Noor Tagouri recently released her series, “Sold In America: Inside of America’s Sex Trade”. In the 3-episode documentary, Noor uncovers multiple perspectives and addresses the efforts of combating sex trafficking. For Laya Monarez, an artist and activists who is featured in the documentary, her work was about survival and providing herself basic needs such as food and shelter. For others, especially minors without stable homes, prostitution is the only option. Ashley Cacho, another woman featured in this documentary, explains how prostitution was normalized for her and how she didn’t think much of it until she was rescued. Noor’s documentary notes that many of the victims run away from home and ⅔ of them are children of color. In addition, the documentary also explains how doctors are now trained to recognize victims of sex trafficking. These unfortunate events take place right underneath our noses and missing the signs can lead to dreadful consequences.
The underlying urge to silence controversial issues
When releasing her documentary, Noor has started a conversation. A conversation that the Muslim community can and should chime into…
Muslims have a reputation for charity work and providing aid to those in need, as it is our Islamic and human duty. Granted, there is still an underlying urge to silence controversial issues, like human trafficking, drug addiction, and domestic abuse. One woman, Zerqa Abid, had a vision to address issues of all wrongful networks and give the survivors and victims a place of safety, therapy and care. Sister Zerqa, has built a non-profit with an exceptional effort and strong purpose. Her non-profit, My Project USA, strives to make sure that no person will turn to selling themselves in order to survive or be forced into such a position by another. From food pantries open to the poor, to girl/boy-scouts in drug infused communities, My Project USA has become the local paradigm of combating human/sex trafficking that every Muslim should be aware of.
Sister Zerqa says the first time she noticed how large an issue sex trafficking was in the Muslim community was in early 2013, and late 2012. “I was doing research and I came across news saying that there was a gang in Columbus, Ohio, consisting of 29 Muslims who were arrested for trafficking minor Muslim Somali girls ranging from Columbus to Minnesota to Nashville. I was shocked to be reading this news and the discussions surrounding it.”
The case she refers to was later dismissed by a Nashville judge due to invalid and inadequate evidence. Although this case was deemed illegitimate, the implications surrounding the case were already set. “At that point it became a dispute. Many Muslims…including the Somali community were quick to say it didn’t happen because of the huge stigma and the huge shame surrounding it and nobody wanted to be associated with it.” Despite the discredited case, many nonprofits and their efforts to combat sex trafficking in Muslim communities were brought to the limelight. “I have recently talked to an organization in Dayton, Oasis House who are taking in the victims of sex trafficking. They take in these women and help them re-enter public life and live as normal people. They have a very clear understanding with all of these regular agencies that work with human trafficking victims, that there is in fact issues within ethnic communities including some of the Muslim communities such as Somali, Pakistani, Arab, etc communities. But within our communities it’s more of a hidden issue so cases won’t be brought up to these regular agencies. And that has been the issue, how do you reach out? When our girls are being rescued there aren’t any Muslim organization…there are no Aunties and Uncles that open their arms who could really help these kids by their good luck if they are ever rescued.”
Considering the lack of organized effort by Muslims, Sister Zerqa decided to start her own nonprofit. “There are other organizations in different places but there was nothing on the national level concerning Muslim victims. There was no national discourse…and still, other than MY Project USA, or the work of Muslims Against Human Trafficking, that I’ve been doing…nobody has been doing anything about it on the national level.”
MY Project USA: working and victims
Upon asking Abid what MY Project USA does for victims, she responded with “Our dream that we’re currently working on is an intervention sight for places like this [Westside of Columbus, Ohio], right outside you can see prostitutes and victims of human trafficking. You’ll see them all day and night. That’s why we opened our office in this area, we wanted to be able to reach out to these women. This area is also where a lot of underserved Muslim refugees settle. We serve them especially because their children are at high risk.”
As Noor mentioned in her documentary series, many victims of sex trafficking were minors who ran away from home. In the Muslim community, the primary reason minors run away is due to parental abuse. “We as a Muslim community…we need to provide proper support for our parents, especially for our refugee parents because they are the ones who are more traumatized.” Part of the intervention includes workshops for parents, that warn of drugs, sex trafficking, and the correlation between the two. MY Project USA also provides support to these families via their food pantry. The pantry is a weekly occurrence where the underserved communities can come in and are given extra food. The food consists of fresh produce. A tendency common in the poor communities is buying processed food because it’s cheaper. When really, the processed food is less healthy. Sister Zerqa stresses on the importance of children having enough healthy food, “We know kids get food at school. But what about when summer, winter and spring break come around? What about the weekends? These kids won’t have food. We supply these families with extra food so that when they’re at home they have food to eat. Bear in mind that these are larger families, with 8 children or more”.
Another way that MY Project USA seeks to empower youth is via boyscouts and sports. “Research also shows that hungry children are easy prey, and poor children without basic items such as cellphones or other gadgets…It’s very easy to recruit them and turn them into drug mules because the money they make is quick which is appealing to them. These kids are desperate so it’s easy to turn them into pawns or puppets to do all the dirty work.” But with sports and boy scouts, these children have an alternative outlet to turn their attention to.
When asked about the reaction her initiative gets, she responded by noting how “Some donate, and others stay as far away as possible”. Sister Zerqa explains how Muslim tend to get angry when she classifies marriage for money as sex trafficking. It’s a common practice in the Islamic world and has been going on for centuries. “The marriage in which a child…especially girls are being married off Islamically in exchange for money that her family will be receiving instead of her… is slavery.” She says there have been many threats sent her way because of this.
She says she understands the dilemma Muslim politician face. They have a choice to join forces with her while risking angering their own community. Or they have the choice to rally against her and shut down a voice that has been shut down for decades now. Her question to them is, “how long will we fail our families?”
This article was written by Momina Tashfeen