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Human trafficking exhibit depicts problem as both global and community issues

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"SOLD: the Human Trafficking Experience" educates visitors to the exhibit on the world of human trafficking in nations around the world. Pictured here is a part of the exhibit that focuses on child soldiers in Yemen.

Because human trafficking is happening in neighborhoods throughout the Yakima Valley, as well as around the world, Sunnyside's Promise teamed up with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children to bring to light the issue some might wish to ignore.

"SOLD: the Human Trafficking Experience" was this past weekend on display at the Sunnyside Community Center, providing community members the opportunity to hear first-hand accounts from victims of human trafficking and to feel the desolation that comes from being trapped in a world of heartache and despair.

The exhibit was on display to enlighten visitors to a real problem, but it also was intended to provide hope to the community, according to Sunnyside's Promise Director Mark Baysinger.

He said Sunnyside's Promise has been working with victims of sex trafficking locally and there are organizations intent on fighting human trafficking both in the U.S. and abroad.

Visitors to the exhibit were able to learn about the issue by listening to accounts from victims who have been sold in the world of sex trafficking, child soldiers and forced labor.

"Sex trafficking affects our community...we have helped victims as young as 11," said Baysinger, who said Sunnyside's Promise has been in contact with and provided victims with the resources to help them heal from their experiences.

The youngsters in Sunnyside and the Yakima Valley become victims through the gangs, he said.

One victim, Baysinger noted, has family members involved in gangs. That victim's uncle was the first to exploit her, selling her to others while her parents condoned the activity, explained Baysinger.

Those taking in the exhibit enter a room with shoes in one corner, a mirror on one wall and words describing the feelings experienced by victims of human trafficking on another wall. The visitors are urged to look into the mirror on which is written the word "SOLD."

The intent was to give those taking the tour a sense of what it is like to become the property of others.

The tour is much like a brief glimpse into the lives of children who are forced into situations beyond their control, as well as some adults.

Visitors hear about the experience of being kidnapped in the wilds of Sudan. The children of that nation are forced to become child soldiers under the threat of torture and death. They are fed lies and live in constant fear for themselves and their families.

Yemen is another nation where youngsters are subjected to a life as a child soldier. Although it is an international war crime to recruit children under the age of 15, nations in conflict like Yemen disregard the international laws.

In the rooms of the exhibit focused on the Sudan and Yemen, visitors are surrounded by weapons, images of youngsters using guns, and blood red handprints on the walls.

In Haiti, there are children sold to family members. Those family members subject the children to slave labor, and they are called Restaveks. A Restavek can be as young as 5-years-old and the practice is common among families living in poverty.

Visitors were immersed into the world of a Restavek, seeing a singular blanket used for sleeping and the meager means for living that are provided.

Jordan is a nation where slave labor is used in garment factories. The victims volunteer to work in the factories, believing they will be making money to help their families. They find out after arriving in the factories that they have to endure long days of labor, they "owe" those who have brought them to the factories and they are making 65 cents per hour on a good day. The women are often subjected to rape and other means of sexual abuse.

Much of the clothing made by the factory workers is sold in the U.S., however there are some businesses that have been made aware of specific suppliers involved in the human trafficking in Jordan. Those businesses and retailers have canceled contracts with the suppliers.

The exhibit also details how in Mexico youngsters are lured into working for the drug cartels. The cartels exploit a distrust of the government and see the young people of that nation as easy prey.

"The line between victim and perpetrator can easily be blurred," said the narrator.

The youngsters begin as lookouts for the cartels and eventually become seasoned killers. Some are imprisoned and others lose their lives in shootouts with police or other cartels.

This past weekend's exhibit also showed that in Washington state human trafficking involves forced labor and sex trafficking.

It is estimated that between 14,000 and 18,000 men and women in the U.S. have been tricked into forced labor.

Those attending the exhibit also were told that in Central Washington a group of Thais were found to have been victimized by an organization known as Global Horizons. The organization, said exhibit narrators, lured the victims from Thailand with the promise of earning wages that would help families at home.

Like the victims in Jordan, the farm laborers learned they "owed" more than they could earn once they reached the farms in Central Washington. The laborers were trapped, said exhibit narrators, because their passports and visas were in the hands of Global Horizons, and the workers didn't speak English.

The U.S. Department of Justice in 2007 charged members of Global Horizons with labor abuse and violating the Equal Employment Opportunity laws. The case, however, was dropped this month.

The narrator noted farmers themselves aren't always aware of the workers' circumstances and the abuses.

Sex trafficking is brought to the forefront in one of the exhibit's rooms, intended to provide insight into the lives of children living in Cambodia.

One city there made international headlines because of the brothels and pimping of girls as young as 5-years-old. The room at the local community center was designed much like the rooms the girls were victimized in. A wood bed, a small night stand and writing on the walls with no small comforts became home to the girls.

One organization, Agape International, is changing the landscape. That organization's video was featured in the lobby of the community center, detailing how the victims of the sex trade have been provided hope through education and training. The Cambodian community's brothels are no longer operational, either.

One last room was included in the tour. It was a bathroom much like any bathroom in the U.S. meant to give those on the tour a sense of familiarity.

It was different, however, because it resembled a bathroom where a young girl from a local neighborhood had been held captive by a predator who saw her as vulnerable.

The girl, not yet a teen, didn't believe her parents would understand her relationship with her boyfriend, who treated her like she was special. Her boyfriend was smooth talking and made her believe he cared about her.

Exhibit narrators explained it isn't until she is snared in his trap that she realizes his true intentions and she becomes another statistic. She can't go home and she has to do whatever the "boyfriend" tells her to do or her family will be in danger.

The young girl is only valuable as long as she complies with her captors. Even sadder, her lifespan has been cut drastically short since the average lifespan of a victim of sex trafficking is 17-years-old.

Bringing the issue of human trafficking to light was the primary objective of this past weekend's exhibit, but bringing to light that there are organizations taking on those issues is the message of hope that was also delivered.

Sunnyside's Promise is one such organization. The group has developed a video of its own, providing community members the opportunity to learn how children in the community become a part of the human trafficking world, specifically those who are victims of sex trafficking.

Baysinger said the video features victims sharing their stories for the purpose of educating the community about a very real problem.

"It's really happening here," said Baysinger, stating sex trafficking is not a problem to be ignored.

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