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Survivors bring human trafficking into focus

When Evelyn Chumbow was a 9-year-old living in Cameroon in the 1990s, she was told she was going to America for a better life.

But when she arrived in Silver Spring, she got the exact opposite. Chumbow was taken from a life of freedom in Africa to one of slavery in America.

Chumbow, 28, now a Laurel resident, is a victim of human trafficking in America, and she's not afraid to tell her story.

"I vowed to myself to speak out to make sure no other child or person went through what I went through," Chumbow said. "It's important to me, because there are still a lot of victims that need to be recognized."

On Sunday, Sept. 7, Chumbow, along with staff and members of Oaklands Presbyterian Church in South Laurel, hosted a panel discussion on human trafficking called "A Call to Action to End Human Slavery." The panel was a mix of human trafficking survivors and experts from across the nation. The goal of the event, which was held inside the church's chapel, was to raise awareness about the crime of human trafficking.

According to the Polaris Project, a national anti-slavery organization, human trafficking is a form of modern day slavery where victims are exploited for labor and sex. One of the fastest-growing criminal industries in the world, human trafficking is occurring at an alarming rate in the United States, according to information on polarisproject.org.

The crime is an issue locally as well. In 2013, Maryland registered the eighth-highest number of human trafficking calls in the nation, according to Polaris.

The impact of human trafficking locally is something Chumbow knows all too well. After eight years as a human trafficking victim in nearby Silver Spring, at the age of 17 she, along with another victim, escaped. Her trafficker, Theresa Mubang, was sentenced to 17 years in prison for her crimes.

'Be a part of healing'

Oaklands Presbyterian Church's pastor, the Rev. LeAnn Hodges, who helped organize the event with Chumbow, said her understanding of human trafficking, and its presence in Maryland, changed when she met Chumbow.

"I knew of it conceptually. I knew of it as an out-there issue. It had never been so close to home," she said. "This is a person I would count as a friend, that I knew experienced it."

She said when she heard Chumbow's story, she thought that the event featuring survivors and experts fit with the church's mission to promote social justice.

"It's important that we are paying attention to what is going on in the world. Our church specifically is very interested in social justice, not just as a banner, but really as how we can be a part of healing," Hodges said. "The fact that this is something that came out of the congregation, for me, is a calling for us to be involved in our community."

Participants at Sunday's event heard from speakers including Denise Brennan, a professor at Georgetown University's Department of Anthropology who has written on human trafficking; and Tiffany Williams, a professional advocate against human trafficking for the Institute of Policy Studies' Break the Chain campaign. In addition, they heard personal stories from four human trafficking survivors: Pridine Fru, a Cameroonian native and human trafficking survivor and advocate; Tina Frudt, a survivor who is founder and executive director of a nonprofit that aids victims, called Courtney House; Holly Smith, a survivor, author and activist; and Shandra Woworuntu, a survivor, advocate and lobbyist.

Fru and Woworuntu, like Chumbow, immigrated to the United States under false pretenses, while Frudt and Smith are Americans who fell victim to trafficking.

Smith, who grew up in Southern New Jersey, ran away from home as a teen with her trafficker, who quickly forced her into prostitution in Atlantic City. She was able to escape bondage after being arrested by police, who were going to charge her with prostitution. Since then, she said she has worked with police to help them understand the difference between prostitution and human trafficking.

"I was seen as a criminal or at least a juvenile delinquent, not as a victim, and so this is why I am very passionate about speaking with law enforcement across the country," Smith said.

Frudt said she was also picked up by law enforcement as a 15-year-old, but that she was jailed for a year for prostitution.

In recent years, law enforcement agencies have ramped up efforts to combat human trafficking. In 2010, the Department of Homeland Security launched the Blue Campaign, which includes a training course for law enforcement officers on how to recognize and deal with human trafficking.

"There are a lot of people blinded by the issues, and it's not going to stop until it's recognized," Chumbow said.

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