And Then The Wall Came Tumbling Down

by Michelle Brock on October 31st, 2012

Berlin

The year was 1961.  East Germany began building a wall in an attempt to prevent Western ideas from spreading to the East.  And, though they did not like to admit it, to keep people in the East from heading to the West.  It always struck me as odd that a physical wall was built to stop an ideology – a way of thinking – which is intangible and organic.  Between 1961 and 1989, about 5,000 people tried to escape East Germany by going over or under the wall, many of them dying in the process.   When the Cold War ended and the wall started to come down in 1989, there was a massive celebration. Families who had been separated for decades were reunited.

berlin wallThis is what the history textbooks tell us. But there is an effect of the wall coming down that most people are unaware of. During the Cold War both the Soviet Union and the U.S. were pumping money into the Eastern European countries in exchange for ‘joining their side.’  When the Cold War ended, so did the cash flow, leaving thousands of young girls and women without opportunities for work. And so began the so called ‘fourth wave’ of sex trafficking.  Human traffickers took advantage of the income disparity between these regions, and began to promise “work” in the West for women living in the East.  Sadly for many, this work ended being prostitution in Western Europe and beyond.

It fascinates me that mainstream political events that are covered in the media and become part of recorded history have repercussions that are often missed.  Who would have imagined that a wall coming down in Berlin would launch the fourth wave of trafficking – of Eastern European girls and women?  Many of the would-be victims probably listened to the radio or watched on TV, wide-eyed and excited, as the wall came down.  But when the socio-economic realities started to hit close to home and opportunities abroad seemed like a dream, human traffickers merely tapped into a perfect flesh market that had booming demand and endless supply.

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In Berlin we recently got to walk where the wall had been, as well as see preserved pieces of what it had looked like before 1989.  As we read the stories of defectors, looked up at the watch towers, and peered into no-man’s land, we tried to imagine what it would have been like to live in East Germany back then.  And I could not help but go one thought further and imagine myself as a young woman during that time, desperate for both work and adventure, being promised a fantastic opportunity abroad.

Makes me wonder what economy or security based policies are being crafted today, and how these will impact those on the margins.

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Reflections on Amsterdam

by Michelle Brock on October 27th, 2012

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I can’t remember the last time I was really angry.  Perhaps when I got my clothes stolen in Africa 8 years ago.  Experiencing this emotion in Amsterdam this past week has felt odd – like an unfamiliar acquaintance stopping by for a visit, making a home amongst my usually-positive thoughts.

Jennifer Tunehag, an incredible woman who we got to know in Sweden, told us that sometimes after she’s spent hours or days doing anti-trafficking work, she just feels moody and can’t figure out why. Then she connects her bad mood to the heaviness of the issue she is dealing with – the missed victims, the scarce resources, the overwhelming needs.  In essence the bad mood is a manifestation of deeper emotions – like grieving the suffering of others.  This past week I have been moody and angry, and at the root of it all I feel deep sorrow for what we have heard and seen.

Amsterdam is known as a city of freedom.  We learned from locals that it is a deeply embedded cultural value to live free from government interference as well as others telling you what is right and what is wrong.  Sadly, we’ve witnessed the abuse of this freedom.

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Backing up interviews in Amsterdam

On Tuesday we had the opportunity to interview two victims of “loverboys,”  traffickers who pose as boyfriends with the purpose of grooming a girl for prostitution. This is quite common in the Netherlands.  I can’t tell you what it feels like to look directly into the eyes of a victim, as they bravely share their story with the hopes that it will make a difference in the life of another.  We consider it an honour to steward their stories to the best of our ability, as each word is so valuable.  As we headed out, Jay apologized to them on behalf of men, affirming that the males who abused and sold them were not real men at all.

Following the interview we went to the notorious red light district of Amsterdam, De Wallen.  That night we went without cameras, just to see what we were dealing with.  It wasn’t the girls in the windows that shocked me as much as the men that were buying them.  As we neared the district we heard singing and chanting, by about 200 guys around a bar who were watching a football game before descending upon the district to either celebrate or lament their victory or loss.  Most were drunk.  One man reached open his arms and yelled “I LOVE AMSTERDAM!”

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As this was all happening, I had the opportunity to bring soup to the women in the windows with my friend Saskia, who works for an organization that provides nutritious meals for those in the red light district.  She has gotten to know many of the girls, and as we approached, the looks on the girls’ faces went from sexy and seductive to delighted that soup had arrived.  This made the men nearby uncomfortable, as all of a sudden these women became real humans, not just food to be devoured.

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Heading out with soup!

A few of the ladies invited us inside their windows to talk.  We talked about hair, about soup, about their customers that night.  They all seemed tired.  Some a little self-conscious. One girl looked nervously out her window at the men chanting at the bar and mumbled “dangerous.”  A lot can happen when the curtains close behind them, when they are alone with a man who is drunk or violent.

And this is where the debate begins. What does freedom look like?  Some women in the district say the don’t want pity, because they are doing this to support their family back in their home country.  Some that Jay and I saw looked very young and scared, half-heartedly posing.   We saw one burly man, who did not appear to be a customer but likely either a brothel owner or pimp, walk into the brothel with three girls, and all of them looked very uncomfortable.  Some who end up in Amsterdam have already been doing this for years all around Europe, and by the time they get to Amsterdam, they have experienced so much abuse that De Wallen actually seems like a good deal.  Everyone has a different story, and it is not fair to stereotype and try to peg everyone’s experience into some kinds of “typical story” format.

As Saskia mentioned  to us, prostitution is very easy to get into but very hard to get out of. Despite what side of the ‘choice’ argument one lands, that is very clear indeed.  Whether one is a victim of a loverboy, an international trafficking ring, or poverty – or made a series of choices on their own, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that there is a gross abuse of vulnerability happening in the sex industry.

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On the way to an early morning interview

 

I admire the courage, compassion, and devotion of many we have met and spoken with in Amsterdam this week.  I cannot begin to thank those who shared their hearts with us, as well as some of the incredible work being done to stamp out organized crime and exploitation.  I have also thanked Jay many times in the past few days for being a good man.

I do, however, leave the city feeling exhausted and almost a little wounded in a way.  Wounded by the stories of abuse and exploitation, by the reality that there are men willing to abuse vulnerability, and by the fact that I can’t snap my fingers and make it all better.  But that if course is why we all have a part to play, so let’s take that responsibility seriously.

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Ed Sheeran – The A Team

by Michelle Brock on October 23rd, 2012

Oh how my heart aches.

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A Foreign Land, A Victim’s Dilemma

by Michelle Brock on October 19th, 2012

IMG 0294 300x225It is always an adjustment landing in a new country. I have memories of waiting at a small Namibian airport in the middle of nowhere for someone to pick me up, hoping desperately that they were indeed just late.  I also remember getting onto a local Costa Rican bus at the airport and suddenly forgetting all my Spanish, as well as getting stuck at the Zimbabwe/Zambia border with a friend because we did not bring enough money for a visa.  Feeling disoriented in a different country can be scary sometimes.

This past week Jay and I arrived in Sweden.  Despite the fact that most people here speak English very well and the public transportation system is incredible easy, it was still a shock to the system.  Signs in Swedish danced before our eyes, along with Swedish announcements and people speaking a variety of languages that we tried to distinguish.  But in the midst of all of this, one thought came to mind:

How scary is a new country for victims of international trafficking?

 

One person we spoke with this week said that many of the international victims they help don’t even know how to read their own language, let alone Swedish.  Even if they tried to escape once they got here, where would they go?  Everything requires money, even a bus ticket, the public bathroom, or a phone call.  They are afraid of the police, because the police in their home countries are often part of the trafficking chain.  It’s all a big, fear-filled tangle, and traffickers take advantage of it.

I am grateful that I have the gift of freedom, money in my pocket, supportive family back home, my husband beside me, the ability to speak English, and people who have welcomed us into their homes.  I am grateful for the opportunity to shed light on the darkness in this world, for the amazing people we are meeting on the front lines, and for the support of our community back in Canada.

We have been amazed at what is being done in Sweden to deal with this issue, including posters like this in some stations and bathroom stalls, in an attempt to reach out to victims:

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It has been a crazy week, with 16 hour days and little sleep.  This weekend we get a much needed break before we continue our journey.  We are learning so much, and can’t wait to put it all together in a film that we can share with you all.  Commercial sexual exploitation is so evil yet so common, and I hope that what we are learning here will result in a compelling film that will truly make a difference.

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And We’re Off!

by Michelle Brock on October 14th, 2012

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Thanks to the generosity of all of you who have supported Hope for the Sold, we are boarding a plane and headed to Europe to begin filming our documentary!  We can’t express our gratitude for how many of you have been part of this journey.  Our hope is that we can create a film that will help prevent the sale and exploitation of many.  We look forward to meeting people in Europe who are dealing with this issue, and anticipate learning a lot.

For those of you who have contacted us and have not heard back, I apologize.  The weeks leading up to our trip have been quite hectic.

We will update the blog as much as possible while we are on the road!

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Zip Your Lips & Say Happy Birthday

by Michelle Brock on October 10th, 2012

I have two good friends, Niki and Cammy, who are passionate about the fight against sex trafficking. They have each decided to be creative about raising some funds for Hope for the Sold!  Here’s what they’ve cooked up.

NikiThis is Niki.  She is a ridiculously generous, passionate person and has done SO much in support of the abolitionist movement over the years, including hosting awareness events with sheer excellence.  Her birthday is coming up this week, and instead of gifts she has requested that people make a donation to Hope for the Sold!  She makes it very clear that she does not expect birthday gifts in the first place, but if people are so inclined, she wants her birthday to be an opportunity for impact.  So cool.  Say HAPPY BIRTHDAY to Niki by donating below!

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Cammy 300x225This is Cammy.  She is one of the coolest, quirkiest people I know.  She has chickens in her backyard. When we met Cammy and her husband, they proudly showed us a room full of fair trade sugar they had shipped in to make it more accessible to their community! Cammy, being rather talkative, has decided to take on the challenge of being silent for a day to raise funds for Hope for the Sold!   Make Cammy’s day of zipping her lips worth it!

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The money donated is going toward our documentary project, for which we are travelling to several countries to explore what models prevent sex trafficking, and what laws and initiatives make it worse. Our goal is to inspire people to think differently about prostitution, so that both government and individuals can adopt practices that stop commercial sexual exploitation from ever happening in the first place.  We are boarding a plane this weekend to begin filming, so Niki and Cammy’s initiatives to raise funds could not come at a better time!

Thanks Niki and cammy for your beautiful, selfless hearts, and your dedication to making a difference in this world.

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