COVER STORY

The Long Night

Tackling the scourge of sex trafficking, from the big screen to the big street

by Paul Hond Published Fall 2011
  • Comments (0)
  • Email
  • ShareThis
  • Print
  • Text Size A A A

V

The Whistleblower opened in New York on August 5, 2011. A New York Times review stated that the movie “tells a story so repellent that it is almost beyond belief.” In the months before the release, The Whistleblower’s distributor, Samuel Goldwyn Films, had proposed screening the movie for UN officials. The officials weren’t enthusiastic. The UN correspondents wanted to see it, though, and in July, Goldwyn Films gave them a screening at UN Headquarters in New York, followed by a press conference with Kondracki and Kirwan. Soon afterward, a private DVD screening was held for members of the UN media division.

But there was still no response from the top. Kondracki wanted a major screening for the entire UN staff, including Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, with a discussion to follow. Again, The Whistleblower team urged the UN to embrace the movie and show a willingness to confront its mistakes. The UN remained noncommittal.

Behind the scenes, however, The Whistleblower was being intensely debated. On July 5, assistant secretary-general for human rights Ivan Simonovic circulated an internal memo, which was leaked to Kondracki. It described a meeting among Ban’s senior advisers on how to handle the imminent PR challenge of The Whistleblower. Some voices called for a positive, proactive approach, with a public screening and dialogue. Others argued for ignoring the movie and making statements only if asked.

Larysa Kondracki and Eilis Kirwan / photo: Tanit Sakakini

The memo stunned Kondracki; evidently, high-ranking UN officials had already seen The Whistleblower. Had the secretary-general seen it, too? How serious was this talk of a screening and discussion? Kondracki hadn’t heard about it, and neither had anyone at Goldwyn. What was going on?

Kondracki decided to find out: She sat down and typed a letter to Secretary-General Ban.

I have been made aware that UN leaders are split as to how to deal with this film, Kondracki wrote. I have heard that the UN is opting for a “damage control” mode. Sir, I strongly wish to impart to you how very wrong a decision that is. I believe in the United Nations. I believe in the values of such an organization, but I lose faith, not only when I hear of involvement in sex-trafficking, but when I hear that you may not want to use this opportunity to right those wrongs.

And then:

Please know that I was very careful to ensure that the film was not a sensationalized account of the story, but rather depicted very well-documented facts. To be completely honest, the film tones down the extent of the crimes being perpetrated. Crimes that were being committed by the very people who were meant to protect the innocent. I believe there is now a chance for the United Nations to own up to these events, learn from history, and begin to tackle how to make changes in future missions.

Kondracki put the letter into an envelope and sent it to the head of the UN correspondents, who personally delivered it to the office of the secretary-general. Included in the package was a DVD of The Whistleblower.

 

VI

In the summer of 2003, President George W. Bush, in a speech before the UN General Assembly, called the issue of trafficking and human slavery “the biggest human-rights violation of our time.” That same year, Congress passed the PROTECT Act of 2003, which made it illegal “to recruit, entice, obtain, provide, move, or harbor a person or to benefit from such activities knowing that the person will be caused to engage in commercial sex acts where the person is under 18 or where force, fraud, or coercion exists,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Three years earlier, President Bill Clinton had signed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, the first comprehensive federal law in the United States to deal with modern slavery.

At that time, Faith Huckel ’04SW was a social worker in Philadelphia. Huckel had seen a lot — women who were coming out of incarceration, who were HIV-positive, who had suffered domestic violence. But it wasn’t until she got to New York in 2003 to attend Columbia that she heard about sex trafficking. “To learn that this was happening in our own backyards was absolutely astonishing,” she says. “I became a little obsessed.”

One night in 2004, Huckel and two lawyer friends were sitting around a kitchen table, talking about the one thing they would do to change the world if they could. They all agreed that it would be to help the victims of sex slavery.

“So I told them about some of the research I’d been doing over the year, and mentioned that one of the biggest needs in the city is safe housing,” Huckel says. “Most women who have been sex-trafficked are placed in domestic-violence shelters or homeless shelters. We concluded that we wanted to start New York’s first long-term safe house for this population. It was important that the program be culturally and linguistically tailored to the survivors’ needs, and that they could stay for as long as their recovery was going to take.”

In October 2007, Huckel threw a fundraiser with a small group of friends, supporters, and volunteers. They raised $17,000. That got them started. By the following September, they had raised enough money for Huckel to work full-time. A few months later, the nonprofit, called Restore NYC, began cultivating a relationship with the Queens criminal court.

“If you are looking for trafficking survivors, you should go to the courts and see who’s being arrested on prostitution charges,” says Huckel. “Most of our clients come through Queens criminal court. Initially, they are seen as criminals. They’re seen as the problem. The city is arresting the wrong people. In our annual report, there’s a breakdown of trafficking arrests versus prostitution arrests, and the numbers are absolutely staggering. In 2010, there were 344 prostitution arrests in Queens and zero arrests for trafficking.”

Meanwhile, Huckel had to find a building owner willing to rent space to Restore NYC. “It came down to meeting the owner and saying, ‘This is what we do; it’s a smaller facility, we’re piloting this program for a year, and we are going to be taking on six clients.’”

Eventually, Huckel found a place in Queens. The facility opened in 2010 and filled up immediately. The women, who had been trafficked from China, Korea, and Mexico, were nabbed in brothel raids in Flushing or Corona and handed over to a criminal-justice system that really didn’t know what to do with them.

Today, in the Restore NYC house, the women busy themselves with activities — knitting, sewing, yoga, ESL classes, drawing. They are assigned household chores and are required to take a 12-week job-training course.

Faith Huckel / Photo: Ingrid Skousgard

“When the clients come in, we see a huge distrust of everything and everyone, and rightly so,” Huckel says. “These are cases where girls were trafficked at 16, worked six years in New York in a room, were raped 20 or 30 times a day, were forced to have multiple abortions, had sexually transmitted diseases and complications, had probably attempted suicide. The list goes on. They’re shy, timid, quiet. There’s obviously a lot of PTSD, which presents itself as sort of a vacancy in their eyes. There’s no life.

“We tell all our coordinators and volunteers that the safe house is a home to these women. Don’t bring up their trafficking stories. Don’t pry, don’t ask questions; just support them and help them with the basic things that they need. Do they have the food they like and can cook? Do they have enough clothes? Are they comfortable in their rooms? Think of it as if you were an RA in a dorm; don’t dig deeper than that.

“Just giving the women the space to work stuff out has been unbelievably helpful,” Huckel says. “They can come home and shut their door and have privacy. They don’t have to worry about paying for food or rent. They can simply heal. In giving them space, supporting them, showing them a sense of love, you start to see the walls come down. It just takes time.”

Over the past decade, the number of U.S. programs for international and domestic sex-trafficking survivors has grown. Carol Smolenski ’92GSAS, the cofounder and executive director of the U.S. chapter of the international organization ECPAT (End Child Prostitution and Trafficking), has been focusing on changing state laws so that underage victims who through force, coercion, or manipulation of power have ended up in the sex trade are not arrested for prostitution.

“Many of these kids are sexually abused their whole lives, told by their parents to just get out of here, and end up on the street, leaving them vulnerable to a pimp who says, ‘Baby, you’re the greatest. I love you,’” Smolenski says. “The stories about the pimps are always the same. ‘Yeah, he told me I was beautiful.’ The pimps lure a 12-, 13-year-old girl and send her out on the street, and what does our system offer? We arrest her and tell her that she’s a bad kid who needs to be punished and reformed. A kid who’s been abused her whole life. And that’s the paradigm that has to change — we have to put protections in place for these kids, not arrest them.”

In 2008, the New York State Assembly passed the Safe Harbor for Exploited Children Act, which provides protections and services for exploited children as an alternative to incarceration. ECPAT-USA is working on getting similar legislation passed in New Jersey. In 2011, Minnesota and Vermont passed safe-harbor laws.

“It’s been a good year,” Smolenski says.

 

  • Email
  • ShareThis
  • Print
  • Recommend (65)
Log in with your UNI to post a comment

The best stories wherever you go on the Columbia Magazine App

Maybe next time