‘’Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.’’ [The Talmud]
I first heard of human trafficking in a radio broadcast. The interview was focused on Cambodia, and revealed that girls as young as 6 years old were being sold to men for sex. I had not known about such abuse. I felt sick and angry. Later, a friend, who was researching trafficking, introduced me to various confronting films and books, and as I continued to delve into this issue, I learned that it went deeper and wider than I had imagined.
I knew that I had to respond somehow.
So, I began organising anti-trafficking fundraising initiatives for different NGOs. But I soon became restless. I felt the need to personally engage with people right where it was happening to better understand the issue. Perhaps I wanted to experience a greater connection and really know that I was truly having an impact. I left my teaching position in Australia to volunteer with an anti-trafficking organisation as a teacher in Cambodia.
This changed my life. Not because I had made a huge difference for these beautiful young women. But I could now see humanity in the ‘victim’. The horrific stories I’d known had become real. And whilst some things were confirmed, many concepts I thought I understood were challenged. Since then, I have also been privileged to work in London on the ‘frontline’ with survivors. I have heard accounts of over 30 survivors – women and men from Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe –not one story is the same. This is important to acknowledge, because we cannot neatly contain an individual’s life into a collective we call ‘victims of human trafficking’ to be easily understood. Human trafficking and modern slavery is happening on every continent at this very moment, and its complexities cannot be overstated. Whilst we can certainly recognise social paradigms and trends, there is no one ‘pattern’ as such; which is precisely why this fight needs everyone to respond in our own unique ways.
We are all invited to respond to the call written in the Talmud (opening paragraph). This is echoed in Micah 6 v 8, reminding us to “act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God’’. There is a felt urgency. Loving our neighbour will look different for each of us. I can name countless individuals who are responding where they are with what they have. There is a beauty salon in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, dedicated to training and employing local ladies who are survivors of exploitation or trafficking. Each time I visited, I could tangibly feel the joy of the women in this parlour - a place of peace. Another social enterprise committed to acting justly has sprung up in Brisbane, Australia - a café which supports women who have exited the sex industry. I am so encouraged by this organisation’s love and affirmation of the women in their journey to wholeness. Let us travel now to the other side of the world. London is surprisingly home to thousands of human trafficking and modern slavery victims. In this city, I referred many of my clients to a charity dedicated to providing vulnerable people with clothing and toys. This humble, yet effective, organisation was initiated by a part-time teacher who identified a gap in social services for vulnerable families and wanted to help. I would call this loving mercy in action. A friend of mine, who is an IT consultant, felt burdened by the poor standard of healthcare in Bangladesh. He visited with a multidisciplinary team, to develop and train hospital technicians in using a program to improve the care of the patients. Yet another unique way of bringing justice to humanity. It will look different for every person.
Too often, we are overwhelmed by all that is around us - prevalent injustices, indescribable pain - and we easily succumb to apathy. Perhaps we turn off the TV, close the newspaper or redirect our conversation (it’s just too much). I have certainly felt this way. And it is then that I remind myself of the renowned starfish narrative. There are also times when our outrage is charged into action – we need to do SOMETHING. ANYTHING. (If you’re anything like me, this could look like re-sharing a post on FB). And then we move on. The harsh truth is that we could liken such momentous commotion to frantically reaching for starfish, only to grasp sand, not saving even one. An eruption of noise - without consequence. I certainly can relate to feeling disempowered - not knowing what to do with this.
I do not write with answers on how to best respond to such individual complex issues – but rather, I hope to challenge us to simplify our intention. How can we create space to do justly, love mercy, walk humbly - now? And who are the starfish around you? We needn’t be on the frontline working against human trafficking / modern slavery to be making a difference. Each one of us - artists, academics, educators, NGOs, social enterprises, activists and businesspeople – bring unique experiences and gifts into this tapestry of social transformation. This is why The JAM Network exists: to celebrate and support you in affecting change, to learn from one another, and to call out to others to join in this global movement of throwing starfish, one at a time.
Tanya Mathias spent time in London before going back to her home country of Australia to set up JAM Network Australia. Tanya is a creative who has taught and worked with NGOs on issues surrounding human trafficking in London and Southeast Asia. She is passionate in seeing people connect and spreading awareness surrounding this issue. Tanya can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org