iEmpathize raises awareness of human trafficking

Students sit on mattresses in Bosco Plaza to raise awareness of sex trafficking.

Advocates from iEmpathize, a national nonprofit organization against human trafficking, is visiting K-State this week. Throughout their stay the group is hosting several on-campus events in hopes of raising awareness and funds for the campaign against human trafficking. An undoubtedly noticeable awareness effort has been the mattresses scattered across Bosco Student Plaza. These grungy mattresses, with spray painted statements about trafficking, are reminders of the truth that human trafficking is happening across the United States – and that Kansas is not immune to the issue. According to iEngage representative Mark Brende, a cross-country rescue operation led by the FBI last month rescued nine victims in Kansas City.

Yesterday, iEmpathize used the dilapidated mattresses for a “silent mattress sit.” In the sit out, students from K-State stationed themselves on the mattresses in Bosco Plaza and held cardboard signs with phrases like, “LGTB empathizes” and “athletes empathize,” written in black marker.

The group also provided a guided empathy tour in the K-State Student Union Grand Ballroom. Attendees were led to different displays representing different countries, starting in Cambodia and ending in the United States. The tour, led by an iEmpathize member, showed stories and artifacts from victims, survivors and witnesses of human trafficking.

The iEmpathize tour guides told a story about a K-State student who had been raped in Manhattan her freshman year after being coaxed into a man’s vehicle. They also shared stories from their own human trafficking experiences. During his tour, Brende shared his firsthand encounter when he and a friend were headed to a taco stand and ran into a group of young men “sharing” a roughly 13-year old girl on the streets of Mexico. Brende was horrified when his Mexican friend tried to calm him with the explanation, “It’s cultural.”

It is stories like this that inspire iEmpathize members to take action. iEmpathize’s campaign serves many purposes: It fights for anti-human trafficking legislation, educates children, helps survivors and raises awareness.

“In the past year and a half we’ve seen 1,000 human traffickers be arrested. We’ve seen over 100 behind bars, we’ve seen hundreds of kids be rescued,” Brande said. “A lot of those kids have had really radical restorations, reunions with their parents and we’ve really been able to be a part of that which is exciting for us but we realize it’s not enough because to end this, we have to go extreme. We have to stop it before it starts.”

Along with working with the Mexican government, Brende said iEmpathize will be teaming up with survivor and ultra runner, Norma Bastidas, in March 2014 as she attempts to complete the world’s largest triathlon. Bastidas will be running, swimming and biking from Mexico City to Washington D.C. with planned stops at attorney generals’ offices on her way to push for more governmental action to stop human trafficking.

The idea that human trafficking is in close proximity in the Midwest was a completely new idea to some students, and many say this encouraged them to think about personal safety.

“It’s the kind of thing people don’t know about; it’s detached from my life,” Xiaoyan Qin, senior in psychology, said. “I think people should learn something to protect themselves.”

That is exactly iEmpathize’s goal, to inform the public that this is an issue within proximity to them. iEmpathize is also working to educate young people across the globe.

Helen Van Dam, event and communications coordinator for iEmpathize, said that current donations are going towards curriculum for middle and high school children. iEmpathize is taking donations all week, but it is not the only way for students to become involved.

“A great way to get involved is to share the films with their friends and family and tell them about the issue,” Van Dam said. “Especially if they know anyone in law enforcement [or] in the trucking community, they’re the eyes and ears out on the streets.”

Van Dam also said that mentoring has proven to be a way to help reduce human trafficking victims. Van Dam said that just being a positive influence for a child substantially reduces their risk of being trafficked because traffickers prey on children’s loneliness. What it comes down to at iEmpathize is putting yourself in the position of trafficking victims.

“Most people don’t recognize or realize our efforts can help save so many lives,” Lei Cao, senior in finance, said. “This is good, to educate us [on] how to make the world more beautiful.”