In December, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring announced the online expansion of his campaign against human trafficking across the Commonwealth. Virginia ranks among the top five states for instances of trafficking. WMRA’s Sefe Emokpae introduces us to one Charlottesville organization doing its part to help.
The Arbor Charlottesville is a non-profit organization that provides safe housing and holistic aftercare services to adult female survivors of human trafficking in Virginia.
JOANNA JENNINGS: A lot of people don’t think if Charlottesville as being a hub for trafficking activity but [Interstates] 81 and 95 are both significant corridors for trafficking activity and because 64 is in between them there are a number of individuals that are being moved in and out of our community on a daily basis for the purpose of being exploited from a trafficking perspective.
Joanna Jennings is co-founder and executive director at The Arbor Charlottesville. After working at a similar safe house in New York, she says she and several people in the Charlottesville community began to assess the issue of trafficking locally.
JENNINGS: One of the first questions that we decided to ask was is a safe house for trafficking survivors needed in Virginia and in our community.
The answer was yes. The team reached out to local law enforcement, hospitals, and social service agencies all across the Commonwealth but also in Charlotte, North Carolina and Washington, D.C., two of the area’s biggest trafficking hubs.
JENNINGS: More than 80% of the people that we spoke with said that they had encountered one or more victims of trafficking within the past year and they identified housing as the greatest need.
The Arbor Charlottesville opened its doors last January and since then has taken in five women between the ages of 22 and 35. They are victims of both labor trafficking and sex trafficking….some domestic and some foreign-born.
JENNINGS: With foreign born victims in particular they are typically told by their trafficker that there is a job in the United States that is available to them and there is money and there is education involved. All they need to do is submit their passport and any other identification and their trafficker will do the rest. Of course at that point they are unaware that this person is in fact a trafficker. So they arrive to the United States, expect some other job that they’ve ben promised and then once they get here they are forced into prostitution or potentially being exploited from a labor perspective where they are being forced to work very long hours in harsh conditions, not being paid a livable wage.
The women are offered free room and board for up to two years, but Jennings says the most important service is connecting the victims to local resources… everything from counseling and medical care… to education and employment.
JENNINGS: What we know and what the evidence has shown us is that if these women don’t emerge from our program without a trade or a skill the likelihood that they are going to revert back to a life of forced prostitution or exploitation is very high. Part of our program is to make sure that the women are receiving access to education whether it’s obtaining their GED or taking ESL classes for our foreign born clients teaching them a trade or skill that they can then turn into some type of job or career and have a way to support themselves.
Jennings says there are a number of options for people who would like to get involved with the Arbor Charlottesville through donations or as volunteers. But she stresses the most valuable way is to address the issue at hand…. One she says is not talked about often enough.
JENNINGS: I would encourage people just to try to even get educated about this topic of trafficking because that is often one of the best things that we can do as a society to teally understand that this is something that is happening in our country and in our community.