Photographer Nannette Ricaforte on why she fights against human trafficking.
Her radiant smile is what I remember of my trip to the Philippines in 2009. It was my first trip back to my homeland after 41 years and the first time I met the girls residing at My Refuge House—a safe home providing restoration to victims rescued from sexual exploitation and slavery. Out of the six girls Mayla (name changed) was the only one who looked directly into my eyes while wearing a big smile on her face. I wondered why she was bolder than the rest of the girls who kept their gazes trained on the floor. After a few days I would learn why.
Mayla’s story: She was forced into manual labor at age 10 when her impoverished parents sent her to work for people they believed were going to be her employers. Instead, they became her captors. For six years Mayla was kept in a cage with the owners’ dog as her only companion.
Meal times consisted of slop and gruel, which was consumed in the confines of the cage. Her sleeping, defecating, and urinating also occurred within the cage. The only time she was allowed to venture outside was to perform her job duties.
It wasn’t until a neighbor saw her in the cage of her captors’ backyard and reported it to the authorities that Mayla was finally freed. She was 16 years old.
Last week, as the horrific news story unfolded about the three missing Ohio women held captive by 52-year-old Ariel Castro for 10 years, we all heard and read the neighbors’ claims of having noticed something amiss but didn’t report it. On CNN’s “Piers Morgan Live” neighbor Nina Samoylicz first claimed to have called police after seeing a naked woman in Ariel Castro’s backyard. But her sister, Faliceonna Lopez, admitted to Piers that they told their mother instead of calling the police. Their mother, Annita Lugo, failed to call in a report to the police because “she didn’t know what to do.”
Meanwhile, Cleveland police issued a statement denying calls were ever made to alert them of suspicious activity in the Castro home. From my vantage point—watching the news on television or reading articles online—the disturbing apathy of authorities and the neighbors’ failure in reporting something amiss leaves in question whether the decade long captivity of Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry, and Gina DeJesus could have been prevented. There were neighbors who didn’t notice suspicious activity but the ones who did and failed to act reminded me of the apathy I receive from people when I speak to them about my reasons for fighting against human trafficking. The blank stares, the shrugs, the “you’re fighting a losing battle” response, are reactions I’ve encountered numerous times in my volunteer work with My Refuge House.
What differentiates the Cleveland neighbors from the one who was instrumental in Mayla’s freedom?
He chose to do something despite the fear of retaliation or potential disbelief from authorities. He noticed something amiss and acted upon it. He made a decision to care even when he didn’t know what to do. He didn’t look the other way hoping someone else would take responsibility in reporting the neighbors’ suspicious activity.
Apathy shouldn’t dictate our waking moments that we fail to notice a tragic truth living next door to us. We can make a difference in our communities by choosing to care and take action. By doing so we can save a life, restoring them so that they can boldly hold their head high wearing a bright smile on their face.
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Image credit: Kamila Gornia/Flickr