Archive for the ‘Book & Film Reviews’ Category

Unexpected Gifts: Discovering the Way of Community

by Michelle Brock on January 10th, 2013

Unexpected Gifts1Despite its imperfections and challenges, Jay and I have always valued authentic community.  In the last three months we have been to 9 countries to examine effective ways to prevent sex trafficking, and we keep hearing words like this:

Lonely.  Abused.  Disconnected. Vulnerable.  Enticed.  Desperate.  

Ironically, these words can often describe both trafficking victims as well as their abusers. Everyone is longing for a sense of belonging, a “tribe,” a home.  And for this reason, being part of healthy community in itself can prevent trafficking.

Enter Chris Heuertz.  He was mentored in India for three years by Mother Teresa and has been to over 70 countries to serve and love the poor and exploited.  He has recently written a book called Unexpected Gifts: Discovering a Way of Community.  I had a chance to interview Chris this week, and here’s what he had to say.

In a nutshell, what is Unexpected Gifts about? 

“Unexpected Gifts” is my 3rd book, and easily my most vulnerable and confessional. In the 11 chapters of the book I introduce the messy bits of community that make it hard to stay, but why it’s important to stay. If you stay in a friendship, relationship or community long enough you will face inevitable challenges–things like failure, restlessness, betrayal, entitlement–things that are legitimate reasons to leave a community. But sometimes the very reasons we leave are in fact invitations to stay. And, if stay, especially after things get tough, these inevitable challenges can become unexpected gifts.

Chris H 682x1024Why is it so hard to find (and stay) in community?

I think it’s hard to stay in community because so many of us are enamored with a sense of the enthralling, however, most of “real life” is mundane and undramatic. And I think staying in community is also marked by very ordinary and routine rhythms. Until we can find our centered self, and until we can learn to gratitude in the mundane, I think it’s going to be hard for most folks to stay rooted in community.

In addition, I think a lot of us idealize what we mean by community. We show up in communities with “scripts” for the roles we need everyone else to play, while maintaining ourselves as the central figure in the communities we participate in. When we realize that we’re not the center of community it’s an important assault on our egos and for many of us we can’t bear to have our egos exposed.

Finally, though we shouldn’t be, most of us are surprised when our humanity collides with the humanity of those we’re in community with.  Somehow we imagine this cosmetic version of community that only highlights and celebrates the best of us, while in true communities the worst of ourselves inevitably emerges–offering our community and ourselves a chance to learn to love and accept.  Sadly, most of us can’t accept the worst of ourselves and so we can’t accept the worst of those in our communities and so there’s usually a bad transition.

What’s the importance of being in community?

Fundamentally I believe the divine imprint in all humanity carries with it an existential yearning towards one another, we need each other and we were created for one another. Being in relationships and friendships and community is essentially human–beautifully human.

You can purchase Unexpected Gifts here, and read more about the fantastic work Chris and his wife Phileena are doing around the world.






The Whistleblower Movie Review

by Michelle Brock on September 21st, 2011

whistleblower rachel w1I recently went to see The Whistleblower with my husband Jay and some abolitionist friends.  The movie is based on the book (my review here) by Kathryn Bolkovac and Cari Lynn, about Bokovac’s real life experience working for a US military contractor in Bosnia. There she uncovers that peacekeepers from several international agencies are involved in sex trafficking.

The film is gritty.  My husband came very close to throwing up in the theatre.  The film is heartbreaking.  I wept as I watched.  At the end when the room was clearing out, I saw two elderly women at the back, sitting in a stunned silence from what they just saw.  I asked two of my friends who saw the film to share their thoughts.  Heather Sheppard wrote the following:

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Heather Sheppard

Last weekend I watched the film The Whistleblower, and have spent every day since attempting to decipher my sentiments on Kathryn Bolkovac’s story, as told by authors Kondracki and Eilise Kirwan. Moved does not begin to describe how I felt after watching the film, a true story of an international police task force (IPTK) who utilized their power, abused trust and facade of legitimacy in order to perpetuate the horrific realities of an Eastern European sex trafficking operation.

I am no expert on the topic of human trafficking. I have read The Natashas by Victor Malarek and learned briefly about it throughout my undergraduate degree in International Development, (mainly that it is the third largest source of profits for international organized crime, after only drugs and weapons). On a trip to Kosovo in 2009 I was made aware by social workers how the sale of (mostly) women for sexual enslavement is a reality they are often forced to face in their field. I was however, never fully aware of the complicit role of the United Nations and the security companies which they utilize in the perpetuation of modern day slavery.

Post-conflict regions face vulnerabilities of many kinds, and when the very people entrusted to guide the transition from conflict to peace are directly involved in the kidnapping, cross-border smuggling and sexual enslavement of innocent victims, true peace will never be achieved. I admire Kathryn Bolkovac’s courage and her willingness to blow the whistle on such blatant injustice, when in all likelihood it meant giving up any future employment opportunities in the often-corrupt world of IPTK.

Since watching The Whistleblower I am motivated to become better informed, learn the stories of survivors and remember that in order for any illegal trade to thrive, a demand is required. No level of demand in the sale of human beings is appropriate; may Bolkovac’s example set precedence and prove to be an ongoing deterrent.

Jennifer Lucking, who saw the film with us, writes the following.

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Mark and Jennifer Lucking

For myself, this is not the first exposure I’ve had with human trafficking; I have done a lot of reading, seen various films, and have done work with human trafficking survivors, and I also plan to write my thesis on some aspect of human trafficking.

For my husband, being married to me he has obviously heard about human trafficking, but on a much smaller (and toned down) scale. His exposure to human trafficking has mainly come from how it affects me, hearing my passionate (and often angry) rants and seeing how affected I am after meeting with a human trafficking victim. It was interesting to see how the movie moved him. He left feeling angry. Anger at individuals who could inflict so much pain on other human beings. Anger at politicians and officials who do not do enough to prevent it. Anger at people who turn a blind eye. And I could empathize with him, because I too felt that initial rush of anger at the beginning of my journey. It was almost refreshing to see his anger, to see that first spark of raw emotion that most of us feel the first time we really understand and see the ugliness of modern slavery.

As for myself, I felt sadness. It took all I had not to break down in tears as I watched the film. For those who have not seen it yet, please be forewarned that will likely push you out of your comfort zone no matter what kind of experience you have with human trafficking. It is raw, and it is real. And the realness moved me.

My husband and I talked about the movie all the way home, and we wondered how the actors felt after filming scenes filled with rape, humiliation and brokeness. How do the actors deal with that kind of emotion after the director yells Cut!? I couldn’t help but watch those scenes and think of the survivors I have come into contact with. And it brought me to tears. Believe me, the anger was still there as I watched the scenes. The anger at injustice. The anger at individuals who are filled with so much evil. But after the anger comes hope. Hope for change and hope in people who are working so hard to make a difference.

You can read the rest of Jen’s review on her blog.

It frustrated me that the security contractor Bolkovac worked for has a different name in the film.  I am assuming that DynCorp threatened another lawsuit if their name was mentioned.  How can the truth be told when those who need to be held accountable hide behind their cash and power?

For those of you who want to see a political thriller you can eat popcorn to, this movie might not be suitable.  However if you want to catch a glimpse into the raw reality of what some people are experiencing in this world, The Whistleblower is one to see.

Michelle Brock


Book Recommendation from a Friend: Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof & Sheryl WuDunn

by Michelle Brock on July 28th, 2011

RoxanneA year ago in May, my husband Jay and I met a new friend in the backseat of a Guatemalan bus. On the 7 hour ride along dusty roads, mountain passes, and pine forests, we discovered that this girl from Greece was a Harvard grad and had a passion for helping women in conflict zones.

At the time of our meeting, Roxanne was affiliated with the UN, designing and implementing intervention-based projects in conflict and post-conflict zones for the reintegration of women in peaceful communities.  She joked that she had all the wrong stamps in her passport to get through U.S. customs “ having lived, travelled, or worked in India, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Uganda, Sudan, Israel, the West Bank, Colombia, Ecuador and Guatemala.”

Though we only spent 48 hours together, we’ve since become good friends with Roxanne.  At the beginning of our online friendship I realized that she is a reader, and recently I came across these words scribbled into my journal: “Must read Half the Sky.” A recommendation from Roxanne.

Considering that she probably knows more about women’s issues on the ground than anyone I know, I decided to take Roxanne up on her offer and have spent the last few weeks grappling with the content of this well-written, powerful book.  I hope the following review leads you to pick up Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity For Women Worldwide.

half the skyBack cover synopsis:

“From two of our most fiercely moral voices, a passionate call to arms against our era’s most pervasive human rights violation: the oppression of women and girls in the developing world. With Pulizer Prize winners Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn as our guides, we undertake an odyssey through Africa and Asia to meet the extraordinary women struggling there, among them a Cambodian teenager sold into sex slavery and an Ethiopian woman who suffered devastating injuries in childbirth.  Drawing on the breadth of experience, Kristof and WuDunn depict our world with anger, sadness, clarity, and, ultimately, hope.”

Feelings I experienced reading this book:

  • Deeply troubled
  • Nauseous
  • Frustrated that the issues are so complex
  • Inspired by people who use their power to empower, not exploit.
  • Moved by women’s courage and wondering I would be so brave in their shoes.
  • Determined to show people dignity and to not withhold good from others when it is in my power to act.

A third of the book is on sex trafficking and forced prostitution, while the other sections focus on honour killings, mass rape, and maternal morality. Reading this book helped me see that these issues are interconnected, and that in order to understand the nature of sex trafficking we must understand women’s plight as a whole.

It’s not about women’s rights, but human rights for women.  The authors write:

“In the nineteenth century, the central moral challenge was slavery.  In the twentieth century, it was the battle against totalitarianism.  We believe that this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality around the world.”

The term “gender equality” gets a bad rep.  To be honest, the first thing I picture when I hear the term is a bunch of whiny women in business suits and high heels.  I do not wish to downplay the struggles women face in the North American workplace and admire those who are breaking through the glass ceiling and shattering stereotypes.  But for those of you who get similar images in your head when you think about gender equality and are turned off before even reading a book like this, I’d like to remind you that the majority of the world’s women are oppressed and discriminated against on a whole other level.

Malnourished Ethiopian girls filling emergency feeding centres while brothers in the same family are perfectly nourished at home, hundreds of women a year in Pakistan’s twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi being doused in kerosene and set alight or burned with acid for perceived disobedience, and girls being kidnapped and sold into brothels in Cambodia are just a few examples of why gender equality is so important in the developing world.

Three things I appreciate about this book:

  • Not only is it story-based, but the stories are told with excellence, clarity, and compassion.
  • It is real.  Kristof and WuDunn don’t shy away from the complexities of the issues, but include details that break the mold of our expectations.
  • It challenges cultural and religious norms without being disrespectful.

nicholassheryl1Three women in the book whose stories captured my heart: Momm, Neth, and Mahabouba.  I hope you read the book so you can meet them too!

A word about the authors: Nicholas and Sheryl are the first married couple to win a Pulitzer prize in journalism.  I love that they write books together.  I can only imagine how close two people can get working as a team on such important projects.

In summary: This book is a must-read, and now on my top 5 favourite books list.  Women, pick up this book and learn about what your sisters around the world are going through.  Men (especially those of you who are wary of feminists and women’s rights), I challenge you to read this book and let me know if it helps you think about gender issues differently.  Borrow it from your local library or buy it here.

What an opportunity we have to turn oppression into opportunity for women worldwide!

Michelle Brock

***Photographers, send in your photos on this theme for a chance to win a copy of Invisible Chains by Benjamin Perrin!


Book Review: The Whistleblower – Sex Trafficking, Military Contractors, and One Woman’s Fight for Justice by Kathryn Bolkovac

by Michelle Brock on March 16th, 2011

whistleblowerI just finished reading the riveting true story of Kathryn Bolkovac, author of The Whistleblower: Sex Trafficking, Military Contractors, and One Woman’s Fight for Justice. Here is an excerpt from the back cover:

When Nebraska police officer and divorced mother of three Kathryn Bolkovac saw a recruiting announcement for private military contractor DynCorp International, she applied and was hired. Good money, world travel, and the chance to help rebuild a war-torn country sounded like the perfect job.

Bolkovac was shipped out to Bosnia, where DynCorp had been contracted to support the UN peacekeeping mission. She was assigned as a human rights investigator, heading the gender affairs unit. The lack of proper training provided sounded the first alarm bell, but once she arrived in Sarajevo, she found out that things were a lot worse. At great risk to her personal safety, she began to unravel the ugly truth about officers involved in human trafficking and forced prostitution and their connections to private mercenary contractors, the UN, and the U.S. State Department.

Bosnia Herzegovina maps

Fiction author Steven King says that readers expect fiction to be believable and non-fiction to be unbelievable.  Based on the fact that several times I caught myself collecting my jaw off the floor while reading this book, it is safe to say the Whistleblower falls into the latter category.  The book confirms what I wrote in a previous post about how some DynCorp (America’s largest military contractor) and UN peacekeepers exploit the vulnerability of women in war-torn countries.

dyncorpHere are a few things that stood out to me as I was reading:

Dive in. The book gets to an exciting start and reads like a story, making it easy to follow while weaving important factual information into the plot.

Shocking discovery.  DynCorp background checks for the people they hire are poor or non-existent, and training for the field is minimal. Considering that these people are going to be working within different cultures, political climates, and economic landscapes, thorough training is absolutely essential if they are to affect positive change.

Bolkovac tells of how many of her co-workers simply wanted to blow things up and show locals how to use force. This reminded me of a U.S. soldier I met on a plane who boasted to me about shooting whatever he wanted overseas because he could.  Hooligans should not be permitted to serve in a place where war, death, and pain still hang heavily in the air.

First alert. Bolkovac’s first exposure to peacekeepers creating demand for sex trafficking victims was hearing a co-worker boast about where to find “really nice twelve to fifteen year-olds.”

Breeding Ground. The book does a good job explaining why conflict zones are especially attractive to human traffickers:

Bosnia fit the bill for a healthy breeding ground.  Human trafficking follows a predictable path of infestation: it seeks out environments that are warm with tumult, such as the aftermath of war or the fall of communism.  Then it preys on desperate victims who are brought in over porous borders and past bribable guards. Strategically, it breeds near a region teeming with internationals, because they are the ones who have the money to feed it (p.85).

Irony: How is it that those who are supposed to be spreading peace in the world are in fact fueling and participating in the flesh trade?  The sheer number of colleagues that Bolkovac found guilty of this crime, combined with the ‘sweep under the rug’ attitude of those in leadership, makes us all long for justice.

Kathryn Bolkovac 11Evidence gathered. I struggled reading about how Bolkovac was mistreated by her superiors due to her discoveries, but was fascinated by her ability to collect evidence against her co-workers.  She was demoted and later fired, and escaped Bosnia because of threats to her own safety –  from the very company that she had worked for!

Admiration. Bolkovac took DynCorp to court and made headlines.  How many people are courageous enough to take on a corporate giant with government ties?  Since then, DynCorp has changed their legal jurisdiction to Dubai, where it is virtually impossible for new lawsuits to be brought against them effectively.

Out of Your Pocket. To bring it closer to home, those of you who live in the U.S. are paying for DynCorp’s operations with your tax money.  Is this kind of behaviour what you want your money to support?

There is so much more I want to write about this book, but will leave the rest for you to read yourself. You can buy the book here.  And for those of you who don’t like to read, you will be happy to know that a movie is being made about Bolkovac’s experience!  I will keep you posted.

Has anyone else read this book?  What do you think of international peace keepers buying and selling women and children?  Do you have an experience with DynCorp you’d like to share?  Would love to hear your comments below.

Michelle Brock


10 Reasons Why You Need to Read Invisible Chains

by Michelle Brock on February 7th, 2011

top ten reasons 300x300In the fall of 2010 Benjamin Perrin released his new book, Invisible Chains: Canada’s Underground World of Human Trafficking.  Mine is underlined, highlighted, and bookmarked, indicating how much I learned and want to remember.  Here are ten reasons why you should buy it today!

  • The book is written buy a Canadian, about Canada, for Canadians (though I would recommend it to everyone despite their country of origin!)  So many statistics are U.S.-based, and it is refreshing to get a Canadian perspective on the issue.   It is truly the first book of its kind.
  • Invisible ChainsPart of the proceeds are going towards helping trafficking victims rebuild their lives.
  • Invisible Chains is a mixture of stories and statistics, allowing the reader to learn facts while being introduced to real-life people who have been affected by this crime.  It is an easy read for those who do not know very much about trafficking, but goes into enough detail that those of us who have studied it for years learn a lot as well.
  • The book shatters some of our myths about trafficking:

Myth: Individuals who did not seize opportunities to escape are not trafficking victims.

Reality: Victims are often under threats that make escape impossible or are under control similar to that experienced by victims of domestic abuse. (p65)

  • justice 270x300Perrin gives dignity to victims whose names or stories would never have been told.  I can only imagine how much it means to victims and their families to be remembered.
  • Important information is given about the Palermo Protocol, Canadian convictions to date, and how temporary resident permits work in the context of trafficking.  This would specifically be helpful to students who need legal context for their papers.
  • Perrin helps us to see trafficking for what it is: modern day slavery.  In one section he compares the old and new slave trade:

Old Slavery owners paid high costs to acquire their slaves and earned relatively low profits from their labour.  in contrast, New Slavery owners avoid legal ownership but earn high profits from slaves whose cost is often minimal.

Despite these distinctions…some fundamental similarities remain: the targeting of disadvantaged individuals to reap ill-gotten financial rewards, the resistance of profiteers to exposing these systems of exploitation, the complicity of governments either through corruption or inaction, and the crucial role of individuals and civil society in championing its abolition. (p7)

  • The book includes notes on methodology, demonstrating the importance Perrin places on good research.  I like that he does not claim to know all the numbers, as organized crime is difficult to measure.
  • At the end there is a list of abolitionist organizations who you can get involved with and support in the fight against trafficking.
  • The title of the book is perfect. I will let you read the book to figure out why.

If you are looking for a gift for someone who is passionate about social justice issues or want to learn more yourself about human trafficking, you can buy the book from Amazon, Chapters, or the Penguin Group.  Get an E-book version here.  I have also seen the book in several book stores across the country.

For more reading, check out my coverage of Benjamin Perrin’s book tour, and don’t forget to check out his website.  Happy reading!

Michelle Brock


Book Review: The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson

by Michelle Brock on August 20th, 2010

IMG 42071 768x1024This month I finally jumped on the bandwagon and read Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Played With Fire.  It is part two in the Swedish crime thriller Millenium trilogy, in which sex trafficking is an underlying theme.  The back of the book invites readers to step into an engaging storyline:

Part blistering espionage, part riveting police procedural, and part piercing expose on social injustice, The Girl Who Played with Fire is a masterful, endlessly satisfying novel.  Mikael Blomkvist, crusading publisher of the magazine Millenium, has decided to run a story that will expose an extensive sex trafficking operation.  On the eve of its publication, two people are brutally murdered, and the fingerprints found on the murder weapon belong to his friend, Lisbeth Salander.  Blomkvist, convinced of Salander’s innocence, plunges into an investigation.  Meanwhile, Salander herself is drawn into a murderous game of cat and mouse, which forces her to face her dark past.

Lisbeth Salander1

Stieg Larsson’s website says that Lisbeth Salander, the feisty heroine in the novel, was modeled after “a grown-up version of Pippi Longstocking,” who is dysfunctional and has a hard time finding her place in society.  She is certainly one of the most unique characters I have ever encountered in a novel. The storyline is quite captivating, and is one of those books that makes me want to develop some serious combat fighting skills!  I can see why this series has become a bestseller all over the world this summer.

There are a few points I would like to make however:

First of all, this book is meant to be read as part of the series.  I did not read the first book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which made it a bit more difficult to keep track of all the characters and their back stories.  When I reached the end of the book I realized that to find out how the story finishes I have to read the next book in the series, The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.  If you are wanting to read this book, I would recommend reading the whole series.

Second, I picked up this book because sex trafficking is a significant part of the plot.  In this regard I was a little disappointed. Sex trafficking is mentioned but not really explained. I kept waiting for the big revelation about the operation and its intricacies but that never came.   The average person who does not know a lot about sex trafficking would not learn very much about it from this book.   However, I have yet to read the sequel so maybe more will be revealed a bit later.  In my opinion, a book like Priceless by Tom Davis would be a better choice for those who want to read a novel that explains what trafficking is and how it operates.

Third, I was quite disturbed by the unnecessary sex scenes in this book.  I found it odd that in a book about sex trafficking the heroine seduces a 16-year-old boy.  In addition to this, I think that Larsson’s description of Lisbeth’s bisexual encounters were more for his benefit than the reader’s, as they really did not play a significant part in the plot.  Fortunately these scenes take place in the first half of the novel, leaving the second half to be a much more enjoyable and interesting read.

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Would I recommend this book?  Maybe. If you’re looking for a series full of political thrill and criminal investigation, go for it.  If you are only reading it in order to learn about sex trafficking, I wouldn’t recommend this book in particular.  I am pleased though that trafficking is increasingly a theme in literature and movies, and am now committed to finishing this series because I simply must find out how the story ends!

Michelle Brock


Book Review: Priceless by Tom Davis

by Michelle Brock on July 21st, 2010

priceless1 196x300I just finished reading Priceless by Tom Davis, a novel about sex trafficking in Russia.  American photojournalist Stuart Daniels is the main character, whose job is to educate people about social injustice taking place around the world.  The following is an excerpt from the back cover:

Daniels’ next assignment carries him back overseas and into the heart of Russia, where an old friend persuades him to help save two girls from a desperate situation involving the Russian mafia.  Soon, he becomes a key player in a dangerous campaign to rescue helpless girls trapped in the sex-slave industry.  What Daniels encounters during his journey will shake his faith, test his courage, and even threaten his life.  Yet as Daniels travels deeper and the stakes become higher, he discovers that hope can be found in the darkest of places.

When I bought the book, the first thing that caught my attention was the title.  Victims of trafficking are bought and sold like product, and traffickers determine each girl’s monetary value.  This makes the title absolutely perfect.  Human beings cannot be assigned monetary value, and the girls entrapped in the trade are indeed priceless.

Davis weaves Russian culture, history, and language into the pages of this book.  It is obvious that he loves Russia and is passionate about helping its orphans.  The story is easy to follow and is ideal for people who don’t know a whole lot about trafficking and how it works.  In an interview at the end of the book, Davis explains that about 80% of what takes place in the book is based on true events.  At the beginning of the book, the main character finds himself in a situation that Davis himself experienced on a trip to Russia.  Here is a clip of the author telling that story:

I would definitely recommend this book.  It made me ask the following questions:

  • How do we rescue girls without just buying them, which merely feeds the criminal industry?
  • What types aftercare programs have the most long-term success?
  • How can we stop girls from being openly offered for sex in Russian hotels?

For more reviews you can check out those by Nora St.Laurent, Deborah, and Carole Turner.  You can also check out the official Priceless website, an interview with Tom Davis, and Children’s Hope Chest for more on the book and on sex trafficking.

Happy reading!

Michelle Brock