Sr. Michelle Loisel, DC, will give a presentation to anyone, anywhere, and anytime about the scourge of modern-day slavery, also known as human trafficking. When she speaks with groups in America, she is often asked, “Is slavery here?” Her answer is resolute: “Yes, slavery is here. Human trafficking exists here, and we all have a role in stopping it.”
Sr. Michelle Loisel, DC, knows about working to end human suffering.
As a Daughter of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, Sr. Loisel describes herself as “an activist for the poor in this world.” In fact, she has spent most of her religious life serving in the Middle East (she speaks fluent Arabic), Africa, India, Haiti, and other areas of conflict. She then came to the United States and became the executive director of Dawn’s Place, a safe, residential, and holistic program for women who have been victims of sex trafficking.
Fast-forward to the 2015 General Assembly of the Daughters of Charity of America and Canada, when the Daughters (of Charity) decided to “…share commitments to end modern forms of slavery,” which include sex trafficking, forced labor, and migrant exploitation, among other forms of bondage.
The Daughters created a new position within the Province of St. Louise—Coordinator of Provincial Response to Migrants and Issues of Modern Human Slavery. Naturally, Sr. Loisel was the first Sister appointed to this position because of her experience leading Dawn’s Place.
Sr. Loisel, along with Sr. Mary Catherine Warehime, DC, want to educate the public about the scope of human trafficking, and communicate how each person can work to combat this extreme violation of human rights.
Yet, Srs. Loisel and Warehime were surprised to find that people didn’t want to know. “They don’t want to hear from us because they don’t want to hear the reality,” Sr. Loisel said from her office in Baltimore, Maryland.
“The reality,” Sr. Loisel emphasizes, “are real human beings are suffering unfathomable harm and trauma.” Take for example Rosy, an American girl. As detailed on the Daughter’s anti-trafficking website justfreedom.org
Between the ages of 4 and 13, her stepfather abused her. From the age of 8 until 14, she was also abused by her stepmother’s father. At 14-years-old, she [Rosy] was on a train and followed a man who acted interested in her as a boyfriend. He brought her to a motel and he became her first pimp.
When she gave birth to her daughter, he sold her to another pimp. The child was adopted and Rosy was forced to marry the new pimp’s friend. She had two more children, who were both adopted.
Rosy was assaulted many times. Traffickers abused her repeatedly, both emotionally and physically. She was gang raped at the age of 14. She was kidnapped and held in a room for weeks at a time, made to do drugs.
Eventually, Ros was forced to cash fraudulent checks and sell drugs by her pimp. She was found in possession of heroin. She was arrested and sent to jail. Once there, she reported to the police what had happened to her and the FBI got involved.
Rosy was referred to a safe, residential program. Rosy’s life had been saved.
To begin combatting such a large-scale plague that affects so many individuals, Sr. Loisel believes that “action follows awareness.” Therefore, the first step in creating that awareness is through education, collaboration, communication, and advocacy.
This happens on a number of levels.
Sr. Loisel gives presentations to parishes, educators, government agencies, non-government organizations, and anyone who will listen. She has created a digital infrastructure through social media and a website—justfreedom.org—that offers statistics, victims’ stories, resources, and other information related to trafficking and migration.
She also collaborates with other groups and persons involved in ending trafficking, including FamVin (Vincentian Family Network), the United Nations, state task forces, Catholic Charities, Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), and local organizations in her Baltimore area. The Daughters are also members of USCSAHT (U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking) and CCOAHT (Coalitions of Catholic Organizations Against Human Trafficking).
While Sr. Loisel is working on local, national, and international efforts to end the many forms of human trafficking, people often ask her what they can do in their own lives to combat modern slavery. First, she reminds us that what drives trafficking is consumer demand—demand for paid sex, for pornography, for cheap labor, for inexpensive goods. Eliminate demand and trafficking will dissolve.
Next, she says to be aware of red flags that someone might be a victim of exploitation, and to speak up about it. Signs of someone who is being trafficked include (among others):
- Being fearful of police and authorities
- Having no passport or ID or mentioning that someone else is holding his/her documents
- Exhibiting signs of physical and/or psychological trauma (anxiety, lack of memory of recent events, bruising, untreated conditions, etc.)
- Avoiding eye contact and/or social interaction
- Having very few possessions
Additionally, she reminds us to be responsible consumers by being aware of the products we purchase and to be diligent in buying only fair trade certified products when available. Fair trade products ensure no forced labor was used in producing the product, and that fair and equitable prices are being paid to workers. Fair Trade products also monitor for safe social conditions and environmental stewardship.
Equally, Sr. Loisel points out that traffickers exploit vulnerable people (teens, runaways, migrants, etc.), and entice them into situations that aren’t what they seem. Today, this often happens online. Therefore, we all need to practice internet safety, but we especially need to teach children the dangers of being lured into dangerous situations on websites that seem harmless, or by predators posing as peers. For example, from justfreedom.org:
“…a 15-year-old girl walked into Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri, and asked for help. Along with four other girls between the ages of 12 and 18, she had been sold for sex at truck stops across Missouri, Florida, Texas, and New Mexico for almost two months. She was lucky to be alive. According to her police report, another girl traveling with her during those months had died in her arms. The 15-year-old girl who walked into Cardinal Glennon, like the majority of children who are sold for sex in the United States today, was trafficked using [the website] Backpage.”
While the website “Backpage” has been shut down after numerous trafficking cases were associated with it, other similar sites continue to exist and predators continue to pose as teenagers or friendly adults on many social platforms.
Sr. Loisel, however, remains hopeful and prayerful that with an increase in awareness leading to action, we can—and will—stop the violence of trafficking. She believes it is worth repeating: “Yes, slavery is here. Human trafficking exists here, and we all have a role in stopping it.” She adds, “If all of us start repeating that message to our family, friends, faith communities, neighbors, coworkers, elected officials, and so on, we can each play a role in stopping this violation of human rights.”
If you or someone you know needs assistance, call the toll-free National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) at 1.888.373.7888 or text BeFree to 233733.