Features

Know Your Neighbors: Sharmila (Sam) Wijeyakumar

By

Once a victim of human trafficking, this Barrington leader is turning her own nightmare into hope for dozens of local women, as she guides trafficked women from rescue through rehabilitation.

Meet a Barrington woman who uses personal experience to help victims of human trafficking.

Sam Wijeyakumar is a survivor of human trafficking. She’s experienced tragedy and darkness in her life, but thanks to support from family and strangers alike, she’s now able to live out her passion and help others in similar situations.

In 2015, she and her husband founded Rahab’s Daughters, an organization with a mission to rescue, rehabilitate and reintegrate victims of human trafficking into a sustainable and safe lifestyle, while also educating the public about the realities and impacts of this issue. The name of the faith-based organization references the biblical figure Rahab, who is named in the Gospel of Matthew as an ancestor of Christ. Although she was a prostitute, Rahab assisted the Israelites in reaching the Promised Land and is considered to be a righteous individual.

Wijeyakumar devotes about 40 hours a week to Rahab’s Daughters, in addition to maintaining a full-time job as a senior account executive for Liferay, a software company.

“Human trafficking is not a small problem,” she says. “A new victim is trafficked every 30 seconds. But, if we can cut off the demand, the supply will automatically diminish. It’s basic economics.”

What is human trafficking?
A lot of people think human trafficking is the smuggling of humans, but it pertains to anybody who’s being forced or convinced to sell themselves for money. It’s now a trillion-dollar industry, funding everything from drugs to terrorism. It’s the second-most lucrative crime in the world, second only to drug trafficking. In this area, you see a lot of farm labor – picking vegetables for little to no pay, and we also find many trafficking victims in nail salons. So, it’s not just sex trafficking, though it’s important to me that we particularly focus on that.

Why is this issue important to you?
I’m a sex trafficking survivor myself. Because of that, I feel God wants me to give back. I was a rebellious child who ran away from home. And, straight to the statistics, I was trafficked within 48 hours of leaving my house. In fact, one third of all female runaways in the United States will be trafficked within 48 hours of running away from home. I think it’s critical that we educate people on this issue, because it takes a village to save someone. It took psychiatric care and psychological care, and it took the unconditional love of people around me to change my ability to trust. Knowing how hard that is, I want to be able to help other people to get there. And certainly, this is empowering for me to help others.

Why did you create Rahab’s Daughters?

I’ve been working in human trafficking since I got out more than 20 years ago, and my husband and I wanted to start providing housing. At the time, in Illinois, there were only 18 beds for human trafficking victims. And there were more than 16,000 victims a year. So that just didn’t work. We tried working with local shelters, but victims come in with such severe post-traumatic stress disorder and such a lack of trust that they don’t fit in with those environments. We’d often lose them back to the industry, and I got tired of the cycle. So, I put together a program that goes from rescue to reintegration. Victims have different people to talk to in regard to mental health, emotional health and spiritual health, and, obviously, they get physically checked for whatever issues they may have. There has not been one single victim who has come to us without a sexually transmitted disease.

How many people are you able to help?
We opened Rahab’s Daughters in 2015, and in our first year we helped reintegrate four people. Last year we helped 34, and this year we’re hoping for 50. We go to the Super Bowl every year – that’s the worst time of year for human trafficking. Sporting events in general are a problem, but the Super Bowl is a time when it’s always been acceptable. There’s a mentality that what happens on the trip stays on the trip. We take a coalition team down, and last year we rescued eight people. This year, we’re hoping to help more. We expect the number of boys will increase this year, too, as that demand has been increasing.

What does human trafficking look like locally?
Unfortunately there are no safe areas. Here in Barrington, we’ve had women from all over the country brought in to be nannies or other types of household workers. We’ve partnered with the local hospitals and local law enforcement to help rescue victims. You may think, “Oh, we live in Barrington, we live in Palatine, it’s not happening here.” But that’s a fallacy. It happens everywhere.

How do you help victims return to society?
We have them create what’s called a “Dream Plan.” One thing you have to understand is most victims have had choice removed. We run a thrift store in Cary, and one of the first things we do is give them choice of what to wear. They can choose whatever they want, from ball gowns to pajamas. Little by little, they get more choices. We had a survivor who came to us and she couldn’t even eat; her trafficker would starve her until she turned over $1,000. Choice for her was literally terrifying. So, slowly, we give them more choices until they can make a dream plan for themselves, where they’re asked: if you could do anything in the world, what would it be? Depending on the length of the dream, we work out a plan to fulfill it and they have milestones to make along the way.

Also, we try to instill the value of education so they have something to stand on. Not all of the victims have an aptitude to go to college, but we try to get them vocational training. We have an organization that does dental assistant training and we have Realtors who help them get their real estate agent license. We also partner with universities to get them on path. A lot of them have only finished eighth or ninth grade, so we’ll work to get them a high school diploma if they’re under 21. If they’re past that, we’ll work on the GED. We’re also very blessed to have a martial arts center teach our girls krav maga to empower them with self-defense. That way, if they end up back out on the street, they now have skills to protect themselves, because unfortunately, it usually takes three or four cycles for a victim to completely leave the industry. I often hear return victims say they just don’t feel like they’re good enough to do anything else, and a lot of times they have Stockholm Syndrome for their trafficker. But we try to shine a light on whatever gives them hope, and it becomes an internal driver for them.

What else should people know about human trafficking?

Forty percent of human trafficking victims in Illinois are minors, which is way too high. The average trafficker has five or six girls working for him, and each one’s worth about $150,000 to $200,000 a year.

What can people do to help?
The No. 1 thing people can do is talk about the issue. Talk to your husband, your father, your brother, your uncle, about why purchasing somebody isn’t right. We’re always in need of volunteers to work in our thrift store, do outreach, be a first responder and do a myriad of other things. If you don’t have the time to help, we definitely appreciate donations. And also, you can cover us in prayer. But overall, awareness is critical, and people understanding the problem is really important. You can go to our website, rahabsdaughters.org, to learn more.

Bookmark and Share

Tags: , , , ,

Comments are closed.