From the moment we are born, we begin to learn. What and how we learn changes over the months, days and years. We go from learning how to count on our fingers, to singing the ABCs, to learning how to add and subtract. As we age and our interests mature from Looney Tunes to Leo Tolstoy, we move on to college and pick a major, a focus for our future careers outside of school. For me that focus was social work. I learned about therapeutic techniques, the history of welfare laws in the United States, and how to use the DSM – the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It was not until several years after I began working at Jewish Family Service of Metropolitan Detroit that I learned what human trafficking is.
The international survivors of human trafficking with whom I have worked in our region have helped me learn not only what human trafficking is and how it is “defined.” They have also helped me learn about people who have involuntarily left lives behind, and have had to learn what it means to create a new life in a strange land. I have learned about Ethiopian tea ceremonies. I have learned about food customs and dishes from the Togo. I have learned about religious practices in French Guinea. I learned about care-giving traditions in the Philippines. I have even learned the “correct” way of giving a hug in Rwanda. Most importantly however, I have learned to remain positive, despite the challenges someone may face.
All the survivors with whom I have, and continue to work with never agreed to, chose or expected to find them involved in an illegal form of work or to be sexual exploited. They found themselves suddenly removed from their villages, cities, and countries-their homes- that they had known their whole lives due to a false promise of a “better” way of life. Reflecting on the conditions that these survivors endured and yet survived; and realizing that through the support of my agency, and many other agencies in Southeastern Michigan, they were able to leave those situations; I cannot but admire the strength of them all.
In addition to showing strength, each survivor has shown such hope and positivity for the new life that they unexpectedly have to now make in a foreign land. They express no doubts at being able to overcome obstacles. Together, we discuss what they want this “new life” to look like and what support my agency and others can provide to help create it. There is never a question of “will this happen” or “can I do this?” They only have the thought: “I can do this.” My job is to see how we can help.
I have seen survivors go from being unemployed with no income, to finding a full time job in two weeks. I have seen survivors with little English skills be able to express to me their desires and fears in correct English within a few months of practice. I have seen survivors enroll in higher education and succeed. While I play a role in helping survivors learn the steps and the logistics of reaching their goals, I have learned that the belief “it will work out” comes from within them.
If survivors who have gone days without food and sleep, have remained locked in rooms while raped repeatedly, have worked for many hours for no pay, can view their lives in the United States as ones of hope and possibility how can I accept the negativity and allow it to creep in? If they can overcome all that, smile, and remain positive in life for all that is to come, I (and we) can certainly do the same.
TAKE ACTION: As we work to learn to focus on hope and positive in life, I ask you to consider what else is out in the world for us to learn where, and how does the tragedy that is human trafficking play a role in our lives, personal or professional? What can we learn about those who are currently in such situations and who are in need of supports to leave? On what aspect of this work can you focus on so our learning never ceases? What will you learn today about human trafficking?
Julia Kessler-Hollar, LMSW Family Case Management Supervisor at Jewish Family Service of Metro Detroit has been working since 2012 with international survivors of human trafficking in partner with the Northern Tier Anti-Trafficking Consortium of Heartland Alliance in Chicago, IL.