Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Marked for the Trade: How Tattoos are being used in Human Trafficking Today

Usually one thinks of cattle or livestock when they picture branding, but throughout history slaves have been branded to transform their status from free individual, to owned property.  Ancient Egyptian slaves were branded, as were African slaves shipped to America.  Today, many may sigh in relief believing that man has progressed beyond such crude acts of subjugation, but they would be appalled to discover that branding still exists within the human trafficking industry.  Every year more trafficking incidents are brought to light and, in many cases, the victims bear tattoos marking them as property of their oppressors. 

            Examples of tattooed trafficking victims continue to appear in cases around the globe.  In Chicago, Daqunn Sawyer (P-Child) was convicted of sex trafficking 17 girls, many of whom were underage.  He renamed the girls and forced them to get tattoos of his nickname, P-Child, or his favorite slogan, “Chedda make it betta.”  In Madrid, police arrested twenty-two traffickers know as the “bar code pimps,” due to the bar code tattoos printed on their victims.  Pimps and traffickers tattoo their victims as a way to psychologically control them and create a permanent mark of ownership.  Dr Sophia Grant of Cook Children’s Medical Center says that tattooing “strips the identity of the child (victim), and it makes that child know, 'You are my property’.”  This psychological bondage can make it harder for victims of trafficking to attempt to escape their oppressors.  Traffickers also use tattoos to let other pimps know to whom the girls belong.  In some cases, like in the bar-code trafficking ring, traffickers will tattoo numbers that represent the debt owed to the traffickers by the girls.  Debt can be used as a means of financial control and exploitation in trafficking cases.  Whatever form the tattoo takes, however, it always symbolizes loss of power and freedom.

These trafficking cases represent just a portion of those involving branding.  In fact, since December of 2007, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline has received nearly 150 calls across the nation related to tattoos and human traffickingAs tattoos have become a frequent indicator of trafficking, the term distinguishing tattoo” now appears on lists published to help people identify trafficked victims.  Authorities may also begin to look for tattoos of gang signs as markers of trafficking.  Recent trends show gangs moving from the illegal drug trade into the trafficking trade because it is both lucrative and perceived as a low risk illegal endeavor.  Victims may have tattooed symbols of the various gangs now involved in trafficking including the; Bloods, Crips, Folk, Gangster Disciples, Latin Kings, and Hells Angels.  If such a large percentage of trafficked victims have tattoos, wouldn’t tattoo artists be the most logical community to employ in the fight against human trafficking?  The anti-trafficking organization Polaris Project thought so.

           Recently Polaris Project published an article in the National Tattoo Association newsletter.  This article explains the human trafficking issue and how tattoo artists can help by reporting any potential victims of trafficking that come into their shops.  Though this is an important step in raising awareness within the tattoo community, to date, it has been the only effort made.  Police, medical staff, truckers, and flight attendants, work in industries where one comes into daily contact with trafficked victims, thus they are receiving training on how to spot and respond to victims.  Perhaps more tattoo artists could receive training, and a new force could join the ranks of those fighting human trafficking.

-Marianna Ernst, Intern

To learn more about tattoos used in human trafficking go to:

Migration: a double-edged sword for youth

Imagine a 16 year old Ukrainian girl sitting on a bench outside of her school, waiting for a bus. She doesn’t speak much English. She doesn’t have friends yet. A young man sits down next to her on the bench and smiles at her. She tentatively smiles back. He eventually tells her that his sister’s nail salon has a new opening, and she has very nice nails, and would she be interested in working there? She eventually accepts the job.  

"Youth migrants are placed into positions that
could lead to greater vulnerability and empowerment"
Maybe this man has done this girl a great service. Maybe they will end up being great friends, and she will support her family’s menial income. It’s also possible that he is taking advantage of her. Maybe she will end up working overtime without pay. Maybe he will hit her if she asks for a day off. 

The fact is that this migrant adolescent, having no social support in this country and desperate for a way out of poverty, is in no position to make this type of judgment. 

35 million adolescent and youth international migrants exist today. Youth are increasingly mobile, whether that is because of need, pressure, or choice. Here are three primary reasons for (as taken from this report)
  1. Refuge – Natural disaster and conflict have led to 35 million refugees, a significant portion of whom are adolescents.
  2. Opportunity – studies have identified a “culture of migration” among youth, where adolescents migrate in search of education, employment, and the hope for a better life. It has been estimated that between 1970 and 2025, the number of urban youth will increase by 600 percent.
  3. Coercion – An estimated 250,000 children around the world serve as soldiers for government forces and rebel groups in armed conflict. Many are kidnapped and coerced. Others join out of desperation, including poverty. Youth often migrate to escape this fate.
Young migrants have the same needs as all other immigrants, but their needs are often particularly affected by displacement from their homes and separation from family. They often find themselves in high stress, high violence environments and struggle to find their way out. Attempts to gain independence often result in pressure to enter trafficking scenes and engage in survival sex.

The increased vulnerability of adolescents also implies that they must be treated differently when it comes to public health. The teenage years are seen as gateways to health because behavioral patterns adopted during this time tend to last through adulthood. Studies show that about 70% of premature deaths among adults are due to behaviors developed during adolescents. So where do we need to focus our efforts?
  • Youth must be noticed. Specialized programs must be developed tailored to young people in refugee camps, immigrant communities, urban slums, and other displacement settings.
  • Youth must be understood. Any programming developed needs to be culturally appropriate. Services must be aware of family circumstances, age, gender, and cultural norms.
  • Youth need mentors. Adolescent immigrants are often living alone or with unstable social support systems. They need people who they can look up to be a positive force in their lives.
  • Youth need access. Often living in poor areas, these youth need access to education, jobs, and information. They need proper health care and health education to support their reproductive and mental health.
  • Youth must remain involved. Engaging in community not only builds a social network for these adolescents, but allows them to take ownership for systemic changes relevant to their lives.
For youth, migration is a double-edged sword. Young individuals are placed in positions that could lead to both greater vulnerability and empowerment. Whether the latter prevails is dependent on the attention communities devote to recognizing the problems of adolescent migrants and actively striving to solve them. As communities build supportive systems, it is imperative to keep adolescents at the forefront of solutions. 

IOFA’s work is dedicated to addressing this very issue. In 2003, IOFA helped develop Smooth Flight, a training film that shares the experiences of youth from Latvia as they go abroad in search of work, adventure, and opportunity. Just last week, we launched Project Prepare in Ethiopia, a program designed to empower youth aging out of care to make informed decisions about evaluating job opportunities and educate them on the risks they face as a new adults entering the world. 

Migration is often the last option for young people  who live in parts of the world  where it is virtually impossible to achieve economic stability. Immigration can be an incredible opportunity to experience a new culture, support family back home, and thrive as an independent adult. This is why it is important for IOFA to continue its work. Equipped with decision-making knowledge and confidence, there’s nothing that can stop these young souls.

Nikhitha Murali, Intern

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Project Prepare Youth Allies - Witnessing Heroes at Work

             As our fourth week in Ethiopia comes to a close, the importance of providing youth aging out of care with the Project Prepare curriculum is becoming more evident. This week, the modules in the Project Prepare curriculum focused on identifying reliable people within an individual’s social support network and finding safe work, raising awareness of some of the risks of migration such as trafficking. Both modules provided new information to the youth participants. Moreover, the kids engaged in active discussion on the topic, raising important questions such as how to weigh the prospect of having a better life with the risks associated with migration and who to include in their social support network other than the staff members at the orphanage. The most critical component of the Project Prepare curriculum is that a space for these kids to brainstorm and talk about these vital issues in depth is provided.

            In order to create a safe space, the role of the youth allies or the facilitators of the Project Prepare curriculum is most crucial. As an observer, one of the most impressing and rewarding aspects of this program is to see the youth allies engage with the kids at each site with love, respect, and admiration for each child. At Children’s Heaven, the youth allies greet the girls with hugs and kisses. Their time is spent talking and listening to the girls, braiding their hair, and monitoring their activities, often times participating in the fun. At AHOPE, the youth allies go above and beyond their expectations to be a constant source of support. Every greeting is with a hug and smiles, followed by a series of questions reminiscent of an exchange between parent and child. One of the youth allies plans to live with the boys at their new facility, teaching them how to live independently. “We will be like a family,” he says. Finally, the youth ally at World Wide Orphans Foundation can easily be identified as a source of happiness for the kids. I witnessed her return from time taken off for her wedding. The kids’ eyes brightened as she walked in. They ran to hug her and shower her with stories of what happened to them when she was absent. She eagerly listened and her exchanges with them sent them into fits of laughter. As we were walking together she unexpectedly remarked, “If I do not see the kids for more than two days, I really miss them.”

The power of these daily interactions that I am able to witness at all three sites is brought into the classroom when the youth allies become facilitators. Their presence sets a tone for honesty, trust, and compassion—components for a safe space. They are also able to pose questions to the kids and gently push them to think beyond some of their simple answers. The result of their work is an hour (or sometimes two) filled with lively and thought provoking discussion on pertinent information for youth aging out.

During last week’s activity on heroes, every pilot site had atleast one group of kids say that the facilitator was their hero; as I witness their interactions with one another, I can easily see why. I am fortunate to work with and learn from such passionate and remarkable individuals.

Amharic word of the week
Role Model:
Mente falegale (Male)
Mente Falegalesh (Female)

Aatifa Sadiq
IOFA Program Development Intern

Friday, July 20, 2012

Project Prepare Launched!

We had a very busy yet rewarding week in Addis as we implemented Project Prepare at two orphanages, AHOPE and Children’s Heaven. Both are very different from one another, however, after just two classes, we have already seen the immense need and progress of Project Prepare. AHOPE cares exclusively for HIV positive children, and we are working with a group of eleven teenagers in their transitions home who will soon leave care and enter into adulthood. Alternatively, Children’s Heaven supports orphaned girls through an innovative community based placement program, and we are working with a group of twenty teenaged girls who will soon age out of care.  

The youth really seemed to enjoy all of the lessons and activities in Project Prepare, the first focusing on identifying the qualities and characteristics of their hero.  Our second class focused on building a portfolio, creating a resume and locating important personal documents. For many of these youth, it was the first time they had ever heard of a resume. Moreover, many of them were unaware of the process to obtain their birth certificate or identification card. While these tasks may seem simple and obvious to an outsider, this only reinforced the need for a life-based skills curriculum here. As one youth ally noted, the girls at Children’s Heaven have not yet thought about these skills, as they are still in school and will not yet be applying for a job. However, once they age out of care, they will no longer have the support and assistance of a care facility, and therefore, it is imperative that they learn these skills beginning at a young age.

As we observed and monitored the different classes, I constantly found myself inspired and amazed by the strength and perseverance of these children. For our first class at Children’s Heaven, we sat in a cold dim room as a roof was being built overhead. Despite the loud hammering and chilly breeze, the girls were all attentive, participating, and appreciative of the class. This was yet another reminder of the hardships these girls have experienced and face on a daily basis, and their individual and collective resilience. Both at Children’s Heaven and AHOPE, I have been extremely impressed by the community formed by these children and the staff. Not only are they friends, but they are family, and the support and encouragement they have for one another is truly something we can all learn from.

We are looking forward to beginning Project Prepare at our third orphanage, Worldwide Orphans Foundation, and continuing to help and work with such impressive and inspiring youth!

Amharic Word of the Week:
Betasab - Family

Amy Gilbert
IOFA Program Development Intern

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Staging New Beginnings for the Juvenile Justice System"Children are different," affirmed Justice Elena Kagan in her written statement on the Supreme Court's ruling to abolish mandatory sentencing of life without parole for all juveniles convicted of murder. As simple as her statement may at first sound, she's right. The Court considered new research on childhood brain development as evidence in demonstrating juveniles' level of immaturity and their challenge in appreciating responsibility and consequences. The previous mandate seemed to ignorantly disregard the uniqueness of juvenile by sentencing each individual to life without parole regardless of age-related characteristics or situational differences, like family neglect or abuse for example. So, why has the story of the juvenile justice system played out so dramatically? And why did it take so long for this change in sentencing? The justice system for youth, however, has never been simple.

The juvenile justice system might be better viewed as an uncontrolled entity with a tumultuous history creeping behind it. Progress in the adult criminal court system in the 1960's improved representation of delinquent youth in the juvenile justice system for a span of two decades, allowing them rights similar to those of adults.  These changes were halted in the 1980's on the brink of rising crime rates during the crack epidemic which produced more violence among juveniles and a simultaneous increase in juvenile unemployment for those who could work. In response to these events, between 1985 and 1993 the juvenile justice system proceeded with a hard-knocking gavel:  juveniles were tried as adults when possible and sentencing verged on vengeful. The justice system no longer had a vision of rehabilitation for juvenile delinquents. Punishment was the intended goal and courts made that known. 

After decades of using an unwavering iron fist approach--a method with questionable effectiveness to begin with--the juvenile justice system and the Supreme Court are focusing instead on extending a hand to juvenile delinquents. The recent ruling might come as unexpected for some, but it falls in line with a
series of decisions made by the court starting in 2005, most notably abolition of the juvenile death penalty.

Though the Court’s recent ruling is unmistakably controversial and has received both appraisal and backlash from the American audience, the Supreme Court has sounded a blow-horn to awaken communities and inspire discussion on how juvenile justice will be best approached in the future.
Youth courts, for example, in which juveniles appear for trial in front of a jury that consists of teenagers who were previous offenders, appear to be working rather well and pose a possible solution for delinquents who commit more minor crimes. States across the country are looking to reform their juvenile justice systems as well.  New York City lawmakers recently launched the Close to Home initiative that looks to introduce juvenile delinquents to rehabilitative facilities that are closer to home to "help give them structure and support and alternatives." Support,  structure and alternatives seem of paramount importance considering the previously unsteady (and largely unsuccessful) foundations and rotting floorboards of the juvenile justice system.

With progressive action being taken in the juvenile justice system on all levels, the stage has been set. Anticipation is building and it's time for the system's cast of characters to act according to the Court's new rulings to implement a reformative, youth-focused approach worthy of applause.

Camil Sanchez-Palumbo, Intern

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Building New Relationships in Ethiopia

 “Our deepest fear is not that we are weak. Our deepest fear is that are powerful beyond measure…As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people the permission to do the same.” Quote on the walls of AHOPE Children’s Center

            One of the compelling elements of Project Prepare that drew me into the work is its central emphasis on grassroots implementation, to take the time to know and build relationships on the ground with local people and use their ideas to strengthen the Transitions Initiative. Thus far, meeting with individuals and spending time with the kids associated with our partner organizations has been the most enriching part of my experience. Last week, we visited Children’s Heaven to introduce ourselves to the girls. Children’s Heaven is an organization that provides services and ongoing support to girls whose parents have been affected by HIV/AIDS. While our visit was short, it was quite memorable.

As we came in, the girls sat in neatly organized rows and said Selaam (Amharic for hello). The young ones eagerly waved and welcomed their new visitors. Their warm smiles were contagious and you found yourself smiling and laughing, wanting to take part in their fun. We went around the room and greeted each girl, asked them their age, their grade in school, and what they liked to do in their free time. We quickly learned that soccer, volleyball, and reading fiction were among the most popular activities. The older girls quickly took an interest in our personal lives, what we liked to do, where we were from, and whether we were married or had boyfriends. The young girls who were full of energy, taught us hand games, while they sang traditional Amharic songs about love and beat drums twice their size. The music that filled the room overpowered the ongoing thunderstorms outside. You momentarily forgot the cold winds that came in through the open windows and the puddles of water on the floor from the leaky roof. Among these girls, you could not help but feel a strong sense of community, a sense of support that an organization like Children’s Heaven could provide.

As an outsider, I could not have guessed the struggles and challenges that these girls have encountered or are currently persevering through. Rather, their faces show young women with an invigorating sense of strength, courage, and beauty. The need for a successful transition out of care becomes even more critical, so that the girls can continue to have the strength and community support to live a healthy life. As we continue to work with the girls from Children’s Heaven in the upcoming weeks, we hope to further build our relationship with them and provide any support possible. 

We look forward to include our IOFA audience in this relationship making process!

Amharic Word of the Week:
Conjo (kon-joe) Beautiful

Aatifa Sadiq
Program Development Intern, Ethiopia

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Leaving Ethiopia: The Queue of 100 Plus Ethiopian Girls…Please, Oman, Treat Them Well

Tuesday, July 11 was my last day in Ethiopia this summer 2012.  We achieved a lot. IOFA trained our Ethiopian partner organizations to implement the Project Prepare pilot, an innovative new effort to protect youth aging out care.  So, it was well timed that one of my final experiences in the queue at Addis Ababa airport customs only reiterated the need to provide critical tools for youth to protect themselves as they transition to adulthood.

Ahead of me in line were at least 100 Ethiopian young women – more likely, girls under the age of eighteen.  They were dressed in their best headscarves and dresses, all about the same height, and the same age.  The first one tapped me lightly on my shoulder (which loomed about a foot above her) and then thrust her departure card and her passport into my hands.  She wanted me to fill it out for her.  Immediately, I thought she couldn’t speak or read English.  I showed her that there was an Amharic translation on the back of the card.   She thrust it back in my hands, and I understood that she could not read or write Amharic either. 

Neither side of the departure card made sense to her.  I filled it out for her the best I could.  On the line asking for place of birth, I suggested she was born in Addis, she probably wasn’t, but she knew the name of the city.  I asked her (using my arms in embarrassing airplane mimicry) where she was going.  She said – “Oman.”  She thanked me profusely and disappeared back in the queue. Then a second girl thrust departure card and passport into my hands, followed by a third, a fourth, and a fifth; every one of them off to Oman.  Some of them were uncontrollably excited, while others looked like they were headed off to their ultimate doom. By number ten, my hand was starting to cramp, and I wasn’t doing these girls any favors with my garbled scrawl, plus a customs agent started looking at me strangely.  At that point, I didn’t even know if what I was doing was legal. I clearly had to make up information, because they said yes to everything that I suggested.

Most likely, these girls could not read or write, and/or came from the countryside where they don’t speak Amharic, much less English.  From what we’ve learned from IOFA’s research on labor trafficking in the region, it was more than likely that they were recruited to work in Oman as domestic servants, factory labor, or in some type of service industry. They were probably given promises of stable employment and money to send home.  They probably shook hands over a verbal agreement, made with a middleman with no contract or a contract they could not understand.

This is all conjecture on my part or perhaps an inclination to see “human trafficking” everywhere: a hazard of the job, I guess. All 100 plus could be going to Oman for an enriching educational experience on Omani culture or a vacation with extended relatives on the Omani coast.  I’m going to go out on a limb and think not. I don’t want to paint a picture of hapless young women as clueless victims with no ability to figure out their circumstances.  Send me to their village for a day and watch as I try to feed myself, communicate on any basic level, and otherwise, or not immolate myself in a fiery ball of injera.   However, do these young women know their rights and will their rights be protected?  Are they even of adult age?  Did anyone advocate on their behalf as they signed up to leave the only home they’ve ever known?  Do they have any recourse if things go badly? 

The next time I saw the first girl that asked me to fill out the card, she was staring at the escalator, figuring out when to jump on.  Frankly, it scared me too – it groaned along way too quickly and there were massive gaps between the steps that could easily suck off a toe.  I asked her to jump on with me. We climbed upward, rode it out together, and jumped off at the top (still a scary move in my opinion).  She told me what I thought was “thank you”, but it wasn’t in Amharic. I told her “good luck” in English.

Maybe most of the 100 plus will find nice Omani families that will treat them like family.  Maybe they will make money, send it home, and their mothers will have life saving medication that they desperately need for the first time.  I also wondered if any of them would be abused, sexually assaulted, or forced to work around the clock without seeing any of the pay promised them. I’m hoping for the best.  I’m sure they are too.

Migration for labor is often the last resort for young men and women living in countries where employment opportunities are few or non-existent.  The ability to make money and send it home to your family is an incredible driving force.  If in the same position, would any of us do anything differently?

 Please, Oman, treat them well.

Shelby French
Executive Director

Thursday, July 12, 2012

IOFA Welcomes New Intern, Marianna Ernst!

My name is Marianna Ernst, and I am an undergraduate at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan.  I discovered IOFA through my research on the human trafficking issue over the past year, and I am very excited to come alongside the amazing work IOFA has been doing.  My concern over human trafficking began several years ago when my sister worked in Cambodia with women who had been sex trafficked.  She shared with me the stories of these women, and I became aware of the injustice of trafficking.  Since then, my desire to end this injustice has only grown, and I hope to enter a career where I can focus my energies on just that.  I am eager to learn more about trafficking through my work with IOFA, specifically in regard to their Transitions Initiative that concentrates on giving aid to adolescents leaving orphanage care.  I will be assisting in planning the Cook County Human Trafficking Conference in August, where I will hopefully learn more about the trafficking issues facing the Chicago area.