A large percentage of people in the United States have heard the term “human trafficking.” A number of those people have been curious enough to educate themselves further about this form of modern-day-slavery through the endless supply of books, movies, and articles available. Increased knowledge about human trafficking often leads to an increased sense of powerlessness and frustration! We can buy merchandise to support causes, and we can preach as anti-human-trafficking abolitionists, but very seldom do we have a way to impact survivors on a personal level, face-to-face.
The people working with survivors of human trafficking in the US are almost always professionals who work within narrowly-defined agencies and organizations. Social workers, attorneys, and law-enforcement officers are usually the first responders when victims of human trafficking are identified. These roles are critical for anti-human-trafficking work to exist, but they are so specialized that they keep most passionate laypeople on the sidelines.
Newly-rescued victims of human trafficking do require specialized interventions from legal and social service professionals. Very few organizations work exclusively with victims of human trafficking in the US, but one of the best-known is the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (www.castla.org ). CAST and a handful of other organizations employ the professional attorneys and social workers who meet the initial needs of newly-identified human trafficking victims. However, a major gap in services exists for those same victims after they have been helped with their legal and social-service needs. The victim now on his or her way to becoming a survivor, has come under the protection afforded by the law and has been able to access whatever state and federal benefits are available, but he or she still lacks social capital.
Human trafficking survivors are often estranged from what might be considered “natural” social support systems. This is especially relevant to many foreign nationals, motivated by economic needs, who left the families and poverty they knew only to become victimized in the United States. Additionally, many American citizens fall prey to traffickers precisely because they lacked supportive home environments in the first place. The scenarios are each unique, but the common-need for most survivors of human trafficking is to form connections with trustworthy members of society who have the necessary resources to help the survivor get ahead in life. This requires making connections across the traditional lines that divide people: socio-economics, language, education, access to technology, culture, etc…
We have been encouraged in the quest to bridge the “social” gap facing the majority of trafficking survivors. In our work among survivors at The Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (castla.org), we found that survivors were having a hard time integrating into the larger society. They received legal and social services, but lacked vital relationships and connections with which to learn and thrive in a social context.
Through a series of conversations, we heard about a model for transformation and recovery called “The Open Table.” This model was designed to help homeless individuals reintegrate into society and become contributing and thriving members. Over the course of two years, we have helped facilitate and introduce the key participants to one another – CAST and leaders from The Open Table. We have worked to adjust the model to meet the particular needs of human trafficking survivors. Additionally, we have spoken to many churches and civic groups in order to raise awareness and gain interest in the Open Table model for survivors of human trafficking.
In a nutshell, the model takes eight volunteers who pledge to meet with the survivor of human trafficking for one hour a week during the course of a year. During this hour, needs of the survivor are discussed and networking takes place. Contacts are shared and relationships are also established. It is an amazing opportunity for the survivor to learn to trust again and to network, but it is an even greater opportunity for participants to give-back and to be challenged. In church terms we might like to think of it as “discipleship.”
So, after many meetings and almost two years of preparation, staff from “The Open Table,” members of CAST, and eight volunteers from a local church have recently launched the first table for survivors of human trafficking in San Gabriel, California. We are elated to finally have a mechanism, a model that brings people in faith communities together with survivors of human trafficking!