Interview with Sandra Morgan
This educator and nurse is fighting the modern-day slave trade, which exists even here in the OC.
If you’re like most Americans, you are under the impression that slavery ended with the Emancipation Proclamation – and the Civil War – in 1863.
But you’d be wrong. Slavery still exists. In fact, the U.S. State Department says there are 27 million victims of human trafficking worldwide – 100,000 or more in the United States and some even in Orange County. These unfortunates are sold into everything from the sex-slave trade to the restaurant industry.
But there is hope, and one big reason for that is Sandra Morgan, director of the Global Center for Women and Justice at Vanguard University. Recently, she also served as Administrator for the Orange County Human Trafficking Taskforce, which battles against the modern slave trade. In addition to teaching at Vanguard, she hosts a podcast called Ending Human Trafficking.
Her conviction is obvious to anyone who listens. She speaks with a knowledge and passion for the issue of human rights that is only found in someone committed to changing a seemingly unchangeable problem. And she says that this is part of her mission.
“Our mantra here is study the issue, be a voice, make a difference. I live by that myself. I do the research so I have an answer for people when they ask about this issue,” she says.
So we asked.
How common is human trafficking in Orange County?
Our Orange County human trafficking taskforce has served over 100 certified victims of human trafficking. Those are only the ones we’ve been able to get certification for so we can provide them with services.
Does one stand out in your mind?
I met one young girl named Shyima who was brought here from Egypt to be a household slave at age nine. For three years she lived in a $1.6 million Orange County home, only she slept in the garage and was up from early morning until late at night doing all of the cleaning and taking care of two small children. Her life was the life of a slave. She never went to school, she never got to play, she never went to the doctor or the dentist.
How was she rescued?
A neighbor noticed a child who never went to school and they called the authorities. [The national human trafficking resource center hotline is 888.373.7888.] Now, Shyima’s doing great. In fact, in November she got her U.S. citizenship. As for the family who had enslaved her, they were convicted, spent time in prison and then were deported.
Movies like to depict victims as being kidnapped into this life. Is that common?
No. Most of the media over-glamorizes the idea of force. People being kidnapped is pretty rare. More often you have people who are in a compromised position without any options and someone offers them a job or opportunity and they take it. In the area of our American children, the majority are kids who come from dysfunctional families – they’ve been in group homes, in foster care, they don’t have a home to run back to. So someone takes them in and the grooming process begins. They’re recruited and sold for sex.
A sex slave trade right here in Orange County?
Yes, we have several cases ongoing of juveniles who were being sold for sex right here in Orange County. That raises the question: Who in Orange County is buying a child for sex? And what other kinds of jobs are we talking about? The one that gets the most attention is the sex trade, but we also have victims that have been household servants, worked in eldercare facilities, in restaurants, hotels, magazine sales.
What keeps them loyal?
If you get down into basic child psychology and the way a child’s brain is developing, we are hard-wired to have a family. And even if that family is a gang or a pimp and three women he’s exploiting, at least you have someplace to go home to. So there’s this sense of belonging. In fact, often when the police show up to rescue them, they don’t want to be rescued.
What happens in that situation?
Fortunately, if they’re under 18 they don’t get to choose. We take them and help them. Many times, it takes months before young women and boys can go through restorative services. In fact, in Las Vegas, a judge pointed out that 85% of the juveniles they save run away, so they put them in juvenile detention.
There is also the situation of debt bondage. Can you explain that?
A trafficker tells a victim something like, “We have a restaurant job for you and you’ll be able to send money home to your family.” The [victim] says they don’t have money to get across the border. So the [trafficker] will say, “That’s OK, you’ll owe us.” So the victim comes across and earns little to nothing and what they do make goes to pay their debt. They’re charged for the place they’re sleeping – which is often nearly inhabitable – their groceries, exorbitant interest and other things, all at outrageously high prices. After a few weeks, the victim begins to understand there is no way out, and they’re threatened with being turned over to the cops so they’ll never see their family again, or even with harm to them or their family. So people could be human trafficking victims and right in front of you, but they’re afraid to self-identify.
Why did you first get involved in fighting human trafficking?
I was living and working in Greece in 2000. In Greece prostitution is legal and so I walked past brothels all the time. But I noticed that a lot of the girls in the doorways were very young and not Greek, so I started asking questions. That was the beginning of my journey. When I found out more, and how horrible the problem was, I tried to figure out how to change it.
I volunteered at a Doctors of the World shelter. I’m a nurse and so I thought I’d be doing medical stuff, but instead the director had me teaching English as a second language. He told me that the most important thing for a person to escape their situation is for them to have dreams, and if I taught English they would start dreaming about getting a job at the Hilton, which we were arranging.
Was there ever a time when you doubted that you were doing any good?
Oh yes. One day I met a girl named Elena who had six razor blade scars from her fingertips to her wrist. They were from when her brothel owner was conditioning her after buying her from the trafficker. He put her in a room all alone and when she finally cried out for water, he came and, while two men held her down, sliced across her knuckles with a razor and said, “This is to remind you that you have no rights.” When she called out for food he did the same thing. She had six scars and after hearing this story, I left thinking, “What am I doing? My little drop in this ocean is meaningless. Meaningless.” I got on the train to go home and as I hung on to the strap in the train I saw this tiny scar that I have from when I was a little girl. And it was like being back in nursing school and learning that the body was designed to heal itself. I realized that Elena had six scars. She did not have six gaping, infected wounds. They were healed on the outside, the same way we were going to heal her on the inside by giving her better dreams for her future. It was my sort of “no turning back, this is worthwhile” moment.
And you now teach on a bigger scale at Vanguard University.
That’s why I love my position and what we’re doing here. I realize my limitations. I’m only one person; I can only do so much. But every semester, when I teach my students, I multiply myself 30, 40, 50 times. In that way, I hope I can really make a difference.