I lost my childhood to child sex trafficking and a decade of my young adulthood. It is a miracle that I am alive today. What survived is my voice, and I am using it for change.
If I can speak to the world on behalf of survivors of modern-day slavery then the message that I want to be heard is that victims of this crime must have access to appropriate health care and academic opportunities.
This is based on my own lived experience as a survivor and my expert knowledge of the community of human trafficking survivors.
I ended up having trauma care for over a decade. I worked with many physicians from the West to the East coast of the U.S.A.
I felt I had lost. But then I changed the narrative to 'have gained'. And what I gained was a very rich knowledge about the lack of clinical care not just in the U.S.A but around the world for people like me – normal people that went through abnormal experiences.
At times, I felt that I was educating the clinicians about my symptoms more than they were actually treating me.
My symptoms were science based. We know that with the higher levels of trauma someone goes through, the higher levels of clinical symptomatology and complex pathology they are going to have. These are not 'crazy' people. They are resilient ones.
With clinic care for survivors of human trafficking, we must innovate unique approaches for complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
We have great PTSD care for veterans and military personnel. But we cannot take the medical models that we are applying for veterans and apply them in the same fashion to survivors of modern-day slavery, especially child victims, because their brains are still developing.
We need to have dialogues not just about PTSD in survivors but also about another subcategory of conditions known as dissociative disorders. If we do not treat these in survivors of human trafficking, there is a high risk of suicide over their lifetime.
We have university programmes in trauma care, but we really do not have enough curricula in child sex abuse, and we certainly do not have enough training on how to apply medical methods to survivors of modern-day slavery.
I am very passionate about speaking to current and future clinicians on how to interact with victims of trafficking. They must have very strong ethical standards, because if they are not practising with good boundaries and good ethics, they can actually retraumatise this population and cause a lifetime of more symptoms.
When you are trafficked, whether as a child, for sex or labour exploitation, you become objectified. You are a commodity for others who benefit from you financially or otherwise.
So, when you are treating someone who has been objectified, you have to treat them in a human way, because you are treating dehumanization.
Treating this population is a privilege. The doctor should not be an authority figure or abuse any power dynamics in treatment. When you are treating a survivor of human trafficking there needs to be an equal playing ground, the work must be ethical, collaborative and safe.
There is an International Society of the Study of Trauma and Dissociation, they are doing great work, but we need to do much more.
I know that as a survivor of child trafficking, organized criminal abuse and torture, it takes a very brave and ethical clinician to be witness to these experiences.
There are not enough clinicians who are well versed in trauma-informed care, and it can cause a lot of damage. The need for more trained clinicians in this field is desperate.
Alongside campaigning for more effective clinical care, I also advocate for better educational opportunities for survivors of human trafficking.
I have seen parallels in difficulties with access to healthcare and education, and we need to address this in a policy-based way.
Exiting trafficking does not mean that you are free. Being free means getting access to housing, long-term mental health care, education and then economic equity. Healing from all forms of exploitation can be a lifetime journey. Education is an important part of this journey.
I often say, 'we must educate to liberate'. We really need to ensure that survivors of human trafficking can get educated in the curriculum they chose, so then they have a chance of landing the career of their choice.
When you are forced to work in an abusive way, work in a sense becomes a trauma. Survivors must be able to obtain a career role they feel safe in performing, so they can maintain employment throughout their lifetime.
By creating pathways to academic opportunities, survivors can be integrated into society, become economically independent and ultimately liberated. This also reduces the vulnerability of re-exploitation.
But education is not free in many countries, and many survivors cannot afford to go to college.
Many, like me, ended up with medical debts from the care they needed because of what they had endured. It is a tremendous injustice to be sold as a child and indebted as an adult.
My dream is to become a therapist and fill the gaps that I experienced in clinical care. I want to research dissociative disorders, to provide a needed service to my community of survivors and have the ability to listen to patients as a trained witness.
I actually applied to graduate school multiple times, and I have had to turn down acceptances at universities because I could not secure the funding to attend.
In 2017, I got awarded a presidential scholarship to a school in Boston but it did not cover all the cost. I got on a bus with my acceptance letter and headed to New York City to meet with New York University to inquire if I could attend that fall. While the Professor I met with supported my mission, they said they could not offer me a way.
In 2020, I got accepted into Northwestern University. I lit a candle on my desk every day and prayed I would find a way to attend. I even had a phone meeting with the Executive Office of the President at the White House. People from across the United States were cheering me on, a letter was drafted by the larger community to the institution on my behalf. I sat through the orientation session, but at the last minute I could not find a way to secure my seat in time.
I know I was not entitled to a scholarship but to me attending school was not a luxury but was in fact my social responsibility. I felt a deep responsibility to obtain a piece of paper that would ultimately aid me in saving lives.
I know many survivors that also cannot attend university, because they have trafficking-related debts, or they are not residents in the country where they want to study, so they cannot take out federal loans.
In some cases, their credit rating has been destroyed because their traffickers had taken out money with their social security numbers.
So, like with my journey to get healthcare, I also faced adversity with my own journey to get an education.
But I say that solutions are born out of challenges. Now I am working on what will hopefully be a global initiative to create seats at universities for survivors of human trafficking.
My hope is that universities will embrace these dialogues, and I look forward to celebrating them as they join us in liberating those in need.
As survivors we have a vital role to play in the anti-human trafficking community. Our narratives must not merely be inspiring but the lessons that lay within them must be used to create lasting solutions.
Just like I want to become a clinician, other survivors want to fix and fill the gaps in after care and get justice not just for the crimes that were perpetrated against them but also justice for their peers.
These people are the most resilient individuals I have ever encountered. They have overcome slavery, gone through years of clinical care, saved their own lives and now the only thing they desire is to selflessly serve their community by going to school and obtaining professions to help remedy these human rights violations. They want to become doctors, lawyers, and policy makers.
Just last week, I got an email from a survivor whose healing journey I know was long and hard. They emailed me to inform me that they had gotten into a prestigious doctoral programme and had just two days left to find a way to attend before they had to turn down the offer. After reading that email, I wept. It validated to me the importance of this education initiative I am now undertaking.
I want to note that lived experience cannot be taught in a classroom and the grit, determination and passion these survivors have cannot be manufactured. If given a chance, I know they are truly capable of changing our world.
I am often invited to speak at all kinds of events, conferences and on panels, and while I really appreciate that, I know we need to take it to the next level.
We must start with conservations about solutions and meet to discuss the pinpointed ones.
Then we should bring in experts from the fields of healthcare and education and actually come up with concrete solutions and put them into policies.
Then we have to take these policies and make sure that they are actually implemented and are successful.
If they are not, we need to go back and rework the framework and make these policies more effective and hold participating states accountable for their implementation.
What does freedom really look like? My favourite part of the day is when I let my dog Winston off his leash by the lake in the morning. It brings me a sense of peace to witness him having the freedom I am still seeking for myself and others.
The most powerful question you can ask a survivor of human trafficking is 'do you feel free?'. And they will say yes or no.
If they say no, you need to ask, 'what is it going to take for you to feel liberated and how should we work as a community to meet your needs?'.
The United Nations needs to reach out to survivors in multiple countries and really get a better understanding of what they need. It could be shelter, food, medical care, or education.
I think the UN can do this by having dialogues with survivors like me about what these specific needs are, and how can we find the solutions to meet these needs.