BY CASSANDRA CHIA
“One Venti Soy Mocha for Sasha!”
I opened my eyes, pulling myself out of the Panic! at the Disco trance I had been deliriously floating in for the past twenty minutes waiting for my Starbucks drink. Pulling one of my earbuds out, I could fully register the airport bustle—people chatting about how excited they were to go to New York for winter break, others playfully joking about how much they had filled every inch of their suitcase for a three day trip.
Smiles everywhere, including the one I had plastered on my face as I got my still-hot drink, grateful for the warmth and the delicious dose of caffeine coming my way. Winter technically only started two days ago but the weather outside was already bringing in throngs of people flushed and red-nosed.
I pulled out my flight ticket—a one way trip to Malaysia to teach. Something I always wanted, I thought, biting my lip. To help. And I was a flight away from doing that—
Suddenly, I was on the ground. I looked up, annoyed, at the person who interrupted my inner pep talk.
It was a tall, burly man with sharp, menacing incisors poking out of his scowl.
“Watch where you’re going,” he growled.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t see you there,” I said, in an effort to be polite, despite the fact that I was standing still against a wall.
That’s when I noticed a young girl so hidden behind Mr. Incisors that I would’ve missed her were it not for her odd clothing. She was obviously not wearing enough to keep her warm and protected against the tremendous cold outside. All she had on was a worn hoodie and pants that would’ve been perfect for summer. Her boots were about three sizes too big and showcased several miserable holes in them. She looked to be around twelve years old.
“Hey, are you okay?” I asked the girl.
Instead of answering, she avoided eye contact and looked down at her feet. I followed her gaze and gasped in surprise. Bruises, bruises, bruises—all over her legs.
“She’s fine. Leave us alone,” the man said gruffly on her behalf, shuffling her away.
They left me speechless. What just happened? I glanced in their direction, making sure to do it somewhat inconspicuously. Something’s not right. Maybe he’s her dad? How did she get those bruises? Questions flooded my mind and nothing could relieve them. I sat for a while, debating if I should notify airport security. I mean, it’s none of my business, right? What if she got the bruises from playing soccer and I’m overthinking this? Still, the feeling in my stomach never settled and my coffee got cold.
I half-hoped I would never see them again. But as I walked towards the line for baggage check, I spied the same hoodie holding hands with the man. He moved to heave his enormous bag onto the conveyor belt, turning his back on the girl. In an unconscious move, the girl pushed her sleeves up.
It was a tattoo. Bar code, with ‘DADDY’ inked above it in a cursive scrawl.
My head was ringing with the warning signs. The signs I learned from a college seminar so many years ago. The signs for human trafficking. Could it be? I looked around to see if anyone saw the inappropriate tattoo on the young girl’s arm. No one seemed to.
“I don’t have anything that is worth searching my bag for!”
The saber-toothed man was standing on the opposite side of the metal detector, yelling at a member of airport security who was inspecting his bag. The crowd of travellers was fixated on this very strange man causing a scene but I headed straight for the girl, now alone on my side of the metal detector. Her bare toes were resting on the grey-speckled airport floor after removing her shoes. Seeing this gave me a surge of courage.
“Hey, what’s your name?” I asked in a gentle voice.
“Who is that man that’s with you?” I prodded, more firmly this time.
Her brown eyes were darting around me, probably trying to locate the man. She looked anxious and fidgety.
“He is my employer… He is taking care of me. I am safe,” she replied, as if rehearsing lines out of a script.
“Where are you guys travelling to? And what for?” I asked.
“I… do not know. He says that he will give me a new job, a new life,” she squeaked.
“And do you have your passport on you? Or maybe a boarding pass?” I continued.
She shook her small head. More fidgeting. And pointed at the man. I looked towards his direction and saw that he was coming straight at us with a sharp glint in his eye. He yanked the girl’s sleeve down and grabbed her arm. The way he was holding it and the way she flinched told me that this kind of behaviour was frequent—even normal.
“What are you doing? I told you already to leave us alone and stop bothering us. I am her father,” the man said—a threat already positioned in his tone.
Before he could say anymore, the large silver clock caught his eye and with a dirty look thrown my way, he roughly towed the girl away from the scene. The man was saying something under his breath to the girl; she turned white. Something nagged at me, fuelling a constant stream of unease. It was only after I walked to the one side of the airport that I realized what it was.
Father. He said he was her father. But she said the man was her employer.
I thought about it all: the conflicting information, rehearsed lines, the tattoo, her anxiety and refusal to meet my eye, not having her own passport, not knowing where they were flying to, improper clothes, the bruises—oh those heart-breaking bruises… I didn’t want to admit it but everything added up with increasing certainty. She was a victim of human trafficking.
But, what was I supposed to do?
Well, I was supposed to be having a peaceful flight to Malaysia.
To help people.
“This is the final boarding call for flight FX1032 to Malaysia,” came over the airport intercom.
I made my decision, I sprinted to the general direction of the departure gates. They weren’t there. I looked at the bathrooms, the busy restaurants, but they were nowhere to be found. Dripping sweat and heart racing, I was circling every part of the airport with my carry-on in tow when—
“Will passenger Sasha Russo of flight FX1032 please make their way to Gate A2?”
My flight was leaving. But I still couldn’t find the brown-eyed girl. In desperation, I went back to my gate. I didn’t want to miss my flight, I had saved up for this trip for so long. I worked three jobs at once and all three merely paying the minimum wage. I couldn’t give that all up. I just couldn’t. Before I went past the gate, I looked back once, just once.
And I saw them.
They had their backs to me this time. She had her arm around him in hug. Maybe he was her dad and she was just confused like little girls are. Maybe I was jumping to conclusions before. Maybe it is none of my business. Maybe I was wrong. All the maybes forced my thoughts into a whirlpool, swirling and swirling until it slowed down and came to a stop. That hug was what I needed to convince myself to do what I did.
I misinterpreted what I thought were signs.
They got their boarding passes checked.
I lost sight of the man and the young girl, and I let her go.
That was all five years ago.
I left Malaysia after three years of teaching. I loved the kids there, all bright and full of spirit. I taught them English and Math every day, barefoot in a shambling building of a rural village, where they listened from their seats behind aged wooden desks. But every time all those brown eyes peered up at me with a certain sense that they had seen too much for their age, I thought about a similar set of eyes on a young girl at an airport years ago.
And how I failed her.
I let the detail of a hug completely mislead me and my judgement. Later, I found out that if I was more educated on the issue, I could’ve recognized that as trauma bonding with her trafficker. Hell, I could’ve told someone, anyone. I was blinded and selfish and ignorant and irresponsible.
I never knew what became of her but I do know that I was in the best possible position to help—and I didn’t. The warning signs were crystal clear; I was aware of what was happening but I was too scared to fully accept it at the time. I allowed an excuse to decide the fate of a girl who needed my help, despite knowing deep in my gut that she was in trouble. The worst thing was, I think I was looking for an excuse.
So now, I do my best to help other people avoid my mistakes. I currently work with an advocacy group against human trafficking, and in particular, child trafficking. As I live day-by-day educating people on the warning signs of a victim of human trafficking, I tell them about that girl. How I was her best shot at freedom. How we are all their best shots at a future.
And how we should not let them down.
This piece of fiction highlights some very real and life-saving facts on how to identify a victim of human trafficking. The context of the story follows the setting of an airport, however, it is salient to note that these indicators may occur in any situation such as a hair salon or a restaurant.
Here is the list of indicators of human trafficking mentioned in the story.
- Is not wearing appropriate clothing for the weather
- Possesses signs of physical abuse such as cuts and bruises
- Has a tattoo that says ‘DADDY’ or other forms of branding
- Demonstrates fearful or nervous behavior or avoids eye contact
- Withdrawn; become emotionally numb, detached, and disassociated from the physical and psychological trauma and display “flat affect”
- Displays symptoms of anxiety
- Story is rehearsed and contradictory
- Is unaware of destination or flight information
- Is not in possession of over personal or travel documents (passport/boarding pass)
- Experiences “trauma bonding” with the trafficker, positively identifying with the trafficker and believing that, despite repeated abuse, the trafficker is a loving boyfriend, spouse, or parent.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. However, if you do recognize these signs and believe that someone is a victim of human trafficking, you can help. If the situation becomes urgent and immediate assistance is necessary, call local law enforcement by dialling 911.
You may also call the National Human Trafficking Hotline, a national 24-hour, toll-free, multilingual anti-trafficking hotline at 1-888-373-7888 to report a tip or connect to nearby anti-trafficking services.
“Human Trafficking at Airports: 7 Warning Signs.” CNN, Cable News Network, 5 Aug. 2015, www.cnn.com/travel/article/human-trafficking-at-airports/index.html.
“IDENTIFYING VICTIMS OF HUMAN TRAFFICKING FACT SHEET.” National Human Trafficking Resource Center.
“Identifying Victims of Human Trafficking: What to Look for in a Healthcare Setting.” National Human Trafficking Resource Center.
About the Author
Cassandra Chia is majoring in English at the University of Iowa with a minor in Theatre Arts and a concentration in Publishing. In line with her passions of writing, editing and marketing, she has taken up leadership roles such as Head Editor of her high school’s yearbook committee and President of Grapevine, a mass communications student organization. Having recently moved to the U.S. from Malaysia, she has experienced the wonder of Olive Garden’s endless breadsticks, the bitter cold of winter, and the concept of drinking water from the sink. On a side note, Cassandra enjoys reading, cooking, acting and being a part of a community. She supports the work of One Bread and firmly believes in the importance of raising awareness on the atrocities of human trafficking.