IOWA CITY– When Terri Carmouche of North Liberty joined the Marines, she expected to see the world abroad. She anticipated exposure to new cultures and new experiences.
She wasn’t prepared, however, to witness firsthand the salacious horror of school-aged children being sold for sex.
“When I was stationed overseas in 1997, I had a chance to visit Thailand,” said Carmouche. “I was floored by what I saw. I can still see their faces. I remember walking down Pattaya Beach, a popular place to shop. I remember seeing kids, some of them with significantly older adults, and you could tell they were not in a father/daughter or father/son relationship. They (the adults on the streets) scream at you to let you know that if you come inside, this is what you get.”
Many of the children were not yet adolescents, Carmouche said.
“They were my son’s age.” Her confident voice faltered at this particular detail. “This is very hard for me to talk about.”
And while human trafficking is difficult for most of us to talk about, it is a daily, grim reality for an estimated 250 million children worldwide who are indentured through debt bondage, forced recruitment into armed conflict, prostitution, pornography and the illegal drug trade. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, human trafficking for sexual purposes and forced labor is the third largest criminal industry in the world today, after drug trafficking and arms trafficking, and the fastest-growing.
And it’s not just happening in third-world countries. Cases of human trafficking have been reported in all 50 states, Washington, D.C. and in some U.S. territories. A 2011 Bureau of Justice report found that between January 2008 and June 2010, federally-funded task forces opened 2,515 suspected incidents of human trafficking for investigation in the United States. Victims can be of any age, male or female, from any socioeconomic background. Approximately 80 percent of the victims are women and girls, and about half of them are minors, according to the U.S. Department of State.
The numbers may be staggering, the details shocking, but the atrocity of human trafficking may not be talked about much in Eastern Iowa, a region many regard as safe, solid and immune to such evils. But investigations in Cosgrove, Cedar Rapids, Waterloo and Coralville, to name a few, since Iowa enacted its anti-human trafficking law in 2006 may bring it close enough to home to cause more consideration.
Carmouche and some of her friends are doing more than talking about it.
They are acting to help put a stop to it.
She and a group of about a dozen other volunteers, including Robin Burns of North Liberty, are working with Iowa nursing student and race director Lilli Meyers to organize the Rescue Run, a 5K run/walk event to be held Oct. 13 at the Terry Trueblood Recreational Area in Iowa City. The event will benefit Rapha House, an organization that helps rescue victims of trafficking, slavery and sexual exploitation in southeast Asia, the United States and Haiti.
Meyers has been to the Rapha House in southeast Asia, a safe house program that feeds, clothes and shelters trafficking victims, provides medical care and counseling services, teaches them trades and reintegrates them into society where they can achieve what Rapha House describes as successful, sustainable freedom. Rapha House, with its international headquarters in Joplin, Mo., is a Christian-based program, though victims of all faiths are welcomed, assisted and respected.
After witnessing the victimization of young girls in southeast Asia, Meyers shared her experience with her fellow church members in Iowa City, as well as others through her online blog, therescuerun.blogspot.com.
“What we saw was heartbreaking. The street lit up with neon signs and tourists scanning the area for beautiful girls to buy. The men on our team decided to walk the down lock to see if trafficking is as prevalent as statistics would tell us. In the 10 minutes they were gone, they were approached seven times with offers of sex with children,” Meyers wrote in her account.
Meyers continued with the story of an exchange that took place in the same restaurant where she ate.
“I noticed a very young Asian girl with a much older white man. She looked scared and did not seem to enjoy her meal. My eyes filled with tears as I realized what was happening. No more than 10 yards away from me, a young girl was being taken on a ‘date,’ only to be raped soon after.”
Watching the girl be led away, feeling hopeless and desperate, Meyers said all she could do was pray.
Later, Meyers found out about the Rapha House. Rapha is a Hebrew word meaning “healing,” and that is the organization’s mission.
Assisting Rapha House in its efforts has become a personal mission for Meyers, Carmouche, Burns and others like them, who recognize this multi-billion dollar industry is not just occurring overseas.
It has the potential to harm our very own children, Carmouche pointed out.
“When you hear of missing children, you have to wonder how many of them are victims of kidnapping for trafficking,” she said. “It’s connected to pornography and drug trafficking, and it doesn’t discriminate for race, socioeconomic status or education. Realistically, latch key kids or children who hang out at the mall, or kids who simply don’t get the attention they might need, are vulnerable.” Kids who use the Internet unsupervised in their bedrooms can readily view pornographic material that features the sexual exploitation of children, she added.
Even unsuspecting young adults can fall prey to Internet predators who are trolling for targets. Just last month, two men were arrested for using Internet modeling sites to lure potential victims to a South Florida location, making them believe they were auditioning for a television commercial and then drugging the young women so they could film them being raped, assaulted and beaten. The resulting videos were sold on the Internet.
The scam went on for five more than five years. One of the perpetrators was a former police officer.
A single search of the term “human trafficking” on the Internet brings up thousands of equally contemptible examples of the victimization of women and children.
“If we start thinking it doesn’t happen here, we make ourselves vulnerable,” Carmouche said.
It also leads to a complacency she believes weakens our very community.
“I know people here in North Liberty and Iowa City value academia,” she said. “Even having the liberty to receive an education is really quite a privilege. We can use that (education) to help others, and that has numerous benefits to society as a whole. We strengthen our community by teaching others to help themselves. It can result in fewer police reports and less drug use. When we each do our part, it makes life better for all of us. We make a difference in the world.”
Robin Burns shares Carmouche’s passion for helping others. After working in the court system for 20 years, dealing with many cases of juveniles and young girls who had been sexually abused, the tragedy of it became overwhelming.
“It became too difficult for me to work with the files after having kids of my own,” Burns said. Later, she served on a grand jury that indicated cases of online pornography.
“It makes you wonder how much of this is going on that hasn’t even come to light yet,” said Burns.
Yet she recognized a new light in Lilli Meyers’ story, an opportunity to help, a spark of hope and newfound dignity for victims here and around the world. Even with such widespread incidence of human trafficking, the Rescue Run is the chance for each one to reach one, Burns noted.
“The $30 cost of registering for the run will support one child in the Rapha House for a whole month,” said Burns. Children can walk or run for just $5, and the organizers encourage children to participate.
“This is about children, after all,” said Carmouche. She encourages parents to talk to their kids about the problem– at an age-appropriate level– to help them understand how people can be wrongly victimized by others. Teach children to be vigilant of their surroundings, she said, and help them achieve compassion for others who don’t enjoy the same privileges we enjoy; freedom, safety, and self-worth.
Most immediately, Carmouche, Burns, Meyers and the rest of the race organizers seek volunteers, runners, and sponsors to help make the Rescue Run successful.
“The bottom line is to benefit as many women and kids as possible,” Carmouche said. “We haven’t had a lot of people say no, because it seems no matter what your race or religion, people see this as a serious epidemic.” Many businesses have been eager to donate prizes and services to the Rescue Run so far, she said.
Still, it takes money to address the problem.
“Safe houses have to be secure. There have to be people willing to step in and rescue a victim, because the perpetrators don’t like someone interfering in this very lucrative operation. We are hoping and pleading for the support of sponsors and donors so these girls can learn what it’s like– sometimes for the first time in their lives– to have someone who genuinely cares about them.”
All proceeds from the October Rescue Run will benefit Rapha House.
And beyond the dollars raised, said Burns, raising awareness of the issue is also an important step in the right direction.
“I feel we will be making a difference,” she said. “I love that we’re spreading the word.”
That word is Rapha, and its message brings healing to the world.