Can you share a bit about your background and how you got involved in the fight against human trafficking?
I ran Ford Models for over twenty years. It was my family’s business — it was originally started by my parents in 1946.
In 2007, the United Nations asked me to speak at a conference about human trafficking. I didn’t even know anything about trafficking — I had never heard the term. So of course I said, “Wouldn’t you like somebody who knows what they’re talking about?” I looked up trafficking on the internet, but there wasn’t very much there in those days.
When I went to the conference, I immediately knew why they wanted me there. How people are trafficked across borders is they’re usually told about a job somewhere that’s going to pay much more than what they could make at home, if they could even find work at home. They’re promised a job; they come to a new country; frequently they don’t speak the language; and then they’re duped. I could understand how it happened to people who were young and vulnerable because that’s who I worked with. We [at Ford Models] went around the world speaking with potential models, and I spoke with them about what work was like in New York, and when they came to New York, they lived with us. If their parents weren’t with them, they lived with us until they were old enough to live on their own. This was well known, so [conference organizers] thought that we might have ideas about how to protect people. And I did. When I was at the conference there were so many things I could think of to do.
“Slavery was something that I just could never understand my whole life, how people could stand by when they knew somebody was enslaved.”
At the time they thought there were twenty-seven million people in slavery. Now we know that there are over forty million people in slavery today. Slavery was something that I just could never understand my whole life, how people could stand by when they knew somebody was enslaved. And I thought, I know it. I know it now, and I can’t stand by and let this continue. I’ve got to do something about it.
How did this newfound mission lead to the creation of Freedom For All?
At the beginning, I didn’t create Freedom for All. I started at the very beginning of 2008 — first learning and then going to see different groups fighting human trafficking that I heard about, trying to understand the issues and where I might be helpful with my skill sets. And so I began with a campaign linking the model search that Ford Models did around the world with various organizations in different countries that have hotlines. I would go and speak about trafficking, talking about the dangers of traveling abroad for work, and then highlighting the local organizations and hotlines that had been referred to me by the UN or the International Organization for Migration.
Eventually I formed Freedom for All because I realized that my skill sets were very specific to this work. I had contacts that could help certain groups in certain countries, so that’s how I chose where I was working. In particular I worked in the Philippines and Brazil because we had five modeling agencies there.
We would work either where I had enough business contacts and knew enough people that I thought I could help the movement in those countries, or we would work with a group [combating human trafficking] where our dollars would have a huge impact — some smaller groups that don’t usually get much funding.
As the founder of Freedom For All, you’ve surely encountered many both tough and moving stories of victims’ forced labor and paths to freedom. Can you share a specific story that stands out in your mind?
A few years ago a woman who was in Kuwait saw me on television, and contacted me directly and said, “I’m a thirty-two-year-old female from Cameroon, but a maid in Kuwait. I want to be freed. We are being treated like animals, not allowed to go out of the house and being abused. Please help. There are many in worse conditions.” She [contacted us through] our info account — she took her phone, and she was smart enough to go to the info account at Freedom for All’s website. She heard the name of the organization.
“People think of it like in the movies. But in fact, what happens for adults is that most of them go willingly into a situation that they think is different than the way it ends up.”
First, I tried to find somebody in Kuwait [to help free this woman], then tried to find somebody in Cameroon. There really weren’t anti-trafficking movements there at that point. She got out, and we helped her get back to Cameroon, and we helped twenty-seven other women also get home — at that point that was all we could afford to do, but there were many more women.
We provided those women with vocational training, training about finance, [and taught them about] what a small business could look like. Then we raised some money to finance businesses for these women that cost between $500 and $1,000 to start. But there were many, many more women who were waiting to come home, so I thought, What could we do to prevent it? Because this is going on, and it’s been going on for a long time.
The first woman we saved, Francisca, had a college degree. She’d gone to Norway and was getting a master’s degree in multiculturalism. But she couldn’t afford to stay there, so she went back to Cameroon. Then somebody told her about a job teaching English in Kuwait. She said, “OK, I’ll take it.” She was supposed to earn $800 a month. She got there; she was forced to work as a domestic worker. When she said, “This isn’t what I said I would do,” they said, “Well you have a debt of $2,500.” And as a domestic worker you earn $100 a month. So it was a two-year contract where she would have earned — in theory, if she had gotten paid, which she didn’t — $2,400, but she had a debt of $2,500. So the whole system is set up so that they never earn anything. [This type of scheme] is rampant too. It was the person in her home country who told her she was going to be an English teacher — nobody in Kuwait thought that.
Every single woman I met had been promised a job mostly doing what they did in their home country but being paid a lot more. And it’s really interesting because many of them really, when they get in that situation, they think, when they get home, Oh, that was just a bad situation. I’m going to try again because that was just my one employer. And they go back sometimes to different countries; they go back in hopes of having a better job and sometimes get re-trafficked.
What are some common misconceptions about human trafficking?
A common misconception is that most people who are trafficked are kidnapped. People think of it like in the movies. But in fact, what happens for adults is that most of them go willingly into a situation that they think is different than the way it ends up.
One woman I work with is here in New York. She went to college and was a financial analyst at a major bank in Indonesia. When the economy collapsed, she paid a labor broker $3,000 — that’s from Indonesia paying American dollars — to get her a job here. She got a visa, then came here. They held up a sign [at the airport] just like a regular business; she got in the car; she went to the place where they were staying. But the second she got in the house, they locked the doors, held a gun to her head, and forced her to work as a prostitute. So she came willingly to the United States, but not to have what happened to her happen.
People think that everyone who is trafficked is uneducated and poor. Mostly I would say they’re poor, though not everyone is poor, and many of them are educated. This woman was educated. But, you know, when people have a gun, and they’re beating you up, and you’re in a strange country, and they’ve taken your clothes and your passport….
“Also, wherever I go — every single place — when I speak, people say, ‘Oh I knew that happened over there, but not here.’ But it is pretty much everywhere.”
People think most prostitutes are there willingly. The majority are not there willingly. The majority have been forced in some way, and their families will be hurt if they don’t cooperate. So if they try to tell people, and the pimp finds out, then they’ll hurt their family at home. So you have to be very brave to leave those situations. You know, we think, Why don’t you just go to the police? But it’s not always clear what will happen to them if they do that.
Also, wherever I go — every single place — when I speak, people say, “Oh I knew that happened over there, but not here.” So when I spoke in the Philippines, somebody said, “I didn’t know that happened here. We’re a Catholic country.” And in the Middle East somebody would say, “I didn’t know that happened here. That’s not allowed. We’re an Islamic country.” But it is pretty much everywhere.
Not everybody who is trafficked has been out of society, also. People who are in labor trafficking frequently are in regular circumstances but not getting paid and being physically abused. So they’re not that out of touch with what it’s like in the working world in whatever country they’re in.
Many people in New York City go to Long Island on the weekends or for summer holidays — some people who were working at gas stations there were trafficked. The men working in those stations were promised work, and they came here and worked, and then they were being held by one person and charged, supposedly, their debts, which was false. It was a national case, and the trafficker was put in jail. It happens to a lot of men too.
What are some things people can do to raise awareness and fight human trafficking?
I say look at whatever skills you have and contribute those to the movement. As a writer, you could help organizations write the communications they send out or help people with speeches. If you are a parent and your children have a carwash, you could encourage them to donate the money to an anti-human-trafficking organization. This field is very underfunded — human trafficking is the second largest crime and the fastest-growing crime after drug trafficking; it’s a $150 billion industry and a mere pittance goes to fighting it versus drug trafficking. If you work in a hospital, make sure doctors and social workers know how to question patients during intake, and what should be done if they learn somebody is being trafficked.
Also know the signs. Almost all of us know people who have come here or gone somewhere else to work — it’s something we should all be able to relate to. Know that there’s the National Human Trafficking Hotline, which is the best way for anyone to report something suspicious: 1-888-373-7888.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more information about how you can take action to fight human trafficking, visit our resource page.
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