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  • Deanna Wilken

The Development of a Passion


On January 1, 2013, I boarded a flight to Thailand with a one-way ticket in hand. I had no idea how long I’d be gone for or what I’d be doing with my time outside of the U.S., but I surprised myself by falling in love with the country and becoming part of Thai society. It was here that my journey began, a journey that would introduce me to human trafficking and how prevalent it is worldwide.

When I arrived in Thailand, I was greeted by a stunning, tropical island and incredible humidity. I spent my first few days exploring the island and soon made some friends. I discovered that a few of the foreigners were about to start a Teaching English as a Foreign Language course so that they could stay in Thailand and fund their travels. Their excitement for the course and my undecided future led me to join the class.

Part of the course required volunteer teaching in the community to gain more practice with our teaching skills. I wandered the local town nearby and met two girls working at a massage parlor. I proceeded to ask if I could teach them some English; they were thrilled at the opportunity. As I spent every night with them for several weeks, I got to know them as people, not just students to practice with. Both girls had a similar story, one that broke my heart in pieces.

Lhing, a young teenager, told me she came from the Isaan region of Thailand, a very poor area located in the northeast of the country. One day a woman came to her village and presented a great opportunity. The woman said she had many positions available in Phuket, the island in the southwest where Lhing and I met. She could make a lot of money if she came with the woman and Lhing could send home as much of the profit as she wanted. Her family immediately told her to go with the woman. Little did they know that it would be the last time they’d see each other.

Lhing was taken to Phuket through various means of transportation: bus, van, and boat. When she arrived on the island, she was escorted to the massage parlor. She was confused and asked the woman where she would be staying. The woman ignored her and handed her off to a man, who then gave the woman a sum of money. Lhing realized she was lied to and that she would not be able to leave.

The man threatened her daily and she was forced into sexual acts with both the man and customers that came in for a massage. She saw none of the money she was promised and had no way to get home. Further, she had no idea how to get back to her village as the route to Phuket was very complicated; her trafficker did this so Lhing wouldn’t be able to find her way home should she try to run.

When I met Lhing, I wouldn’t have guessed her story was so tragic. She smiled constantly and would even laugh at jokes. She was also eager to learn more English so that she could make more foreign friends who frequented the island. All I felt was a sense of helplessness. I couldn’t do anything to help Lhing because I was a foreigner, and many Thai police and government officials were very corrupt, accepting bribes to look the other way in cases of human trafficking. It was a difficult thing leaving Lhing and the other girls from the massage parlor behind.

Nearly a year later, I moved from Thailand to China. I made friends with some of the local teachers along with a few foreigners. We had good times, and everyone seemed to be carefree. It wasn’t until a co-teaching event when I learned that a friend of mine had escaped trafficking. Mei was 9 when her neighbors reported her family to the authorities for having a second child in a country that only allowed one child per family. Her parents had been able to keep her hidden for a long time as they lived in a very rural community, until she was seen walking outside that fateful day. The government came soon after the report and took everything from the family as punishment, including their house. Mei, her older brother, and her parents wandered the area until they found an abandoned barn to sleep in. The next morning, she woke to find herself alone; her parents had abandoned her in the empty barn.

Mei waited for her family to come back for some time, but became overwhelmed with hunger. She decided to go outside when she spotted four older men scavenging in the yard behind the barn. She ran back inside and hid. Unfortunately, the men entered the barn and found her within a few minutes. They took her as she screamed for help, but no one came. It wasn’t until 3 days later that she manage to escape by sheer luck: The rope they used on her was quite old and rotted so she was able to pull her hands and feet out. She ran as hard and as fast as she could until she made her way to the city, where she was immediately taken in as an orphan.

The stories of Lhing and Mei touched me so deeply, I knew I had to do something. It was then that I decided to apply to a masters’ program in England to learn more about the issue of human trafficking and what is being done now. I wanted to know what I could do to make a difference, to save some lives.

I arrived in Nottingham, England after my 6 months in China. I was ecstatic that the campus had a group which focused on human trafficking and modern slavery, along with a couple of expert professors. I committed myself to the group outside of my studies and attended any events on human trafficking. I wanted to become as active as possible in the fight against the industry.

Given my passion about and background in human trafficking, the Stop the Traffik group I was a member of asked me to be a guest speaker at the TEDx event. I spoke to hundreds of students and community members about my friends and my research in the field. I conveyed a strong message: Human trafficking is everywhere and targets anyone. This is a bleak truth I’ve learned over the years, but my educating others gives me hope that people can prevent themselves from falling victim to traffickers.

When I completed my degree, I returned to Los Angeles to find a job related to human trafficking. Instead, I was able to secure a volunteer position with a local human trafficking organization and obtained a job at another nonprofit. As I became more involved with the work of the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST) in Los Angeles, I decided that I wanted to create my own nonprofit which would fill the gaps where CAST is unable to help. Thus, my nonprofit, Project Trafficked, came about.

The mission of Project Trafficked is to raise awareness of human trafficking and help victims to lead normal lives by providing them with employment and legal services. My organization became legal in June 2017 and is slowly gaining traction. I have established a board of directors, created a website, developed a strategy for grassroots fundraising, and have begun a search for volunteers to help the cause. It will be a long, arduous process, but something extremely worthwhile. I know that my organization will be an extremely helpful resource for all survivors of human trafficking.


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© 2017 by Project Trafficked 

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