Project Stay Gold raises awareness of trafficking

The bathroom walls of the vacant Newark home seemed to be moving in the dark. As the light switched on, swarms of cockroaches appeared in the illuminated room. The building was crawling with them. Numerous mattresses were crammed on the floor of each room. It was impossible to believe people were living there.

That is how Joe Salavarria, Homeland Security special agent, described the scene of a labor trafficking home, in a case where he — along with other members of law enforcement — rescued nearly 20 young women who he said were forced to work in hair- braiding salons day and night back in 2007. 

The issue of slavery is often believed to be a dark part of our past, but the harsh reality is that it continues to exist today in our own backyards. The College’s own Project Stay Gold hosted its trafficking awareness week, with events that included various speakers, a film screening and an activity night to educate attendees on the issue of human trafficking. 

Trafficking can come in many forms, including forced sexual acts or labor, and according to authorities, movement across borders is not required. Involuntary labor can be present in a variety of industries, often in agriculture and the beauty industry, according to Lynne Wilson, Homeland Security victim specialist.

“I guarantee you they are in every town. They are everywhere,” Wilson said of these businesses.

Project Stay Gold was brought to campus by freshman communication studies and interactive multimedia double major Matthew Newman. The club’s goal is to raise awareness and educate students about the ongoing issue of human trafficking, which they refer to as modern-day slavery.  

The events kicked off on Wednesday, April 9, when Danielle Douglass, a survivor of sex trafficking, spoke of her experiences and her work with advocacy. The night also featured signing a petition on change.org

On Monday night the following week, the College was visited by victim specialist Lynne Wilson and special agent Joe Salavarria, from the Department of Homeland Security in Newark. Both recounted what to look for and spoke of one of the largest cases of labor trafficking that occurred within the state. 

Wilson, who primarily deals with counseling of the victims, discussed some of the resources the department offers and why victims often have difficulty coming forward.

“When we’re talking about the impact on victims, people who are traumatized and living in fear will not come forward,” Wilson said. 

She explained that often those who are trafficked are shamed into keeping quiet, threatened or fearful that they themselves will be penalized by law enforcement. Her role is to ensure that the victim feels they can cooperate in the investigation while their needs are being met. This includes providing safe housing, and resources, such as immigration relief.

“These people are out there all around us, and we don’t see them unless we know what to look for,” Wilson said.

Salavarria then took the floor to discuss one of the largest labor trafficking cases he had worked on in recent history. The case involved The Afolabi family, immigrants from the West African nation of Togo who had been accused of bringing young girls from their home country in Africa to the United States and forcing them to work in three different hair-braiding salons for 10-12 hours a day, seven days a week, according to Salavarria. 

He explained that when labor trafficking occurs, it is often inside of a legitimate business, such as these salons. 

When enough victims had come forward and evidence was collected, a search warrant was put in place and the girls were removed from the three homes they were forced to live under supervision of different Afolabi family members.

It took three years for the traffickers to face a conviction. Salavarria shed light on the amount of trust that is necessary between victims and law enforcement in any trafficking face to see success. 

“Our job doesn’t end when we pull them out of these houses,” he said. “The bottom line is you have to follow through with what you say.” 

Following the talk, events continued throughout the week, including a screening of the documentary “Very Young Girls” on Tuesday, April 15, and an activity night on Thursday, April 17, which allowed for hands-on and interactive discussion of the topic.

 

 

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