“Trafficking…not in my neighborhood!”

They were a young couple. They had come from poverty. Deep poverty. Her parents washed cars. His parents couldn’t afford a fan. They were like millions of others in India.

But they got through school, and then through college. They earned their degrees. And then a chance came along to come to America. Jobs awaited them. Even a business they would one day own.

And so they saved their money, and borrowed from friends. They packed their bags, climbed on a plane in 100-degree heat, and after hours and hours of traveling, and hours and hours of talking about America, began the descent into Cincinnati. The Ohio River smoked in the cold. A blanket of snow – the first they had seen – lay from horizon to horizon.

At the airport then, in the concourse of shiny stores, they stood holding their suitcase. The owner arrived. He welcomed them warmly. He checked their visas, and put them in his pocket. It was better this way, he said. There were certain details. He also asked for their money.

They began work in the owner’s restaurant. It was a nice restaurant. There was a long buffet and soft lighting. The menu was good, and so was business. Executives and office workers came for lunch, and mothers with strollers who met their friends.

Their pay would come at the end of the month, the owner said.

And so the couple learned everything as quickly as they could. How to prepare the meals. How to work with the public. How to clean the deep fryer, the buffet table, the toilets. Their days stretched into twelve-hour shifts. At closing, they slept in an adjoining apartment.

But at the end of the second month, their pay still hadn’t come. And again, at the end of the third month.

And there were hints now from the owner – about too much complaining. Where before there had been encouragement – laughter and quick smiles – now there was silence, looks of barely tolerable forbearance. As if they weren’t up to speed. As if a mistake had been made.

The owner said – and now I’ll call him the trafficker – he said you don’t want to be on the outside looking in. That’s the fast track for going to jail, he said. That’s the fast track for deportation.

He still held their visas. He still held their money. They didn’t have a dollar between them.  “We need our money,” the wife said to the trafficker. “What money?” the trafficker said. “You owe me money. I’ll sell you into a brothel!”

The story gets worse before it gets better, but eventually this young couple escaped. But they aren’t alone. There are thousands of young people – and not so young – who every year are trafficked in Cincinnati, in Dayton, in Phoenix, in Chicago. And in smaller cities and towns all over the country. They are in restaurants, hotels, salons, factories, fields. They are in your neighborhood. They are to the left and to the right of you.

We drive our streets, we eat in favorite restaurants, we stay in reputable hotels – and have no idea that beneath the veneer – even in our own communities – is a netherworld of trafficking and exploitation, of good people snared into slavery by rings of ruthless and evil criminals.

Sisters in the health center at Mount Notre Dame affixing labels to bars of soap Picture
Sisters in the health center at Mount Notre Dame affixing labels to bars of soap.

The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur have visited hotels both big and small, and met with managers and clerks to let them know of the telltale signs of trafficking, both labor trafficking or sex trafficking. They have gone to schools to talk with students to raise awareness and to keep the students themselves from the clutches of traffickers. And even the Sisters in our health center, many of them bedridden, have participated in a project to affix labels to bars of soap for hotel restrooms, in many cases the only place trafficked women are left alone. The labels tell how to escape, and give phone numbers. If you’d like to get involved, please join us at Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center. See the links for details.