Building Bridge to Freedom

New outreach organization to help victims of human trafficking gain independence.

Each year, countless women and young children are sold or deceived into slavery — sexual, domestic, any kind of servitude against their will in which a human being is treated as little more than property.

Northern Virginia is no exception, and Cassandra Clifford is hoping to help those victims find a way to discover their self-worth and independence again through her Bridge to Freedom Foundation.

She began the organization a year ago after a spending a few years volunteering with other organizations.

“Slavery is everywhere — it’s in Virginia, it’s in D.C. There’s no way to escape it,” said Clifford, a Fairfax resident who got her start in human trafficking activism after traveling through Eastern Europe shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union.

She quickly learned the warning signs of human trafficking: a person appears to have restricted movement; shows signs of physical or sexual abuse; is under 18 and is providing commercial sex acts; shows fear or depression; is unwilling to speak on his or her own behalf and does not have a passport or any other form of identification.

Her organization began a year ago, but her work will not be alone or done in a vacuum.

Right now, Clifford and her volunteer staff have been collecting clothes and personal care items to help provide personal and professional development to women and men, in the hopes of helping them boost their self-esteem and become independent, employed citizens.

But the Bridge to Freedom Foundation will not provide shelter for victims — that is where Courtney’s House comes in.

Courtney’s House, located in Washington, D.C., is slated to open a shelter for girls between the ages of 11 and 17 next year. In the meantime, founder Tina Frundt and her volunteers conduct outreach every Friday and Saturday night, from midnight until 5 a.m., talking to young men and women who might be victims of the human sex trade.

This is work that Frundt takes seriously. She was a victim herself, taken into a prostitution ring when she was just 14, held against her will by a man who beat her as an example to the four other young women in his prostitution ring.

Now, she wants to help others who are in that position.

Clifford was one of her volunteers before starting the Bridge to Freedom Foundation, and Frundt said she sees the two groups working together for a long time.

“There’s a need for an organization that focuses on collecting clothing, because when people come to us, they have nothing,” Frundt said. “Right now, Cassandra’s working on a big clothing drive for Christmas and our clients would be among the ones benefiting from that.”

ANOTHER GROUP that will work with Clifford is the Virginia chapter of Stop Modern Slavery, which was started just a few months ago by Jessica Johnson, who lives only a few blocks away from Clifford.

Johnson got her start in advocating for an end to human trafficking in a somewhat serendipitous way. She was between jobs but always had an interest this kind of work. She decided it was time to get up and do something, and it just so happened there was a high profile meeting the next day, at which Ambassador Mark Lagon and Polaris Project director Brad Myles were speaking on the very subject. She attended the conference and was struck with a new dedication to this kind of activism.

So often, people assume women and children are sold into to the sex trade overseas, or are brought to the U.S. for that purpose. But, both Clifford and Johnson said, this kind of slavery is happening frequently right here, and in different forms: massage parlors, domestic service, a form of indentured servitude in which a person is brought into the U.S. legally but is told that if he or she tries to leave the family for which they work, they will be deported.

People in these situations feel they have no choice but to remain in their existing situation and have little hope of breaking free, and many people don’t even realize this kind of slavery still exists.

This is where Stop Modern Slavery comes in, Johnson said. Her group is geared more toward raising awareness, lobbying Congress and working to get legislation passed that would have human trafficking and modern slavery be the subject of its own laws and punishments. Currently, no law exists in Virginia that outright prohibits slavery or human trafficking, Johnson said, and if someone is brought up on charges related to those crimes, it is under abduction charges unless the FBI or other federal agency is called in.

Having a law specifically banning trafficking or slavery would provide harsher penalties for offenders, Johnson said.

While her organization doesn’t provide any direct services for victims, she thinks the Bridge to Freedom Foundation will do just that, and help those trying to gain their independence do so with confidence.

Clifford appreciates the assistance she’s receiving, especially from her all-volunteer staff. They have spent many hours sorting and collecting clothing, currently stored in a number of locations until the organization has its own space, which should happen in 2010.

CLOTHING, MAKE-UP and other personal care needs aren’t the only services the organization will provide, however. Clifford is looking for people who can provide in-kind donations of time and skills training. Ideally, that volunteer would help draft resumes and practice interviews, so when a person is ready to try and look for a job, they’re prepared to do so with a wardrobe, professionally drafted resume and the belief that they deserve to be treated with respect.

One of Clifford’s volunteers, Seda Nak, was first interested in the human trafficking trade following a visit to Cambodia. Nak, who started focusing on trafficking after college, is now an intern for the Bridge to Freedom Foundation.

“People who are mildly aware of the problem tend to link it as an overseas issue and not think it can happen here at home in our backyard. Bridge to Freedom focuses on local survivors, but we always stress human trafficking both nationally and internationally,” Nak said.

The significance of trafficking is “the idea that no one should feel like they have a price on their freedom, no matter what background. It’s a disgrace to human rights,” Nak said.

She doesn’t think that people are unaware of the problem by choice, but that it is a “complex” problem without an easy solution.

In the year the organization has been in existence, Nak thinks they have accomplished a lot.

“We’d like to continue getting our name out there to gain more support and continue raising awareness on the cause,” she said. “We’re also working to expand the personal development program for our survivors. There are definitely going to be additional programs, eventually, but our focus is to ensure our survivors are getting the best we can offer them. All that we do is for the sake of working to end human trafficking.”

When a person is a former victim, just having a new set of clothes is a huge step forward, Clifford said.

“It’s unbelievable. When someone takes an interest in you and how you look and that you’re a person, when you feel like an attractive person for the right reasons for the first time in your life. … That’s what we want to do, because that’s such an important step,” Clifford said.

Her group is quickly getting attention, with more than 700 “friends” and followers on Facebook.

She’s learned that the group is already helping to build self-esteem in some victims.

One client was overheard saying she’d never been asked what she wanted to wear outside before, having always been dressed by her pimp.

“To have someone help create that sense of importance, or to help draft a resume so you can get a job and take care of yourself, that’s awesome,” Clifford said.


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