In our backyard: Every human counts

When thinking of human trafficking—the world’s second most profitable criminal industry—what comes to mind? Dirty faces peeking out from a shack? Women dancing on a bar in Thailand? Liam Neeson busting down a brothel door? Sure. But expand that picture to include the local nail salon, Grand Rapids Art Prize, and the Michigan/Michigan State football game. Human trafficking runs undercover through these highly attended places, hiding behind people’s ignorance. Human exploitation exists in every place where there is a vulnerability. The United States is no exception. An estimated 1.5 million people in America are trapped right now, with victims identified in every single state. Michigan, in fact, ranks as the second worst state for trafficking in the U.S. One anti-trafficking organization reported that West Michigan has 12 of the 15 demographics that “draw the eye of a trafficker to a community” (Fox News). However, both local and international organizations are working to reduce these horrifying statistics. Jillian Chang, a junior, is president of Hope’s chapter of a large antitrafficking organization called International Justice Mission.

What is International Justice Mission (IJM)?

“IJM is a global nonprofit organization that fights human trafficking. They have offices around the world, and they only hire staff from within the country they are in, which I think is super cool. IJM does a lot of rescue work, like literally going into brothels. They also do a lot of systematic work to break down human trafficking through the criminal justice system: making sure the right policies are in place in a country and working with local law enforcement. We do a lot of advocacy work and spreading awareness, because a lot of people don’t know what human trafficking is.

Why did you get involved in IJM?

“IJM was one actually of the main reasons that I came to Hope. I saw that they had a chapter, here and I wanted to get involved. I went on a service trip to Cambodia a few years back, and one of the ministries that we partnered with had a beauty school for survivors. The school also helped with reintegration into society rehabilitation and self-empowerment. We got to meet the survivors and see them work with such joy. When I came back, I was very angry. I went to the Lord about it, and He took my broken heart and turned it into a heart of compassion for His children. So I came to Hope, contacted the IJM chapter, and said, ‘Hi, I’m a freshman and I’ll do whatever you want me to do; I just want to be a part of IJM.’”

What is the most impactful thing that you have learned about human trafficking?

“Before, I had such a narrow mind of what human trafficking was. So many people have a mental picture of a girl being brought into a brothel. While that example of sex trafficking is so real and so heartbreaking, sex trafficking is only one sector of human trafficking. There are many people in forced labor in brick kilns and cutting trees. There are boys who are forced to fish in deep water with nets, and they often drown. There are so many who are being trafficked in our backyard. Human trafficking has been reported in every single state in the U.S. A couple years back, Michigan was ranked the second worst state for it in the United States. Grand Rapids is a huge hub. Also its largely systematic in how we as a society function and what we pour our resources into. A lot of us buy things without knowing where it came from, who picked it or who was involved with making it.”

What can we, as students, do to prevent human trafficking?

“I think this issue seems so big and unbreakable that people don’t think they can do anything about it. But there are a lot of little things that you can do. Start researching the clothing brands and produce that you buy and boycott the ones that are using forced labor. There is an app called BuyCott where you can scan the tag of clothing and see if it was made with human trafficking labor. Shopping at thrift stores is another good way to make sure you aren’t directly contributing to trafficking. Also, Google and research how to identify the signs of a trafficked person.

What current initiative is Hope’s IJM chapter working on?

“It’s called the Red Sand Project. We will put red sand in the cracks of Hope’s sidewalks to symbolize the 40.3 million people that are trapped in human trafficking right now: those who have fallen through the cracks, who we often walk over every day without thinking about it. We are combinding that project with a worship and prayer night so that we can respond when we see injustice. Prayer is a huge part of IJM. They dedicate an hour a day to prayer as an organization. They strongly believe prayer is why they have had such success in fighting human trafficking. The Red Sand Project will be Friday, October 18. The worship night will be October 19 from 7 to 9 p.m. in the new Campus Ministries’ house.”

IJM gives students a unique platform to create change through small, everyday actions. A global problem requires a global solution at the individual level.

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