Making Freedom Real for Survivors of Trafficking

Human trafficking is a global human rights issue that impacts the most vulnerable in the United States and locally in our own home of New York City. The US Department of Justice defines human trafficking as “a crime that involves compelling or coercing a person to provide labor or services, or to engage in commercial sex acts.” 

Research from Polaris, an organization that analyzes data from the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline, shows that reports of human trafficking have increased yearly since 2015. Online recruitment also increased by 22% in 2020 and by over 95% on Facebook and Instagram in the same year. Despite the appearance of increasing rates of human trafficking, Polaris reports that “there are no reliable statistics about prevalence, or how much human trafficking is happening at any given time” given that it is an illegal practice that is done in secrecy making it difficult to measure entirely.

Restore NYC, a nonprofit organization that helps make freedom real for survivors of trafficking in the United States, estimates that 403,000 people are being trafficked in the United States and that New York City is a gateway and one of the largest destinations for trafficked women in the country. Human trafficking generates $150 billion in illegal profit and operates like any business where supply is made to meet demand. In the instance of human trafficking, when the demand for cheap labor or commercial sex is higher than the supply, traffickers use force, fraud, and coercion to lure new victims. 

March is Women’s History Month and also marks the two year anniversary of the Atlanta Spa shooting where 8 victims died, 6 of whom were women of Asian descent. We’re reminded of the hypersexualization and fetishization of Asian women and the racial and gender discrimination of immigrant women who are at their most vulnerable. We had the opportunity to speak with Sally Han, the Manager of Community Engagement, at Restore NYC, our latest cause partner we're donating a portion of profits to this quarter. We took a deeper look into the work that Restore NYC does and the creative ways that you as an individual can help. 

How and when was Restore founded?
Restore was founded by Faith Motter in 2009 when she was about 24 years old. She saw that there wasn't really any organization in New York City that focused on foreign national women who were survivors of trafficking. So she saw that there was a need for that and founded Restore, with the mission to end sex trafficking in New York City. 

Starting in 2020, we expanded our mission statement to make freedom real for survivors of trafficking in the United States. But immigrant survivors are still a big portion and majority of the group that we serve. 

Why did you decide to join Restore?
I was living in Cambodia for one year, after undergrad. And that's when I first got a glimpse of what trafficking was a little, indirectly. And that's how I ended up coming to New York City for graduate school and social work. My program at Columbia University actually pairs students up with internships. And I was paired with Restore, which happened to be an anti-trafficking organization. I ended up learning more about trafficking and identification, debunking all the myths I had known about before. After graduating from social work school, I decided to stay with Restore because I really love the mission. And a lot of the women I worked with were Korean speaking women who were generally older than me. They reminded me a lot of my mom and the situations that they were in really could have happened to, let's say, my mother, right? And so I ended up deciding to continue with them after graduating.

In addition to helping survivors directly, what are the ways that Restore helps to prevent trafficking?
Yes, so we do external training with hospitals, as an example. We’ll partner with hospitals to teach them how to look for red flags and how to identify signs of trouble. We also provide resources to communities and work with law enforcement officers. We’ve done outreach before where we went to massage parlors that were flagged to have perhaps done some sex services. We would share who we are and ask if there was anyone who they thought might be a victim of trafficking. We’d let them know that we're here for them. We also partner with a lot of other different organizations and teach them how to look for red flags.

There are a lot of great resources on your website educating the public about human trafficking, including the Trafficking 101 training? Can you explain a little bit of what that training entails?
We help define what trafficking is in the United States, and then we'll go over statistics. We’ll talk about trafficking in the world, in the country, and in New York City specifically. And then we go over what is human trafficking, who is targeted, and who are the victims. We go deeper into that and talk about systemic injustice in the training and debunk myths. It gives a bit more of a reality of trafficking, especially in New York City, that people may not be aware of. A lot of people may only know or have heard of trafficking through social media or through Hollywood movies. So this gives more clear details of what trafficking is.

What are the things that most people don’t know about human trafficking?
The first one is the definition of trafficking, which is the use of force, fraud, or coercion to compel someone to do a sex service or labor against his or her will according to the US definition of trafficking. Many people think trafficking is through force and is most commonly seen in movies like Taken. But actually, with the survivors that we serve, and that we've seen, force is actually not the most common method. It’s actually coercion and fraud. That's why a lot of people get confused when they see a woman coming out of an illicit massage business. They may say, “Oh, she's not a victim, because she can freely come and go, right?” So in their minds, a victim must be, for instance, bound in the basement. But actually, a person can be in a trafficking situation through coercion. And fraud is what initially brings someone into that situation. The coercion keeps them there. I think that’s the most surprising thing for many people. 

And then the second is when you type in “human trafficking” into a Google search, the most common pictures that are shown are young white girls, again found tied up, but actually the majority of victims are women of color. They disproportionately bear the reality of trafficking. While they only make up a small percentage of the entire population, they are the majority of victims. So I think those are the two biggest things that people don't know, but I always try to share this.

Data shows us that trafficking doesn't happen in a bubble. It's often a result of exploitation of several overlapping vulnerabilities, such as homelessness, economic inequality, systemic racism, and immigration status.

What are some of the challenges that Restore often faces or is facing currently?
One is systemic injustice – the systemic inequality and injustice that's out there. One surprising thing we learned when we started working with survivors who were US citizen survivors was that because they have citizenship in the United States, we thought that they would have access to better benefits than our immigrant survivors. But because of systemic injustice, inequality, and racism, whether they have citizenship or not, they all come up against so many barriers. Even how the way immigrants without documentation have been viewed makes it really challenging. 

Other challenges are more internal for survivors. It could be that trafficking causes so much trauma and it is something that we work with in person but it is not easy. It's not like an overnight thing that someone gets over the trauma all of a sudden. So we really help with walking them through their trauma. And then if I could also say, a lack of resources in the city is another challenge like housing in New York City is just really not good. 

COVID also did not help at all. Of course, a lot of people were impacted by that, but especially the survivors we worked with. A lot of people lost their jobs through COVID. If they were working in restaurants, a lot of restaurants closed down. And that made them more vulnerable again and traffickers would reach out to them and exploit that vulnerability. So the pandemic really was a challenge.

In your time with Restore, have there been any survivors you’ve worked with or stories that have resonated with you that you’re comfortable with sharing?
I think one survivor that comes to my mind is she is the same age as my mom. But she looked so much older and seemed so much older because of all the years of having been trafficked. And so, I think, what stayed with me is just how I think cruel people can be with other people and how it could have happened to any of us. This person who is the same age as my mom came to work for her family to get some money to help her children. These were people she trusted. Trafficking really does involve a lot of people we already know. It's not always strangers. So I think that this kind of betrayal of trust is something I remember and why it stayed with me for a long time. It must have been so scary to be alone. And this was a decade of being trafficked alone and without being connected with your family. 

The thought of someone doing that to my mom, it really infuriates me. So when I worked directly with survivors before, I don't work directly with them as much, I think it really sort of puts into perspective that these are people that that didn't deserve it. Of course, no one deserves that. And there's sometimes a lot of victim blaming, like, oh, you if you hadn't done this, or if you didn't dress like that, but that's not the case at all. 

We are a faith-based organization. So I look at the problem of trafficking through the lens of the gospel. It just shows the depravity of humanity. But we also work with the lens of hope and restoration and flourishing. And so this same person, she is a fighter and survivor. She is still so sweet and the kindest person I've ever met. And she's still so loving, and still very trusting of people. I’ve learned a lot from her.

What are the ways people can help Restore’s cause? 
We believe that everyone can help in any capacity. So it could be if you have a love for yoga, for example, and you want to volunteer; you can teach yoga to clients. So really the sky's the limit. But I think the best way to help is through donations. At Restore, we have this model of cash assistance where we don't say tell us what you need, and we'll go buy it for you. But instead, we give them cash assistance, trusting that they know what they need the best. They're the expert of their lives. So the money that comes donated to Restore goes to helping survivors directly. And honestly, that's the best way to help in terms of helping survivors flourish and thrive. 

Another way is also to become a mentor. This can be volunteering or becoming a mentor to someone who wants to open their own business, or someone who maybe wants to go back to law school. So just becoming a mentor for them. And other ways to help are inviting us to your network, to your community where we can just talk more about raising awareness for trafficking. 

To learn more about Restore and the work they're doing, please visit and follow them in IG at @restorenyc.

If you know someone in need or would like to report suspicious activity call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888. 

Credit: Reuters, Polaris, Statista, Restore NYC