I just returned from coordinating a two month human trafficking awareness project in Ternopil, Ukraine. Ternopil is a quiet, small city, near the Western border of Ukraine. Despite the city’s charm and its friendly inhabitants, workers and youth are spilling out by the thousands, in search of better opportunities and standards of living. The locals themselves are shocked at how much the population has decreased in the town and surrounding villages. Most migrants leave for a few years, sending money back to the family they plan to return to. But the reality is that most of these people, intentionally or unintentionally, do not return.
High school students, participating in a seminar
During my time in Ukraine, we visited over 30 high schools, as well as several orphanages, libraries, and universities, carrying out seminars about human trafficking. Through critical thinking exercises, we taught the students how to avoid job scams and how not to fall into exploitative relationships. We also went through the job hunting process, discussing the proper ways to build a future in Ukraine or abroad so that they will not have to follow riskier paths. The students also filled out surveys, which gave us an idea of their knowledge and attitudes towards the problem.
We learned that stereotypes and myths about trafficking roam free in Ukraine. The idea that trafficked persons should be blamed for their situation was considerably difficult to shake from the students’ minds. I found this shocking, at the time, as I had grown up learning to find the victim in a situation and demand justice for those who exploited them.
High school students, filling out questionnaires
After coming home and being exposed to the work done at Shared Hope, it suddenly became very clear to me that the same myths that I was confronted with in Ukraine are going strong in the U.S. From not acknowledging that we ourselves are allowing exploitation to continue, to labeling prostitutes with negative terms, such as whore or slut, the vast majority of America’s population is not on the side of the victim. It is perhaps even more shocking to witness a society that does not reflect the mentalities and values that most of us grew up with. Of course, changes are taking place, but I’ve been forced to reevaluate how much (or little) progress has been made, when compared with the situation in Ukraine. Perhaps the biggest shock has been traveling thousands of miles to get home, only to find out that I’ve barely left the village.