Human trafficking: a crisis here and across the globe

A free public viewing of the documentary on human trafficking titled, “Not My Life,” directed by Robert Bilheimer and narrated by Glenn Close was held on Wednesday, Jan. 11, at the Strand Theatre. The film depicts the cruel and dehumanizing practices of human trafficking and modern slavery on a global scale.

“Human traffickers are earning billions of dollars on the backs and in the beds of our children,” says the film’s director, Academy Award nominee Robert Bilheimer, “and yet no one knows this is happening. We have a huge responsibility, right now, to learn the truth and act on it.”

“Not My Life” was filmed on five continents, in a dozen countries and takes viewers into a world where millions of children are exploited, every day, by an array of practices including forced labor, domestic servitude, begging, sex tourism, sexual violence, and child soldiering. Since its release, the film has reached millions of people through public screening and community events, television broadcasts and in classrooms and homes around the world. (Not my

Sponsors of the evening’s event were SAFV (Sexual Assault and Family Violence Task Force), Evanston Police Department, Uinta County Sheriff’s Department, Rocky Mountain Power, BOCES (Board of Cooperative Education Services) and Uinta Public Health.

A meet and greet was held in the lobby of the Strand with representatives from each of the sponsors.  After the meet and greet Jade Zuehlsdorff, Administrative Assistant and Victim Advocate with SAFV, began the program by introducing all of the volunteers helping with the event: Laura Vanderhoff Cook, Venice Burton, A.J. Lamb, Laurie Whisenant, Vanessa Weekly, and Gina Sundquist.  Zuehlsdorf then introduced the film.

A map of the U.S. with states where trafficking is known to exist was projected on the screen as the audience began to take their seats.  Most of the southern states and the east and west coast states were brightly colored.  Denver, Colorado, and Salt Lake City, Utah, were noted as hot spots and Wyoming’s Interstate Highway 80 as a major thoroughfare for traffickers.

The film shows glimpses of young children kidnapped or sold by their parents into forced labor where many die from working 14-hour days with little food or water. Many are forced to work in landfills picking through the garbage for what can be resold; others are sold as sex slaves.  The film estimates that forced labor/slavery of children exists in 190 countries.

Vietnam is one of the major countries for young girls being sold as sex slaves. The film’s narrator stated that men coming from the U.S. are the most abusive with the girls. F.B.I. agent Mike Beaver, F.B.I. agent states on the film that currently at least 100,000 young girls are trafficked as sex slaves in the U.S. The young girls hang out at truck stops, and on the streets of major cities like Washington, D.C., and New York, Beaver said.

A young man interviewed in the film admitted that he is a trafficker. He described how he started trafficking young girls as sex slaves when he was only 14 years old. He said he got hooked on the money he made. He showed no remorse when he described how he kept them enslaved by beating them with his fists and feet.

The film makes a plea for consumers to be aware of where the products they buy are made, to watch for Fair Trade items as many commodities produced, including food, clothes, carpets and more, are made by forced child labor/slavery.

Stories of the children kidnapped in Sudan and forced to be child soldiers have made international news. The film stated those children are now killing themselves as they cannot live with the memories of having to kill their parents, siblings and friends. 

Challenging as it is to watch, “Not My Life’s” message is ultimately a message of hope. Victims of slavery can be set free and go on to live happy and productive lives as demonstrated by survivors’ testimonies shown on the film. Those who advocate for slavery victims are growing in numbers and are increasingly effective, including those agencies here in Evanston that sponsored the viewing of the film.

After the end of the film, Executive Director of SAFV Jesse Barnes, Mike Whisenant with Public Health, Undersheriff Trevor Rasmussen and Zuelsdorff used a slide presentation to review information regarding how to identify someone who may be a victim of trafficking, the myths and realities of who is involved, signs to watch for and who to contact for help.

“Men and women both are traffickers and the stereotype of a trafficker is a myth. Anyone across social and economic classes can be a trafficker,” Whisenant said. “Signs to look for in a person that is being trafficked are someone who acts disconnected, has stopped going to school, has lots of bruises, is fearful and submissive, seems to have no personal possessions and refers all questions to another person. Other signs are a lack of freedom of movement and they give no eye contact.”

Answering a question from an audience member about why they should worry about human trafficking here in Evanston, Undersheriff Rasmussen responded, “We have a major transportation route right here on interstate 80 and we are a high traffic area for visitors,” Rasmussen said. “The traffickers’ prey on vulnerable populations and people from isolated areas like Wyoming.  Traffickers look for at-risk people-ones with health issues, mental health issues and young girls suffering with anxiety.  They also cruise social media, game, dating and sex-oriented sites.”

Rasmussen listed several organizations that are combating trafficking:;; and trafficking institute.

Rasmussen and Barnes both said that volunteers are the most valuable resource in fighting trafficking.  As volunteers from the public learn more, they will watch for the signs and report possible trafficking situations.  Working together is the key, Rasmussen and Barnes said. 

Whisenant said, “Call 911 or 1-888-373-7888, or text Be Free — 233733. Reach out, be informed consumers, get involved and recognize the signs. Human trafficking is not a naturally occurring phenomenon. It is a choice made by traffickers. Stop traffickers in their tracks.  See something, say something.”

At the close of the event, audience names were drawn for donated prizes. Some members of the large crowd attending stayed to ask more questions and interact with the sponsors.

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