To mark #MyFreedomDay on March 16, a day-long student-driven event to raise awareness of human trafficking, United Way is re-publishing this blog by a person with lived experience of human trafficking. As part of our commitment to empowering survivors, United Way and Survivor Alliance have opened up applications for a new fellowship for human trafficking survivors. It's designed to equip survivors to become leaders in the anti-trafficking movement. Learn more here.
My name is Zarina*. I am from Nairobi, Kenya, and I am a survivor of human trafficking.
I have decided to share my story with United Way because I feel that current efforts to fight human trafficking have lacked a survivor-centered approach, failing to focus their efforts on the experiences of those who have lived through human trafficking. I’m hoping that, by sharing my story, I can educate and prevent others from being trafficked as well. I’m also hoping to help rid society of the stigmas that surround human trafficking, so that survivors can work in the anti-trafficking movement to empower one another. These efforts also involve “ethical storytelling” approaches for survivor-centered organizations, so that they may be better allies and empower survivors.
I was trafficked in 2009 by my childhood friend who promised me a job. This job was a lie, and I ended up in captivity for more than 6 months experiencing sex trafficking. I escaped when a so-called “customer” of the “business” where I was being held captive asked to take me to his home. On our way there, I took a leap of faith and got out of the car. Thankfully, he ignored my escape and did not attempt to follow me. After escaping, I had to beg in the streets of the town where I was stranded for one week so I could get enough money for transportation to get home. Eventually, I made it back to Nairobi.
After several months back at home, I came down with a very severe cough and was becoming physically weaker as the days went on. That’s when I decided to visit the local health center, where I was diagnosed with tuberculosis and was found to be HIV positive.
Despite the circumstances, I knew I had to accept my situation for what it was and find a way to live a whole life for my children. I started training in treatment literacy, so I could understand how to properly take my medications, and I began adherence counseling so I could learn how to be diligent with my medication plan. Through these programs, I started working as a volunteer to help others accept their HIV positive status and stick with their treatment plans. I began to work as a tuberculosis and HIV health worker and advocate, which I have continued until this day.
I have continued to adhere to my treatment for my physical illnesses, but after many years I realized that, mentally, I was still burning with anger and very much traumatized from my trafficking experience. Eventually, I decided to reach out to my friend who is a pastor for help, and eventually was able to connect with local anti-human trafficking organizations and receive psychosocial support and therapy from a counselor.
Around that time, Azadi Kenya, which is currently the only solely survivor-led organization in the Nairobi area, started operations. Through this survivor-led organization, I finally found a safe space to exchange experiences with my peers. Through Azadi, I was able to become a community leader in the anti-trafficking sector.
I have now been a member of Azadi Kenya for 3 years, and through Azadi, I was able to find Survivor Alliance. As a participant in Survivor Alliance’s Survivors LEAD program, I joined the United Way Worldwide Center to Combat Human Trafficking. The LEAD Program provides survivors with tools to strengthen their capacity to sustainably continue their work in the movement.
Participating in this program has given me many opportunities, like leading trainings for the organization, learning how to build community-based movements, and becoming a peer mentor. I was also able to learn the power of telling my story, which I am proud to be able to put on paper today.
Additionally, through the program, I learned the importance of getting support in order to move past my trauma and become an advocate for others. I believe that while you can never leave your experience behind, you can learn to accept it and continue forward with the right support. The Survivors LEAD program has given me the tools I needed to help other survivors heal and to fight the stigmas so often used against them.
A big part of building a survivor-focused anti-trafficking movement is engaging in ethical storytelling practices. I struggled to tell my story for a very long time, because at other organizations I was exploited for it, or it was not acknowledged for what it was: human trafficking. I had never gotten all the previous traumas of my life out on paper, but by writing and telling my stories, I have been able to finally heal.
The most important part of ethical storytelling is ensuring that the stories we tell as survivors are our stories, not anyone else's to use or exploit. They are ours to tell and the process of sharing should benefit us more than anyone else. I chose to offer my story to United Way because I believe it will be a big step on my continued path of healing and empowerment.
Because ethical storytelling is so important, I worked with the other participants in the Survivors LEAD Program at United Way to create ethical storytelling guidelines for the organization and anyone else working with survivors of human trafficking. Our goal in creating these guidelines was to eliminate any form of exploitation that can result from telling human trafficking survivors’ stories. I encourage you to learn more about ethical storytelling by reading our guidelines here.
* The author’s name has been changed to protect their privacy and identity. Zarina is a human trafficking survivor who was born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya. She has been a member of Survivor Alliance since late 2020 and has worked with various organizations in Kenya to help healthcare workers trace and prevent cases of tuberculosis and AIDS. Zarina has also spent many years working with Azadi Kenya, a solely survivor-led anti-trafficking NGO which focuses on survivor leadership, protection policies, and ethical storytelling. Zarina hopes to use the skills that she develops through the Survivors LEAD Program to learn more about awareness-raising in the anti-trafficking space and connect herself with a larger community of survivors to exchange support. She looks forward to using the knowledge she acquires to become a leader in the anti-trafficking movement within her own community.