By Trent Koppel
You may not be personally aware of it, but the nightmare of human trafficking still exists in our world. In fact, it’s surprising how close to home it can be found. Some trafficking rings try to use hotels, restaurants and other businesses as fronts or headquarters for their trade, so it’s worth your while as an industry professional to be aware and vigilant about this terrible crime.
Author, speaker, social advocate and survivor Timea Nagy can attest to the terrifying phenomenon of sex trafficking first-hand. She emigrated to Canada in 1998, and has a poignant story to tell about the effects of this especially inhuman form of exploitation.
Timea’s ordeal began at the age of 20 when she traveled with her brother from Budapest to Toronto, hoping to find employment. She innocently answered a newspaper ad offering opportunities for maids and nannies. Instead of obtaining domestic work, however, Timea was held in a cheap hotel at the hands of traffickers, and found herself forced into the sex trade. She was not alone; there were several other girls experiencing the same hell at the same time.
Timea’s place of employment was inside a strip club not far from the hotel. It became her home for the next four months. She did not know the language, and felt like a trapped animal. She slept three to four hours a night and worked 18-hour days, while random men “helped themselves” to her at any hour. Timea lived on one egg salad sandwich per day during that time.
You may ask yourself, “Why would someone allow this to happen to herself? Why wouldn’t she just leave that place?” It is not that easy, however, because the victim becomes a prisoner of her own mind – especially when there are others threatening her and making her feel worthless.
One day while looking out a hotel window, Timea saw a girl strolling freely outside. She tried to remember what it was like to be in control of one’s own movements, to have the simple freedom of walking around. Luckily for Timea, her senses returned; having had enough of the abuse, she forced herself to learn English as a way to survive. She was determined to communicate with the outside world no matter how much of a challenge it might pose. She picked up a dictionary and began teaching herself the language.
During this time, she also began to trust a couple of the employees who worked in the club. She felt comfortable enough with them that one day, she took them aside and pointed at several words in the dictionary. The words were “passport,” “fake,” “me,” “threat,” and “help.” The others understood that something wasn’t right, and they realized Timea needed to get away from the men for whom she was working.
The employees were able to get Timea into a cab and out of the city. On her way out of town, she came across a newspaper article written by a police officer; it described another trafficking victim’s situation. At the end of the story, the officer stated that readers who knew of any victims should contact the police department. So that is what Timea did. She wasn’t able to prosecute her violators, but she was able to escape safely.
Ten years after her ordeal, Timea founded Walk With Me, a nonprofit assisting victims of human exploitation. Her painful story was featured in a 2014 exhibition at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. She has earned significant recognition for outstanding service to the community, including the Prime Minister’s Volunteer Award, the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Medal, and others.
Today, Timea still resides in Canada and continues to assist others affected by human trafficking. “You don’t have control over your past, but you are in charge of your future by starting to live in the ‘now,’” she says.
If you believe this type of crime isn’t likely to happen in Missouri or Kansas, you’ll want to give that a second thought. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, in October 2015, federal agents and the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department raided a Morganford Road pizza restaurant on suspicion of its harboring a human trafficking ring. The owner of the restaurant was accused of producing child pornography.
The owner spoke out against the trafficking allegations, but police on the scene said seven girls under the age of 17 were found “housed” in the establishment. If you’re not familiar with this story, I encourage you to read it and others like it online.
Even if you’ve never seen the dangers of human exploitation first-hand, be assured it can be found in many places not far from our daily lives. If you would like more information on signs to look for, how to get help, how to help others in need, or how to educate yourself about this painful and destructive criminal epidemic, visit Timea’s website, www.timeaenagy.com
If you know someone who is a victim, or you have been a victim yourself, please follow Timea’s courageous lead and contact your local law enforcement agency for help. Do not hesitate… there are life-saving resources available to help.
Trent Koppel is a St. Louis-based detective and adjunct professor at Maryville.