At the second Womens Entrepreneur Festival there was a woman lurking around me that I could tell really wanted to engage me but couldn't get herself there. Then someone at NYU said to me that I should really talk to her that she was a student at ITP and someone I should connect with. I made my way over to Christina Arnold and talked for a few minutes and said to her that we should have coffee. She emailed me and we set a date.
Christina and I had coffee and she told me her story. I was blown away. Christinas was raised in a cult, she got out at 18, she was raising a daughter, she helped get her siblings out too and had literally entered a world that was so incredibly foreign to her at 18. She applied to college to start her new life. Was accepted to Harvard and a few other top universities and decided to go to ITP. She followed her own passions. Obviously one smart person to be completely uneducated in the practical sense and show up at 18 knowing nothing. We began a friendship.
What is truly commendable about Christina is that she is trying to prevent the trafficking of people particularly children. It is what she witnessed growing up and knew as soon as she was old enough to look at her surroundings and not like what she saw. She will tell you that she knew that the cults beliefs were ridiculous and what they were preaching and using children for was not ok. She protested and was constantly punished for questioning.
This is a post she wrote about her 15 years of freedom. I wanted to post it because it has really only been since I met with Christina that she has begun to feel comfortable telling her tale. This is her story about where she came from, where she is going and what she is doing.
15 Years of Freedom
President Obama proclaimed January 2014 as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month culminating in the annual celebration of National Freedom Day on February
Fifteen years ago, I wouldn’t have believed that I would be celebrating a personal and professional milestone this month - having freed myself from a life born and raised in a cult and founding and running an organization dedicated to helping others find freedom from the clutches of human traffickers.
The non-profit I founded as a freshman in college, Prevent Human Trafficking (PHT), was the second anti-trafficking organization in the US and the first organization started with the goal of examining, rather than trying to ameliorate its effects. In honor of January’s National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month and National Freedom Day (Feb 1), I thought it might be interesting to tell the story of how PHT was established a year before passage of the US anti-trafficking law (TVPA of 2000) and what I’ve learned in my last 15 years of working to prevent human trafficking in Southeast Asia and the US.
I was born in Bombay, India, the child of American parents, into a fringe religious cult that discouraged education and used its children to proselytize throughout Asia. Our primary contact with the outside world was evangelism; however, these “missionary” trips were eye opening. They exposed me to other children, in far different circumstances, who were coerced to beg on the streets, work in horrendous conditions in factories and rock quarries, and cater to sex tourists on the beaches. I grew up with two objectives: to get an education and to find a way to advocate for these victims of abuse.
It is hard to describe the depth of despair I felt when I first arrived in the US, broke and pregnant and encountering the mean streets of Queens instead of the streets of gold I had expected. But coming to my “passport home" to live and (I hoped) study opened a whole new world of opportunities for me. Just after giving birth, I took the GED, and subsequently entered a community college at 23. I had not forgotten the children in Asia, however. In 1999, I founded PHT to advocate for victims and survivors of a horrendous abuse that society had not yet recognized or labeled as “human trafficking”. At the same time, I spent a lot of time helping other young people leave the cult - opening my house to them and showing them how to get help, take the GED and use the junior college system to begin an education. While working to help the children of Southeast Asia remotely, I also ran my own private underground railroad helping other young people born into the cult to get out. One day in the public library I picked up a book by James Baldwin and this quote lept off the page and has never left my consciousness, “For these are all our children, we will all profit by or pay for whatever they become.”
My excruciating experiences growing up in the cult has given me an unusual perspective from which to advocate for victims, survivors and those at highest risk of human trafficking. Over the years I have realized there are quite a few similarities between stories of life in a cult and those of human trafficking victims and survivors. These include lack of freedom of movement or contact with the outside world, various forms of cruelty, mind control, and all kinds of exploitation to satisfy the sick fantasies of criminal and perverted people seeking personal enrichment and power. I am not claiming that my life experiences are identical to the trafficked, only that after years of personal and professional development, I have come to understand the unusual perspective I can bring to helping this population. I am able to relate in many ways to the suffering of trafficked persons and their long road to recovery as survivors, thereby helping them more than I otherwise could.
Over the last 15 years I have been educating people about the trafficking problem and the great leaders working to prevent it. We have run annual summer study programs in Southeast Asia, giving students access to some of the region’s preeminent scholars, activists, organizers and government officials working at the forefront of the anti-trafficking movement.
We also conduct briefings and trainings for foreign embassy officials, diplomats, law enforcement and social service providers in how to identify and assist victims and survivors of human trafficking. The most rewarding work we have done, however, is in discovering and supporting some small, local, highly effective grass-roots organizations on the ground in Southeast Asia.
The programs these groups run are a diverse, powerful response to the tragedy of human trafficking they see around them. They operate in a variety of environments, for instance, one runs an innovative school in a (former) trafficking hotspot in a poor rural area that provides high quality free vocational, traditional and values-based education for grades 3 – 10 where none previously existed; another rural-based program trains formerly trafficked girls to become the next generation of anti-trafficking leaders in the Greater Mekong Region (Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and southern China) and builds and runs several schools to give children of ethnic minorities a free education. Some of our grassroots partners confront traffickers directly at personal risk, with one providing food, shelter, safety and education to street kids, in the pedophilia center of Thailand where youth are at highest risk of trafficking and exploitation. Another partner operates largely in the big cities, advocating to amend laws, ensuring prosecution of victimizers of trafficked, prostituted and otherwise sexually abused children through the local court system and using an extensive network of police, judges and other officials to correct justice system weaknesses regarding sex and labor crimes against children.
We support these outstanding programs through a variety of means. We connect our partners with donors, including corporations, foundations and US agencies, provide technical assistance in proposal writing and fundraising, match trained foreign volunteers with programs, increase visibility through production of materials including videos and websites, and provide direct funding when necessary.
I am still strongly motivated by James Baldwin’s words, “For these are all our children, we will all profit by or pay for whatever they become.” So, I work for these children as proxies for the ones I couldn’t save all those years ago, both on the beaches and in the cult. The hopelessness in the hearts of both groups drive many to committed suicide either directly or through drugs or prostitution. I remember the feeling of being utterly lost and hopeless in a world that had been so unkind. I had no reason to think my future would be any better than my past. Looking back, it has been a long road to freedom, and being able to share it with the amazingly resilient men, women and children I have had the privilege of helping along the way gives me hope that it is possible to prevent the dehumanizing experiences people endure at the hands of their fellow humans, and attest to the fact that, as Dan Savage says, “It gets better.” But only if we make it so.
In honor/celebration of our 15th year, we are launching the Blue Elephant Campaign (or Cĥāng s̄ī f̂ā - ช้างสีฟ้า - in Thai). Its aim is to support and expand our vital programs with our grassroots partners in Thailand - directly helping thousands of trafficking victims and survivors each year by focusing on the root causes of human trafficking through direct support and technical assistance of all kinds (proposal writing, donor introductions, volunteers, reporting, translation and in other ways).
In Thai culture, elephants are revered and considered a sign of strength and good luck. Our campaign symbol is particularly significant for the most vulnerable in society and those who are victims and survivors of human trafficking.
You can give the most priceless gift of all - the gift of preventing at risk youth from being trafficked through our identification and skills training programs. Also, as part of our Gifts for Good program, anyone who donates a minimum of $30 will receive a beautiful blue elephant pin, which you can wear to show your support of our campaign, and inspire others to join the cause. Of course, you can always donate any amount on our secure site (the page still needs a face lift). Happy National Freedom Day!