Tue | Aug 22, 2017

End modern-day slavery - Victim-turned-advocate fights to end human trafficking

Published:Wednesday | July 5, 2017 | 7:00 AMJason Cross
Shamere McKenzie, advocate against human trafficking, and Deputy Superintendent Carl Berry, head of the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Unit.

After breaking herself free from 18 months of torture, during which she was trafficked and forced to work as a prostitute in the United States (US), Shamere McKenzie is now on the path of enlightening young people around the world on how to avoid falling into a similar trap.

Speaking with The Gleaner yesterday in a follow-up interview to the story, '18 months of hell - Jamaican woman tells how she was trafficked and lured into prostitution', McKenzie stressed that escaping was never an easy task.

"After escaping, it definitely was not an easy process, because while you were enslaved, he (the trafficker) would always say that if I leave, he would kill me and my family, and I would always believe him. For a period of time, I was living in fear that he would come back to hurt me. That journey wasn't an easy one," she shared.

"I got help through an organisation here in the US that provides services for survivors of human trafficking. It is called the Polaris Project. The help I received was housing. They moved me from where I was for safety reasons. The very big part that was helpful to me was counselling. Coming out of that life, you think that you are ok and understand what is happening to you but you don't understand the trauma that impacts the brain."

While going through the healing process of being freed from human trafficking, McKenzie met United States researcher and author Kevin Bales, who invited her to share her compelling story at the Freedom Awards ceremony in Los Angeles.

"Kevin Bales used to host an awards ceremony in LA called Freedom Awards. When I met Kevin, he invited me to LA to make a presentation at the Freedom Awards with Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher. At the time I had a job at a law firm and I really didn't want to share my experience with anyone because of the shame. Kevin said I should use my story, but I didn't believe that anybody cared," she told The Gleaner.

McKenzie took the offer and was surprised to find out how many persons turned up to listen to her story and the impact it had on them.

She continued, "After that, Kevin and I continued to speak and he continued to set me up with different speaking engagements. I started working for Shared Hope International as their Protective Innocence Initiative policy assistant. There we would look at all 50 states and their sex-trafficking laws, geared towards minors, and then make recommendations on how to improve state laws. Shared Hope is when I really got involved in policy. I started using my experience to advise on different policies in the United States, getting the different laws changed. I started training judges, prosecutors and community members on how to identify and respond to issues of trafficking."

McKenzie said, "My story has also been featured in a college text book which is used to teach college students social justice. Now, I am the anti-trafficking programme director for the salvation army in Central Maryland. I also have my own foundation which is called the Sun Gate Foundation, and it exists to provide educational opportunities for human trafficking survivors in the US. I travel around to different countries working with airline ambassadors. I have been to the UK and I have travelled to several other countries. Next year, I will be doing some work in Canada with their law enforcement."

jason.cross@gleanerjm.com