The U.S. State Department's Anti-Trafficking Heroes came from very different corners of the world: Cyprus, Pakistan, Russia and Senegal.
Yet all carried the same thing in their pocket or purse: photos of the victims they had rescued from human trafficking, stored in their mobile phones.
Syeda Fatima, a human rights activist from Pakistan, pulled up an image on her phone of a man who had been beaten on the left side of his head. Working with various groups, she has freed laborers forced to work at brick kilns and carpet factories, then offered them legal aid, protection and shelter.
"They come by and give us small gifts. They tell us we are their family members. They pray for us. They tell us, 'Because of you, we are breathing free air,' " she says.
The activists were honored in Washington, D.C., this month at an event marking the release of the State Department's 2016 Trafficking in Persons report.
Goats and Soda spoke to some of the honorees at NPR's headquarters, who each shared a story about a trafficked victim they have rescued. We've been asked not to give the full names of the trafficking victims to protect their identities.
Oluremi Kehinde, a Nigerian activist, works with Africans who have been trafficked for sex work in Russia. He shared a photo of an 18-year-old Nigerian girl brought to Russia with what she thought was a student visa, then forced into prostitution.
Victims brought for prostitution have their passports taken away from them. She would have to work to pay up the $50,000 to $60,000 [to her captors] before she could earn back her freedom. This girl only paid $15,000, so she was locked up in an apartment where she had to serve customers. Many victims are threatened that if they run away, their family in Nigeria would have to pay up — or be harmed.
In the process of working as a prostitute, she had to have anal intercourse with men. Many times, if the victims refuse, they are humiliated, beaten up, some are even thrown out a window or killed. So most victims agree.
The girl's large intestine became twisted and blocked. She could not go to the toilet and became weak with a serious stomachache. She was dying. But the traffickers didn't help her.
I found out about this case and I got the police involved. We got her out of there and into the hospital for surgery. She was crying, "I don't want to die, I don't want to die."
Four weeks ago, we returned her to Nigeria and [we are now] working to arrest the people who brought her to Russia. She is better now, with her parents.
Rita Superman, head of the police anti-trafficking unit in Cyprus
I remember Sylvia from Bulgaria. She was arrested in the street [in Cyprus] for prostitution. The pimp was arrested on the same day. I had a five-minute talk with her in my office. I asked her if she was satisfied with the kind of work she was doing.
She said no. I asked her if she had children. She said that she had a daughter, and she wouldn't want her daughter to follow her example, to be a prostitute. And she wouldn't want her daughter to find out.
I told her what she was doing was very dangerous. She would probably end up with diseases or be a victim of murder. She was listening without saying anything.
I asked her why she was doing it. She said it was because she wanted to buy a house. Then she will stop.
I told her, "You will never stop. Because now you will need things for the house, and after that, another need."
Again, she was listening without saying anything. As I was speaking with her, I told her she was very young, she was beautiful and she could do other things in life. People could help her. She should quit.
At the end, she replied to me: "No one has spoken to me like that in my entire life."
And that was it. It was five minutes. It took five minutes to change the life of a person.
After that, she was referred to a shelter. She went to court. With support of NGOs, she was sent to the U.K. for a program [for trafficked people], and now she's back to her country and doing well. She never went back to prostitution.
Issa Kouyate is founder and director of Senegal's Maison de la Gare, a shelter for talibes, children who are forced to beg on the street.
This photo is of one of the boys I rescued. He was being forced to beg for bad men on the street. He's 6 years old. I cared for him for two months in my own house. For two months, he did not laugh. He was scared. But I was trying to get him out of his trauma.
One day, I brought him to a restaurant. On that day, he finally laughed. "Why are you laughing?" I asked him. "You never laughed before."
He said to me, "There was once a time when I was outside, looking into this glass window watching people in the restaurant. I never knew what it was like to pick up a fork."
He never told me why he was laughing. Perhaps it was something he didn't want to say. But in his eye I saw, briefly, a glimmer of hope.
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