for goodness' sake

Friday, April 06, 2007

Award-Winning Man

I know the slave trade is still in full force in the world today, and the insidiousness of it means that it permeates every country, everywhere. I suppose America is such a melting pot that unless you know what you're looking for, you could easily miss it and go on about your daily business, blissfully unaware. I did.

Then I moved to Japan. I was surprised to find out that the small "snack bars" you see absolutely everywhere can be a den of slavery. Girls, mostly foreign, are told by the Japanese mafia (yakuza) that they can come on an "entertainer" visa and work in bars. Some of them even naively think they are coming to be nannies, house maids, or wives for Japanese men. Their families desperately need the money, so they sign on.

When they arrive in the country, the yakuza slap a huge debt on them that they have to "work" off, and probably can never pay back. They end up prisoners in apartments above these snack bars, with sensors on the door and virtually no way to ever get home to see their families again. The "love hotels" (where you can rent by the hour) perpetuate this cruelty, and the girls are stuck.

These women/girls have no access to health care, no one to call an ally. The communities turn a blind eye.

I have met several of these girls (and they looked like they were in their late teens or early, early twenties) when I was at the city hall getting some paperwork done in the foreigner's section. There was a group of Filipino women with a burly man who was holding all their passports. They were waiting, and the women looked crestfallen. I sat down next to one of them, smiled, and started chatting. The muscle man said he was her husband and started laughing at his own cruel joke. I knew who they were and what they were there for. She managed a smile, though when I was leaving and I shook her hand, looked right in her eyes, and said, "God bless you," she started crying.

I felt powerless. I wanted to help, but I didn't know what to do or where to start. My first thought had been to throw her in my car and speed away, but I knew I was no match for that guy holding her passport. (Besides, I found out later that these poor women are scared to death because their families back home are threatened if the girls try to escape.)

So I started researching. The Human Rights Watch Web site was a good source. I wrote a senator, Sam Brownback, a guy known for his tenacity in fighting for the dignity of those caught up in forces beyond their control. I've also been talking to a group in Tokyo, The Asia Foundation, to figure out how one little mommy in Nishinomiya can help wage the war against this monstrous system.

Just this morning I received a newsletter from International Justice Mission. Gary Haugen, the director of this outstanding organization, has received the 2007 William Wilberforce Award for his work fighting modern-day slavery.

Like Wilberforce 200 years ago, Haugen is one man doing extraordinary things.


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