By Aaron Mueller for mlive.com on April 25, 2014—
“When people think about human trafficking, they may often picture sexual slavery in other countries thousands of miles away.
But the experts who shared at Friday’s Kalamazoo Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition training event say it’s a problem everywhere, including Southwest Michigan.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, ‘It doesn’t happen here,'” said Carmen Kucinich, an FBI victim specialist in Grand Rapids, who has worked several cases in Southwest Michigan. “But this is happening everywhere.”
Human trafficking is a $32 billion industry, involving an estimated 27 million victims worldwide, although Kucinich said that number is likely much higher due to unreported crimes. In the first six months of 2013, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center received more than 250 calls from people in Michigan reporting potential human trafficking cases.
During the event at North Park Reformed Church in Kalamazoo, an audience of more than 50, which included social workers, law enforcement and concerned citizens, heard from several experts on human trafficking about the reality of both sex and labor trafficking locally.
But one of the more powerful stories came from a Kalamazoo man, who is a survivor of human trafficking and shared his experience.
The 20-year-old, who was asked to be called “Ray” in order to remain anonymous, shared his story of being forced into sexual encounters by his brother and being physically abused.
“It was physical, emotional and sexual abuse,” Ray said in an interview with the Kalamazoo Gazette. “I was beat up. I was pistol whipped and shot with a Taser. I was forced to use drugs. I was forced to drink alcohol until I zoned out.”
When he was 18 years old, Ray was forced into sexual encounters and was repeatedly emotionally and verbally abused, all out of his home on Kalamazoo’s north side. Any money he would earn would go straight to his brother.
Although human trafficking often involves runaways being picked up by strangers and forced into prostitution or people overseas being lured into the states for forced labor or sex, it can also take the form of exploitation by family members.
“In all the cases I’ve worked with, familial trafficking cases are by far the worst, because the people that were supposed to love and protect them were the ones hurting and exploiting them,” said Andy Soper, director of the Manasseh Project, an organization fighting against sexual exploitation of young people in Grand Rapids.
After two years of abuse and being trafficked, Ray reported it to his independent living specialist with the Disability Network of Southwest Michigan, who helped him report it to police. Ray then got connected with The Ark, a youth shelter in Kalamazoo.
Brooke Hill, who works at The Ark, said Ray was provided with housing, clothing and help in applying for food stamps. The staff also provided support for Ray, as he went through the legal proceedings, including testifying against his brother in court.
Hill said it was difficult for Ray to testify but he showed tremendous bravery in doing so. His tesimony resulted in his abuser being convicted of several charges and being sentenced to nine years in prison. It also opened up a larger ongoing investigation into human trafficking, Hill said.
It’s still difficult for Ray to talk about the sexual abuse he endured, but he said he wanted to share some of his story with others.
“I want to inspire other people, to give them hope,” Ray said. “I want them to know that even though troublesome times, you can still have hope.”
Ray now has his own apartment, two jobs and is studying at Kalamazoo Valley Community College.
“I hope my story will touch people,” he said.”
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