Five months ago, I assumed sex trafficking still existed only in undeveloped countries. Like most Americans, I was ignorant about the truth: modern-day slavery does exist, and it is prevalent, even in the US. About a thousand youth, ages 12 to 17, are being trafficked in Ohio. Turns out, what I thought was happening in faraway places is actually taking place in Kenyon’s backyard.
Trafficking victim Marlene Carson opened my eyes to this harsh reality when she spoke at Kenyon last semester. She grew up in Columbus, Ohio, where a trusted neighbor essentially kidnapped her and soon became her pimp. Years later, after many failed attempts, she escaped from the industry.
Marlene founded Rahab’s Hideaway, Inc., a grassroots ministry that reaches out and rescues homeless teenage girls who are at high risk of being trafficked and women involved in prostitution. After her inspirational talk, I walked up to this real-life heroine and asked if I could volunteer.
For most of the summer, I drove downtown to Cleveland Ave. — arguably one of Columbus’s sketchiest streets — to help out with a new restaurant, Boujhetto’s, and the Institute for Change, both of which are part of Rahab’s Hideaway, Inc. Simply being in the neighborhood and walking the half-block to the building was the scariest part. Drivers would honk their horns at me, whistle and even try to pull over because they thought I was working the street. Once safely inside, I would work with the girls at Boujhetto’s, the new soul food restaurant. Neither the girls nor I got paid for working there, as all the proceeds went to Rahab’s Hideaway. The girls gained job experience that will help them find paying jobs in the future, and the restaurant and the Institute continued to change the community.
The girls at the shelter were human beings, not ex-prostitutes. They were fun to hang out with and easy to talk to. We were from different worlds, but that didn’t make it awkward. We would laugh while preparing food and I would listen if they decided to tell me their story.
Unfortunately, other people did not always understand. 10TV came to do an interview with Marlene Carson and we were all introduced to the news reporter. For the protection of the girls, we never revealed whether we were a part of the program or volunteers. The news reporter, however, immediately assumed that all of us were former prostitutes, and treated us differently than others. Whenever I would walk by her, she wouldn’t talk to me but instead would give me a sympathetic smile as if she pitied me for what I had been through.
I also received sympathetic, and slightly judgmental looks from the camera crew. I was so shocked that they acted that way around me, since I had never been treated like a pitiful little girl before. I had heard stories about people treating the girls differently, but never been the subject of such treatment. At a previous fundraiser, for example, a woman declared something like, “Everyone deserves love and a second chance, even prostitutes.” The victims at that fundraiser all burst out crying immediately. No one likes to be labeled and these girls did not choose to be trafficked.
This summer experience gave me a different view of the world. Human trafficking is a serious issue, nationally and globally. Anyone can become a victim, whether rich or poor, black or white, male or female, U.S. citizen or not. The girls and the volunteers at Rahab’s Hideaway made me want to do something about it. This year, I am starting a new club with another Kenyon student called Not For Sale (after the campaign at http://www.notforsalecampaign.org). The mission of this new group is to raise awareness of human and sex trafficking, and to contribute to the campaign against this social injustice.