When I moved to Asia in 2011, I thought I’d be here for a short one-year gap in between undergrad and grad school. I had no idea that 6 months later I’d be sitting at a table for two at KFC across from a Ugandan woman named Sarah* as she told me her story of being tricked and trafficked. Our lives would never be the same.
Both of us 23 years old, my head was spinning as Sarah told me how she’d come to Asia after being promised a decent paying job at a restaurant. Because it was difficult to find a job at home, and because (not unlike me) she was excited to travel and see the world, she accepted the job, received all her travel documents, and got on a plane. Once she arrived, she was received by another Ugandan woman who took her passport and told her that she owed $5,000 for everything they’d done for her, but there was no restaurant. The only job was prostitution. When Sarah tried to refuse, she was threatened and kicked out on to the streets in the middle of winter. In a foreign country where she didn’t speak the language, had no money or food, and had been told to be afraid of the police, she didn’t have anywhere to go. After a few days she went back to the only person she knew in the entire country—the woman who’d brought her here.
Sarah told me stories of being threatened, abused, trapped, and raped. She then looked me in the eyes and said, “I don’t want to do this. Will you help me go home?” I was totally overwhelmed and had no idea what to say other than, “I’ll try… Lord help us.” The next six weeks were a total whirlwind but eventually Sarah got on a plane as a free woman back to Uganda, and Red Oak began.
Red Oak is a non-profit that exists to bring freedom, hope, and restoration to women and children affected by the sex industry. We have offices in Asia and the United States, and partner all over the world with businesses, governments, NGOs, churches, and individuals in order to address the issues of trafficking and exploitation through prevention, intervention, and restoration. Some of the services we provide include things like: education & awareness, safe shelter, food, immigration services, repatriation, job placement, vocational training, mentorship, counseling, and more.
While the vast majority of our beneficiaries are women over 18, any holistic program for women of child-bearing age has to consider the children involved. At least 70% of our beneficiaries have had children—some who have been born in the middle of trafficking, and some who have been left behind at home while the moms travelled elsewhere for work. Unfortunately, these children then become vulnerable to abuse themselves. Oftentimes we see that a mother’s desire to provide for her children actually adds to her vulnerability of trafficking and exploitation as she’s more willing to accept risky job placements in order to pay for things like medical bills or school fees for her children.
We’re passionate about helping preserve family health whenever possible. We’ve helped women give birth to babies abroad and then go through the long process of getting a birth certificate and being approved through the immigration system without a father present (which is often not allowed in Asia). We’ve helped provide day care scholarships to children so that the moms can work jobs with fair wages and fair working conditions. We’ve provided medical care, translation, and assistance when these children are sick. What we’ve seen is that so many of our beneficiaries are incredible single moms just trying the best they can to survive and care for their children. By supporting moms, we are working to break cycles of abuse and poverty, and working to keep families together.
Some would say that our work at Red Oak is exhausting, and of course, working in trauma and seeing the depth of human suffering is heartbreaking and hard. BUT, coming alongside strong women and walking with them as they fight for freedom, hope, and restoration for both them and their families never gets old to me. These women have become my inspiration, my teachers, and my friends and walking alongside them is one of the greatest privileges of my life.
While we know everybody isn’t going to become a full-time activist, at Red Oak we truly believe that EVERYONE has a role to play in fighting human trafficking and supporting women. For more information on our work both domestically and abroad, visit www.redoakhope.org or follow us on social media @redoakhope. We’d love to talk to you about ways to get involved!
*names changed for security purposes