In my second year of college, I decided to volunteer for a service project that would take me from my comfortable spot in Southern California all the way across the country to Baltimore, MD for ten days. At the time, I was hoping to find a way to make a difference in the world. Soon I was placed on a team with four other girls, and our task was to help an outreach center in whatever way they needed.
Our first few days involved cleaning out two buildings of junk, serving food to the homeless, and helping at a school in a poor neighborhood. Our efforts were visibly helpful; mouths were fed, children were helped and smiling, and the regular outreach volunteers were clearly relieved at not having to bear the entire burden for a time. It felt as though I was able to make a difference, small though it may have been, and I was satisfied. I did my part; maybe I could go on another service project in a year.
With a couple days left before we headed back home, a lady from the outreach center called us together for a meeting one early morning. She introduced us to a friend of hers and a partner of the outreach center named Anne*; we were told we’d be working with her for the final two days. As she sat with us, Anne began talking very seriously about her line of work: caring for women who have been and are currently being trafficked in Maryland. These women, she explained, had been coerced into their position, taken from their homes in other cities, states, and even countries—some could not speak English, some could not read or write. Some had been trafficked, used and abused, for more than a decade.
As a young, white college student who came from a middle class family, I was utterly speechless; I’d never heard the term “human trafficking” before, let alone known about it. I was appalled at mankind—could a person truly force another into hard labor or sex? Could slavery still possibly exist in this day and age—in America? Anger surged through me as I listened, thoughts racing through my head how to stop this from happening.
That day, Anne brought me and one other girl along with her to search for women being pimped out on the streets of Baltimore for sex. The moment was surreal as I pointed at a teenager standing on a corner and asked, “Do you think she is one?” Yes, Anne confirmed, as she motioned towards a man across the street, standing with his eyes sharply focused on the girl. “He watches that nobody takes her away without his consent,” Anne said. We had to pull a U-turn a couple times before parking, then Anne quickly jumped out to give the young girl a plastic bag filled with toiletries. I stared from the car window, watching this young girl deny the bag, shift her eyes towards the man, grab the bag quickly, and walk away. Anne came back, telling me the girls always deny the bag out of fear of being punished but they eventually take it because they need the items so badly—toothbrush, toothpaste, comb, pads. They don’t always get these basic things from the men and women who run their lives.
As I sat on the plane at the end of that ten-day trip, I no longer felt satisfied; what difference had I truly made? Instead, I felt defeated knowing the impact I could make on human trafficking would be dismal. Why even try?
Unfortunately, human trafficking isn’t limited to the streets of Baltimore, MD. It extends around the globe, affecting every single country in the world. Pointedly, North Africa is a prime target for human trafficking due to its position between Europe, the Americas, and Sub-Saharan Africa; it is a major transit zone, as well as a destination spot for many young girls and boys being forced into labor and sex.
It’s been almost ten years since I visited Baltimore. The overwhelming feeling that I am too small to help still comes over me, but now I know the refrain: I am not fighting alone. If we work together, we can be a force that will defeat human trafficking, breaking the bonds of slavery. If we stand and fight together for justice, we can make a difference. We certainly have a responsibility to help, protect, and free our brothers and sisters as we are able. This is why Beauty For Ashes exists—to protect girls from being trafficked and restore those who were. Will you join us?
“Everybody can be great … because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” —Martin Luther King, Jr.
*Names have been changed for privacy