The Coronavirus Curveball

Evolving anti-human trafficking efforts amidst a global pandemic

By: Open Gate International (OGI) Executive Director Judy Lamborn

Human trafficking pays no attention to mandatory lockdowns or social distancing. Organized criminals only experienced a brief service interruption earlier this year when “coronavirus” replaced “collusion” as the buzz word on the nightly news. Since human lives are nothing more than commodities to traffickers, COVID-19 was simply added to the list of other diseases they ignore just to turn a profit.

The tireless warriors involved in the fight against modern slavery were faced with the daunting task of shifting their strategies to meet this new challenge head on. At OGI in Orange County, where we empower vulnerable individuals (including human trafficking victims), our Culinary Arts Program was finally able to resume in-person classes last month with all necessary precautions in place to protect staff and students. Against all odds, we also launched Open Gate Kitchen in May to provide takeout and delivery meals to the public. It’s delicious, hand-crafted menu, meticulously created by OGI’s Global Executive Chef Cinthia Worsey, is just one point of notoriety. This social enterprise not only serves as on-the-job training for OGI culinary graduates, but it’s also a critical revenue source, supporting OGI’s non-profit culinary and life skills programs. Deemed “essential workers,” our team is courageously forging ahead, determined to continue empowering survivors of trafficking and other vulnerable populations that reach out to us for help.

The Fight Against Modern-Day Slavery Steps Up to the Plate

At this point in a normal year, the OGI leadership team would have personally visited all of our global partners at least once; but with international travel restrictions and mandatory quarantine ordinances, we have been “benched” indefinitely. However, each of our amazing partners have made the necessary adjustments in their daily routines to continue with their vital missions.

Benny & Janice Yu of El Pozo de Vida in Mexico City, Mexico pivoted from reaching sex workers on the streets to focusing on their safe-house and transition home residents. They made class videos and sent them via Whats App so the students could download them and continue to learn.

Don & Bridget Brewster of Agape International Missions (AIM) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia converted their employment centers from making jewelry to producing face. Additionally, with the lack of first responders in Phnom Penh, many of AIM’s teachers fill that gap in the community. With the timely absence of children in its classrooms, AIM sent its teachers into the students’ homes, educating families on how to protect themselves from COVID-19, and providing personal protective equipment (PPE).

OGI Moldova mobilized its staff to feed hundreds of needy families. One desperate family had just 2 eggs left in the refrigerator, and with no money to buy more food. Many of the food recipients were foster families who have been participating in OGI’s Child Welfare Training under the expert guidance of Child Welfare Director, Leonie Webster. Leonie, together with her team and Moldovan government officials on the ground in Chisinau, continued trainings during lockdown via Zoom meetings. This vital OGI program provides life-giving strategies in the ongoing care of Moldova’s foster children and orphans, the most vulnerable and easily exploited by traffickers.

Vision Rescue in Mumbai, India has worked relentlessly to distribute over one million meals to hungry families in communities around the city. Some of their culinary students’ families hadn’t eaten in three days when the VR team reached them. One father remarked, “Lockdown happened, trains were shut, we lost our jobs. We were worried. There was no food, money. We didn’t know how we would spend our days. We would go to Mumbra, Thane and get food. We didn’t know what COVID-19 is. You educated us about it. You provided us with groceries every month. Schools were shut which was affecting the studies of our kids. You started online classes. My children are busy with the online studies and they watch educational videos. I thank Vision Rescue and all the teachers from the bottom of my heart…”  – Shabana Kalwa

Keep Swinging for The Fences

Here in the United States, the abbreviated Major League Baseball (MLB) season is wrapping up, and a new champion will soon be crowned at the World Series. The return of MLB provided a bit of normalcy in what will probably go down in history as the most abnormal year of our lives. A definite bright spot in this gloomy season was celebrating Strike Out Slavery’s co-founder Albert Pujols’ historic achievement of 662 home runs, surpassing Willie Mays and solidifying 5th place on MLB’s all-time home run list. Congratulations Albert! What an achievement!

While COVID-19 has left obvious devastation in its wake, we are looking toward the future with eyes wide open and hope in our hearts. Good will always triumph over evil, and as long as human trafficking still exists, there will be an alliance of warriors fighting against it, until we successfully strike out slavery.