A Carmel couple organized a presentation Saturday to raise awareness about human trafficking and solicit donations for a new organization co-founded by their daughter-in-law to combat the problem on an international scale.
The Global Freedom Center, which has offices in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., was created by Kelly Heinrich and Kavitha Sreeharsha, attorneys who independently spent much of their careers providing legal services to trafficking victims.
"We came together about a year ago and started talking about all the gaps that are still out there in the anti-trafficking field," said Heinrich, whose in-laws are Carmel real estate brokers Ben and Carole Heinrich. "We shared our frustrations and basically created a wish list of where we'd really like the movement to go. That's how the Global Freedom Center was born."
The center's goal, according to its website, is to train 5 million professionals by 2020 to identify and prevent human trafficking, targeting eight largely untapped fields: education, health, labor and employment, immigration and migration, criminal justice, social services, journalism and the corporate sector.
"There are an estimated 27 million people in the world who are enslaved. Last year, 47,000 of those people were identified, which is fewer than 1 percent of the people who are enslaved," Sreeharsha said. "What that means is that people who are in slave-like conditions are not able to access the protections and rights that the laws allow for them. And that's because they don't understand what trafficking is. There's still so little awareness about it.
"A trafficked person might interface with just one person, and it may not be a law enforcement officer or a nonprofit worker; it might be a teacher, a health care provider, someone in the corporate sector who is looking at their supply chains and whether there is forced labor there," she said.
Human trafficking and forced labor are seen worldwide in industries such as domestic services, landscaping, agriculture, the sex trade, janitorial work, hospitality and factory work. Workers often are held in bondage by creating a climate of fear, making them believe there will be serious consequences for them or their loved ones if they attempt to leave.
Saturday's presentation at Rio Grill used true stories of human trafficking to illustrate the scope and nature of the problem — men and women who were lured away from their homes with the promise of good-paying jobs, transported to a foreign land, then forced to work long hours without pay in abusive and oppressive conditions.
Sreeharsha shared a story from her own time as a practicing lawyer. A decade ago, she represented a client she called Lina who had been sent with her sister from Thailand to San Francisco by their father, who was their primary caretaker.
"Lina still struggles today with the degree of her father's complicity," Sreeharsha said. "They were sent here to live with their stepmother, who immediately put them in a room adjoining the restaurant she ran. They were instructed not to tell anyone where they were living because that room was not coded for housing, only as a restaurant facility."
Lina and her sister attended school, but they also were forced to work 3 to 11 p.m. at the restaurant seven days a week. Sreeharsha said the abuse lasted years until a teacher noticed Lina falling asleep in class, reached out to the girl, uncovered the problem and sought help.
"In their case, there was no barbed wire, there were no locks — they were allowed to go to school every day — but they felt like they were required to return to the restaurant and work every night," Sreeharsha said. "That's really the crux of human trafficking. They didn't feel like they could leave, they didn't feel like they could escape, because their stepmother was threatening them."
The stunning part, she said, was that the restaurant was very popular in the San Francisco Bay Area — one Sreeharsha had frequented for years.
Helping the sisters regain their freedom was a challenge, she said, because they didn't trust law enforcement.
"What we learned from this is that we can't rely exclusively on law enforcement to free the 27 million people who currently are enslaved worldwide," Sreeharsha said. "We have to build tools for others, who can then build relationships with law enforcement and enable girls like Lina to come forward."
Both girls eventually were liberated. Lina is working as an inner-city high school teacher and is training to become a chef. Her sister went to college as a Gates Millennium Scholar.
For information about human trafficking and the efforts of the Global Freedom Center, see globalfreedomcenter.org or call 415-967-1896.
Dennis Taylor can be reached at 646-4344 or email@example.com.