the GW chapter of Amnesty International, recently organized a three-part lecture series entitled Human Trafficking: Foggy Bottom and Beyond. Last Thursday, as part of the series, Clark moderated a panel discussion that focused on common misconceptions about human trafficking and policy responses to combat them.

Senior Gabriela Dorantes, who founded Trafficking Free GW, also cited Clark’s class as the inspiration behind her decision to start the organization.

“We were shocked that human trafficking is everywhere. And [Clark] said ‘Well, what do you want to do about it?’ ” Dorantes said.

That kind of call to action is what Clark said she tries to instill in her students – along with the hope that the activism they go on to pursue will produce tangible results.

“I try to expose my students to real-world practitioners and let them know about internships,” Clark said. “It’s natural for young people to feel a sense of wanting to be involved in changing the world for some kind of good. So many great political change movements have been led by students.”

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.