How it Started

By Elisabeth Gegner

Posted June 28, 2016

It was November 1996. I sat at an orphanage in Thailand, overseeing some one hundred children between the ages of 5 and 16 pick at their sticky rice and veggies in the early morning hours, before hopping into the pick up truck to go to school. Some laughing, some quiet, others still wiping the sleep from their beautiful slanted morning eyes.

I observed a little 8-year old girl, cute as a button with her big brown eyes, fitted in her white and navy school uniform. Big wet tears rolled down her brown porcelain cheeks. Every time her eyes filled up, she closed them again, pressing the tears out, as if emptying miniature buckets of water into her rice bowl. Nobody paid attention. Nobody said anything. Nobody gave her a hug. Yet, to those who knew, it was obvious.

Chiang Mai, Thailand: this was the place I first learned about human trafficking, first hand, from girls who had been sold by their own mothers, shipped to the Bangkok or to islands like Phuket to be sold for sex, until the lucky ones who survived were considered “used up merchandise” and sent back to their villages, often infecting entire villages.

A few lines from a poem entitled Abba, which I wrote at that time, read:

Five years later

The “lucky” ones return;

Stolen hearts that have ceased to burn,

Empty eyes their mama cannot recognize.

Papa turns his head

And reaches for his stolen prize.

Little sister wants to play.

Her older sibling turns the other way.

She buries her head in her chore;

She buries her memories of being a whore;

She buries everything,

Deep within her shriveled heart.

“Tragic that such a terrible thing happens over there,” you might say.

And that’s what I said… until last year, when I learned about what is going on in the US, right in our own backyards. As I rode my bike along this year’s Freedom Ride 2016 course, raising awareness and money for a home in Thailand, people started telling me about what is going on right here, in our “land of the free.”

The statistics floored me: Moreover, while human trafficking is the 2nd largest and the fastest growing illegal enterprise in the world, it has already surpassed drug trafficking in several demographics. Over 100,000 US kids – not foreign kids – are being trafficked in our country every year. The average age of entry into “the life” is 13. Over half of child pornography happens with kids of 5 or below. Not a single state is exempt from this crime, and in 2015 California reported more cases than the 2nd and 3rd states combined. In fact, even wealthy communities like Orange County can be targets, as this crime grows where the most money can be made and where tourism (Disneyland and beaches) is abundant.

As I began to speak up about human trafficking, I was reminded of that little girl with the big wet tears in Chiang Mai, Thailand. She was crying; but nobody noticed; nobody said anything. In fact, nobody thought anything was wrong.

Nita Belles, one of our Partners, often says: “The only thing the traffickers want is for you to be silent.”

Well, I’ve got news for those traffickers: The time for silence is gone! It’s time for action!

The mission of the Freedom Ride 2016 is to raise awareness about human trafficking and move people to action in their own communities. Awareness is a critical piece of the puzzle for 2 main reasons. First, reports tell us that only 1% of victims ever get out of the life. So let’s intervene earlier in the process to prevent this crime! Second, in many cases, victims or potential victims are saved because someone notices something that isn’t quite right and intervenes. Any of us could be that person; we just need to know how to recognize the signs, who to contact and what to do.

Join the fight to stop this before it starts! Sign up to our newsletter, follow us on Facebook, donate to The Freedom Ride Project to end human trafficking!

One mile at a time

One dollar at a time

One voice at a time

One child at a time.