Share the Journey — There is only ‘us’

Marissa Castellanos

When other humans are bought and sold, exploited and abused for the self-serving purposes of another, it is in fact our own brothers and sisters who are being hurt. In a way, it is even our own flesh and blood. Because we belong to each other.

I must be mindful of this if I am to do the work of caring about and coming alongside some of the most vulnerable among us. I must care about their pain, be outraged at their oppression, and feel compelled to engage in change on their behalf.

This work can be difficult, but despite the darkness that accompanies the realities of human trafficking, I remain hopeful.

I have witnessed some powerful, life-changing moments in this work, when the strength and resiliency of the human spirit was evident despite great adversity. These moments have inspired me, and I am reminded that we can be better.

A few years ago, I went to visit a young woman in the house where she was staying after she exited her trafficking experience. As we sat together, she began reading from a children’s book. She was practicing her English, pronouncing each word carefully. Finally, she closed the book, and almost in a whisper said, “I have been in the United States now for more than two years, but this is the first time I have felt like I am actually in America.”

She survived being a domestic servant for more than seven years. Her peace and sense of hope inspire me.

Another young woman escaped a tobacco farm where she was forced to work 12-14 hours a day for no pay. She escaped during a few minutes that she was left unchaperoned. She was almost 7 months pregnant and ran 10 miles away from the farm. As she was entering the city limits, the trafficker pulled up beside her and tried to force her into his truck. Somehow, this young woman was able to push away and run down an embankment, where she ran into a firehouse.

She survived forced labor in agriculture. Her presence of mind, physical strength and determination inspire me.

A colleague and I were in a van with four young men, driving away from the rural community where they had been trafficked and exploited by a “contratista” (middle manager) on a farm. They were in the U.S. on H2A visas, sponsored by their employer. We were on our way to emergency housing, and during the car ride, the men frequently ducked down when they saw a white van they feared was the contratista. Their fear was palpable — fear of being recaptured, and fear of harm being done to their families in their home country.

They survived labor trafficking on central Kentucky farms. Their bravery, perseverance and love for their families inspire me.

These individuals are why this work is so important. Their lives, and the lives of so many who have lived similar experiences, are worthy of freedom, dignity and justice. They are worthy of us doing what is in our power to combat these atrocities.

January is National Human Trafficking Awareness Month. What can you do? You can start by reading about human trafficking and increasing your personal knowledge, then share what you learn via social media. Kids in the foster care system are some of the most vulnerable to trafficking: Are you willing to become a mentor or foster parent? Being a more conscious consumer impacts workers internationally, so you can commit to purchasing Fair Trade or ethically sourced products.

If you are observant about the conditions and people around you, perhaps you’ll see suspicious circumstances that warrant a report. You can report suspected trafficking to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. Please save the hotline number in your phone: 1-888-373-7888.

There is so much we can do. We can commit ourselves to learning and doing more over time.

May we care deeply about justice and about our common humanity. Because we are more alike than we are different.

In the words of Mother Teresa, reimagined by Jesuit Father Gregory Boyle: “We really do belong to each to other. We risk so much when we forget that.”

Marissa Castellanos is director of Catholic Charities of Louisville’s Bakhita Empowerment Initiative. Visit www.bakhitaempowerment.org to learn how you can help.

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