Perhaps you think you know the story. Like the opioid epidemic and the multiple devastating natural disasters that have hit the United States this year, human trafficking is another in a list of problems that we see, hear and read about, but may not fully understand.
We all know what human trafficking is; according to the Department of Homeland Security, it is defined as “modern-day slavery and involves the use of force, fraud or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act.” Perhaps you did not know, however, the International Labor Organization values the human trafficking industry at $150 billion, there were upwards of 8,000 human trafficking cases reported in 2016, or 1,200 women are arrested for soliciting each year in Franklin County, 92% of which are identified as victims of human trafficking.
The problem is more widespread and closer to home than any of us would like to believe. The numbers over the past several years have only increased, with Ohio now ranked fifth in the nation for the most human trafficking cases due to the large amount of vehicle traffic that passes through the state, according to WKBN Youngstown.
For survivors of trafficking, statistics are not much better, which is where the Columbus organization Freedom a la Cart comes into play. A food-catering service that exclusively employs women recovering from human trafficking, Freedom, began in 2009 and has seen continuous growth since then. They have been working closely with the Franklin County courts to “empower survivors of human trafficking to build new lives where they can feel like they are free, personally and economically, so that they are stable and support themselves without codependency,” says Executive Director Paula Haines.
This is a task that is easier said than done: 70% of the women employed by Freedom have been sexually abused as minors, 96% have been in prison (an average of 11 times per woman), and 50% have had traumatic brain injuries. On the other hand, Freedom is much more than just a job. “We’ve focused on the transition from an emphasis on creating and providing jobs to workforce development,” Haines says. “We are thinking more of moving the ladies through a program with employment outside of our organization as the end result; that way we can serve more women, and better serve them so they are not stopping with us.”
The amount of time women work can vary from six months to four years, with no real time limit on how long women choose to stay before seeking outside employment. Workforce development is just the first step. The women learn skills in the kitchen, but also have access to counseling and an on-staff case manager to help teach life skills and navigate the recovery process.
As the organization perfects its methods, success stories have become frequent. “Some of the women are getting jobs on their own, some want us to help them find a job outside of Freedom,” Haines explains. “Some are staying in the addiction recovery world and working with other partnering agencies in a supporting administrative role or peer support, and then others are working at Abercrombie and Fitch warehouses. They are all different, and they are everywhere.”
Next, Haines plans to open a storefront location in Columbus to serve not only as a headquarters for their catering service, but as a café for walk-in customers. She intends t
o replicate what Freedom has accomplished in Columbus, across the nation, and to provide their unique and effective approach to as many survivors as possible.
As the organization grows, Ohio State students are finding ways to get involved as well, such as junior Finance major Betsey Strader, who is currently working on a semester-long group project with the company. “I didn’t realize the crazy amount of human trafficking that occurs, especially in Columbus,” Strader says. “So far, we have been advertising, promoting people to get to their location and try it out, because a lot of them do not realize it is there.” The newest addition to Freedom’s slate is a café in the Northside Branch of the Columbus Public library on High Street, where fresh bakery items are served. Strader’s group is helping to canvas potential locations for the full-fledged café to serve some of the lunch and sandwich items that have been so popular in Freedom’s catering business.
In addition to Freedom’s work, OSU students can seek out an organization combating human trafficking even closer to home, in the form of the new student group UNCHAINED. Based off of the Columbus nonprofit of the same name, UNCHAINED is looking to take a new perspective on their yearly spring fashion show to spread awareness for human trafficking. “It starts with a narrative, which is based on a survivor,” says President Lisa Yacoub. “The narrative is meant to tell a continuous story, so the dresses go with that, and usually go from dark to light. This year we are trying to do our own narrative and our own collection and see if we can actually do it.” Proceeds from the show help fund scholarships to help survivors go back to school.
The fashion show is only a portion of the club’s commitment to educating students on how to recognize and prevent human trafficking, as speakers also attend meetings to share their stories and experiences with students. For UNCHAINED, education is crucial. “When we were recruiting in the beginning we asked members, ‘Hey have you heard about human trafficking?’ and they would say, ‘that happens in other countries,’ and a lot of people do not know that it happens right here in Columbus,” Yacoub says. “I think that’s why UNCHAINED is so important; it is our duty as citizens of this world to care for each other and be humane and know if an evil is happening to learn about it so that you can prevent it.”
Most OSU students probably have little idea of the scope of human trafficking in Ohio, and even less knowledge of the difficult process of recovery for the victims of such an ordeal. However, the work both Freedom a la Cart and UNCHAINED do to further awareness and empower the survivors of this terrifying industry is beginning to take hold. It goes to show that awareness is half the battle, and it is one that more women trapped in the trafficking world are winning every day.