By Sabrina Elzbir

Myrtle Beach, Cabo, Cancun, Costa Rica: these were the places I saw in pictures of friends on their spring break trips. It was the first spring break where I had decided not to go home, and as enticing as it seemed to plan a fabulous spring vacation soaking up the sun, I decided to do something different with the time off and go on an alternative spring break trip with Branch Out. There were a couple of things I knew for certain before I decided to spend my spring break in Baltimore, Maryland: I was going to learn about something I knew nothing about and meet other people I (most likely) would have never met before. But what happened during this one week was much more.

The issue my trip focused on was human trafficking, specifically sex trafficking. This was an issue that I had only briefly heard about beforehand manifested in misconceptions, judgments, and stigmas that I had and that I was surrounded by. With my team of nine girls, we traveled to Baltimore, Maryland to volunteer at the drop-in center of Safe House of Hope, an organization that provides direct services and support to victims and survivors of human trafficking. Located in the heart of Baltimore right outside of the industrial neighborhood Curtis Bay, the small and hidden drop-in center was making a great impact in the surrounding areas.

While there, we developed relationships with the victims and survivors themselves. What began as them recounting their stories and experiences to a group of young college females ended in us cooking together, laughing together, and making sure we were Facebook friends by the time we were leaving. While this type of work might not fit into the typical scope of volunteer work, building a community and developing relationships was what we learned to be one of the most important things for victims of sex trafficking. This is because of the stigma associated with their situations and the amount of disregard they receive from society. It is easier for us to ignore and look down on victims of sex trafficking, than to interact with them and treat them like people. But before we could really understand the value and impact of this type of work, we needed to know what exactly was human trafficking and the context and consequences surrounding it.

Human trafficking is a broad term that describes any type of forced or coercive exploitation of sex or labor. While we learned from our research and discussions prior to the trip how human trafficking is a moving market that occurs across the globe, the immersion we experienced in Baltimore brought home the true proximity of the issue. We learned that while a large portion of sex trafficking takes place in eastern Europe, a great deal occurs here in the US. The activity has been prominent and mishandled by officials all throughout Baltimore, is flourishing even across major interstate highway I-95, where sex traffickers transport their victims across border lines and truck stops are ground zones for sex slaves, and is even occurring around Williamsburg.

As we stayed one night in a classroom in Blow watching a riveting documentary on sex trafficking, I started to slowly realize that there was something I was slightly oblivious to throughout my college experience so far. The documentary, entitled Nefarious: Merchant of Souls, documented the story of how one group of people traveled worldwide to explore and uncover the realities of modern day human trafficking in several different environments. Throughout Europe, Southeast Asia, and even right here in the US, the film covers a great deal of personal narratives that allowed us to glimpse into the thoughts of a sex trafficking victim. As the movie continued, I began to think about how shielded I was, in my tiny little bubble of Williamsburg, from issues that occurred in the world around me. Here on campus, several organizations dedicate hours and efforts into raising money for philanthropies across the nation, but how often do we get to interact with those who experience the issues and visit where they were occurring? I knew that the only way anyone could make themselves fathom a social issue was to immerse themselves into its environment and engage with its people. This realization, that the films and discussions we had and many other active individuals around campus also had about the philanthropy they dedicated themselves to, would give us nothing but a brief prelude.

One of the most important lessons we learned to apply to ourselves from our experience was that the only way to even slightly fathom what a victim is experiencing, and the first step to take in order to give yourself this capacity, is to accept and realize that you could be in the same situation. Nobody chooses the life they were born to. We have no say in who our parents will be, where we are raised, who we will be surrounded by. The women we heard from did not choose to be born to parents who were drug addicts or lived in extreme poverty, which might have propelled them into the hands of a pimp (a man who essentially owns sex slaves). I did not choose to be born to a family that loved me and parents who were present and fostered a healthy environment for me to grow up in. I could have just as easily been born into a different story.

The same can be said not only about circumstances, but about everything else that follows and the events and experiences that take place. While I never chose to be born into a family that could eventually support me in going to college, the women we interacted with did not choose to be born into an environment that might promote drug addiction or was unsafe. We learned about one victim who came from a relatively good life, who was kidnapped off the streets and forced into sex slavery for years. And this could just as easily happen to me or the next person, these vulnerabilities are present in all of us. Understanding this not only allowed us to empathize with a victim and how they felt about themselves, but also gave us an important perspective. The perspective to understand that while our experiences and appearances made us seem different to these victims, we were really not all that different. While it happened at different stages of the trip for everyone, each person eventually realized what it really meant to empathize and how futile it is to only sympathize.

While the experience Branch Out gave me could not be divulged in a single essay, I truly must say that it was an unforgettable experience. The lessons I learned could not have come about if not for the people I traveled with. As we all discovered our vulnerabilities, our privileges, our flaws, our strengths, and our individuality, my group connected on a profound level that is deep rooted. As an individual, I plan to change the way I interact with others facing or having faced any adversity to empathize more than sympathize. As a group, my team hopes to bring what we learned from our trip here to Williamsburg in order to raise awareness, foster change, and support the eradication of human trafficking.