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Twin Cities Daily Planet: Teens take a stand against human trafficking

TWIN CITIES DAILY PLANET

End Slavery Now Conference organizers
End Slavery Now Conference organizers: (top row) Chelsea Williams, Marie Vanderpan, Delaney McMullen, Nicole Lee, Grace Park, and Anjali Bains; and (second row): Facilitator Yaejoon Kwon, with Joan Park and Praveen Bains.

Two Woodbury High School students have taken on a project to organize both an educational conference for teens about human trafficking and a benefit concert for Twin Cities area organizations that help victims of the crime.

The project, dubbed End Slavery Now, is the creation of sisters Joan Park (15) and Grace Park (17), and now includes a planning group of about 24 teen girls who will hold an educational conference July 25 and 26, with an expected attendance of 50 to 60.

The participants in the conference will also be invited to participate in a fundraiser concert to benefit the organizations that work with victims.

Human trafficking is real in Minnesota, according to Yae Joon Kwon, an advocate for the anti-human trafficking program administered by the Korean Service Center in Minneapolis. Kwon has been raising awareness among youth, in community groups and in law enforcement in educating about this emerging crime since she took the job in January.

Minnesota has been named as one of the 13 states in which human trafficking incidents are the highest. The existence of an international border, and a large rural area, contribute to human trafficking here, according to information on the website of Civil Society, a local legal advocacy group that works directly with human trafficking victims.

The highest-profile law enforcement action on human trafficking in the recent past took place in December 2007, Kwon said “where there were 100 women, all of Chinese and Korean descent, all in uptown and the St. Louis Park area. The women slept in massage parlors and were not allowed to leave. Their visas and passports taken away. They were under video surveillance. They did not speak English — their clients were upper-middle-class men between age 35 and 55.”

Internationally-trafficked victims are often kept under control through “debt bondage,” Kwon said, where the captors tell the victims they have to work off their debts of flight tickets, visa fees, or other costs incurred by the trafficker to bring them to the U.S. The captors may tell the victims their family will be told and/or that children or other family members will be hurt if the victims do not cooperate. “They feel like they have no other options,” she said. “Oftentimes, they are physically abused or raped. They are in an environment where they are under threat.”

This past December’s bust was “good” she said, in terms of law enforcement reaction to the situation. “The police treated the women not as prostitutes, but as potential victims. Often, when police see a woman who seems to be a prostitute, the woman is treated as a law breaker. Now that [police] are becoming more educated, they are taking the necessary steps to treat the women as victims, and get them the help they need.”

Trafficking also shows up locally in ways that are more difficult to identify and respond to, such as through so-called “international marriage brokers,” Kwon said, where individual women, some from Korea, are purchased as wives through internet commerce sites. They end up in rural areas of Minnesota where they are kept away from other people, not permitted to travel, to learn English, and especially are not allowed to have any connection to their ethnic community in the U.S. They are basically prisoners at home, she explained. The lines become “fuzzy” she said, between trafficking and domestic abuse. These cases are referred to Civil Society; the Service Center provides support when asked.

Civil Society’s website also notes that there are an estimated 20,000 trafficked persons brought into the U.S. annually. In addition to being used in the sex industry or in “servile marriage,” the website notes, trafficking victims are often involved in industries where they are “invisible,” including domestic servitude, sweatshops, restaurant and hotel businesses, farm work, construction, and begging and peddling.

Grace and Joan said they were compelled to do something to aid trafficking victims after seeing a film that dramatized their situation and after hearing a presentation that Kwon made to the youth group at their church, Korean Presbyterian Church of Minnesota. Their mother, Meeock Park, who works at the Korean Service Center, recommended they organize a youth concert.

After Kwon’s presentation at church “only a couple kids were interested — my sister and me and one other girl, Angela Hwang. We met as a group …and we did some on-line stuff. We decided we would do a retreat. It was originally going to be for Korean girls, but as it went on, we decided to do it for everybody because the more people we have, the better. After meeting a few times, we decided we wanted to have more people in the planning committee. The three of us grew into 24 people.”

The End Slavery Now conference, open to all high school students, will take place at Woodland Hills Church, 1740 Van Dyke St., in St. Paul. Attendees will register at 2:30 p.m. on Friday July 25 and will stay overnight at the church. The conference will end at 11 a.m. the next day.

It will include awareness games, discussions, and speakers who work in different areas of human trafficking, including victim advocacy, law enforcement, education, and research and policy matters. The group will also make hygiene kits, Grace said. The kits will contain donated soaps, shampoos, and cosmetic items, and can be handed out by the organizations working with the victims.

Early in their research process, the two girls inquired about making contact directly with victims and were advised not to do that, Grace said. “We were told that if we did, and the traffickers found out what we were doing, they could be hurt or we could be hurt too.” Instead, any proceeds the teen group can generate will benefit local organizations that reach out with hotlines and professional outreach workers.

Joan said they want conference attendees to each make two bracelets that will contain a bead with an inspirational word, such as “hope.” The conference attendee gets to keep one bracelet, and its twin will be given to a victim through the Civil Society advocacy organization. “It is a way to make a connection.”

Another subcommittee of the organizing committee will collect children’s clothes and books, to be given to the victims’ children.

Grace and Joan are also creating a simulation game that will raise the consciousness of the participants about the frustration and lack of choices of the women and children who get caught up in human trafficking rings. “We will have the lights off so that it represents the darkness the victims are experiencing, and how they don’t know what to do and what is happening to them,” Grace said. Often the victims of human trafficking know nothing about what they are getting themselves into until it is too late, she added. In fact, she said, they often are told and believe that they are accepting a legitimate job.

The conference will also include an open mike session or small group sharing which will give participants a chance to voice their thoughts about what they learned. The participants will also draw a huge poster, with their names, and words of encouragement or poems, which will become a decoration at the benefit concert for victims of human trafficking, which is tentatively set for August 23. The concert performers will be other students invited by the planning committee members, she said

Kwon said that she did not know anything about human trafficking when she was a teenager, and that these teens are taking a big step to create a conference to educate about this topic. “With any issue like this, it’s important and crucial that law enforcement and policy makers are educated about it, but it’s equally important that next generation start thinking about these issues. Ideally, I would love to have someone involved at a young age and become the next advocate or lawyer who helps victims …It’s a huge problem. It won’t end in one generation.”

For more information about the conference, contact endslaverynow@googlegroups.com

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