When Shannon Avra arrived in China in 2003 to pick up her soon-to-be adopted daughter, she concedes she was in “adoption la la land.”
That attitude changed quickly.
As Anna Lee was handed over to her in the orphanage, she suddenly noticed the baby was covered with scars. Her head was shaved and had more scars. At 21 months, she weighed 15 pounds. The child was terribly malnourished. Avra discovered her daughter had been fed just enough to be kept alive.
With one high-voltage emotional shock, Avra, a sociology and anthropology professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, was jolted by something she had only read in a textbook.
Anna Lee was being kept alive to be a slave — or a prostitute or to work in a sweatshop or some other activity involved with the hidden and horrific world of human trafficking.
Avra had studied and lectured on the “least of these” for years. The issue didn’t move from her head to her heart until Anna Lee became a member of her family.
“So many times, children in orphanages become completely invisible to us,” said Avra, a guest speaker at one of the “Sweet Justice” dialogue sessions at Second Baptist Church of Little Rock, a series of presentations on “hot button” contemporary issues that are rarely discussed in a church setting.
She noted human trafficking is an industry that generates $9 billion a year internationally. According to statistics by the International Justice Mission, 700,000 to 4 million individuals are bought and sold annually as prostitutes, domestic workers, sex slaves, child laborers or child soldiers. Internationally, she said there are more people in slavery today than at the height of the Civil War.
“It’s bad enough here (the United States) even though we don’t really see it,” she said. “We have a government that truly wants to abolish human trafficking. That is not the case in other countries.”
It’s a high-profit industry in other countries, particularly those with a high level of poverty and a large population. Because it’s such a lucrative industry with powerful figures and manpower behind it, some governments and law enforcement agencies tend to look the other way or are bought off.
“Family members are not always aware they are sending their children into slavery,” said Avra, noting that those involved in human trafficking present families with the facade of giving their child a regular job, income and hope of a better life without telling them what is involved.
The children, at very young ages, are whisked from their families – sometimes kidnapped – and put in isolation from everyone they knew, “and isolation is a powerful tool,” she said.
She said the children are usually physically harmed, including burning and rape. “Rape is a powerful tool when it comes to slavery.” She said the children are often put immediately on drug dependency, which creates financial debt, which creates further control by their captors.
They threaten them with harm to their families if the victims try to escape or do anything about their situation. Threatening families, she said, is another powerful tool to keep control of people and keep them in slavery.
“The children finally accept abuse as who they are,” Avra said.
Many children are placed in orphanages, having all identity stripped, to await being purchased for hire for prostitution, drug trafficking or child soldiers as the orphanages become overcrowded.
When Avra first cradled her tiny daughter on the tightrope of existence, she said she was compelled to ask the folks at the orphanage what would have happened to Anna Lee if she hadn’t been adopted. She was told she would have been sold into slavery.
“That was the harsh reality for me,” she said. “I had taught this stuff for years. But I didn’t really get it entirely until I heard my child was going to be a slave.”
That’s when Avra decided to dig deeper into the issue, which can be literally next to the skin of many Americans. Much of the clothing Americans are wearing could have been assembled by slaves, including many children, in factories and sweatshops.
The problem is clothing, even with major brands and major retailers, is so outsourced nowadays that often companies and executives don’t really know the source of assembly and what’s behind the clothing’s manufacture.
“I’m reluctant to blame corporate people because there are so many levels of sub-contractors that they don’t know,” Avra said. “The only way to know is if they carry the label of being manufactured in free-trade zones. But there are so many levels of sub-contracting, it’s really hard to trace.”
The issue, illuminated by the face of her now-healthy daughter, has created a passion in Avra to educate as many people as possible about the issue. Part of it is contained in a letter that she has written for her daughter to read someday in which she states, “Your suffering has become my voice.”
Later in the letter, she said she is relying on the principle that “peace is stronger than war and love is stronger than evil.”
She also writes to Anna Lee, “I took your hand and I showed you the truth because God showed me the way to find it.”
The ultimate irony is when she left China with Anna Lee, she had to sign a form that she wasn’t bringing her child to the United States in order to become a slave.
David McCollum is a contributing editor to EthicsDaily.com