Ryan Berg is the Executive Director & Founder of the Aruna Project, an organization devoted to bringing and sustaining freedom to the sexually exploited. He lives in Cincinnati, Ohio with his wife and 3 children.
The pungent smell of stale urine set me back a step. Rats rested in leisure. The sound of disease could be heard echoing off the worn walls, and if these walls could talk, as the saying goes, few could stomach the stories.
I moved forward, up two flights of the well-worn wooden stairs. At the second level, the stairs opened up to a long hallway, open on the right and overlooking a small, barren center courtyard. On the left, woman after woman lined the hall standing inside the doorway of what seemed like a closet-sized room with nothing more than a mattress and a thin door, and in some cases a stained pull curtain to keep the dirty secrets from spilling out.
Conversations ran thin as the hollow eyes of the young women looked beyond me, concerned of the ever-watchful eye of the malik. I asked about the hope of a better future. It was received with silence, too lofty an ideal in a place like this. This is a place where a woman’s choice has been taken.
What if she was my sister, my daughter… What if it was me? What would I hope another might do on my behalf if I were powerless to do it myself? That question begs reflection considering Commercial Sexual Exploitation (CSE) is a global issue affecting virtually every nation on the earth. It is a complex mélange of violence, poverty, gender bias and other factors woven together to blanket entire city blocks in ongoing tragedy.
The particular brothel system I first stepped into is no exception. Its name literally means “a place of pleasure,” and it holds thousands upon thousands captive in the trade. Yet for many of us who enjoy freedom, the statistics, the stories, the stark reality of it all remain distant, nameless, and faceless. It is not until we deconstruct the numbers, slow the stories, and consider the individuals and their daily moments that we will appreciate the depth of their need.
The inhumanity of their daily enslavement cuts sharply against the grain of the most simple of our daily liberties. It is in that tension where a sense of responsibility—human to human—arises. It is where motivation toward action is galvanized. By connecting our humanity to the humanity of those who’ve been dehumanized, we’re brought close. Shared emotions emerge, familiar longings are recognized. Look even closer and her face takes form – her soiled, tear stained, precious face. She has a name. We are from the same cloth. We must act on her behalf.
Yet what can ordinary people in ordinary places do to bring and sustain freedom for the enslaved who exist oceans away? The old adage that information without a way of application results in frustration is certainly true especially when learning of the horrors of CSE. It’s like watching a person drown without the ability to help.
Learn. We went back to that brothel system. We conducted interviews. We surveyed the area. We met with individuals seeking the welfare of the enslaved. Most importantly, we came to understand, at least in part, the contributing factors and the women’s needs more accurately, so that we act on their behalf more effectively. You may not be able to go, but there are a number of resources from which you can learn.
Connect. We worked with those seasoned in combatting trafficking. We sought out input and guidance. We worked alongside those laboring in the arduous process of bringing and sustaining freedom on the ground level. We established lasting relationships. There are innumerable organizations and businesses involved in the effort, and they would welcome your connection.
Act. Our learning and connecting validated the conviction that everyone can help to bring the liberating power of choices back to the enslaved. You can literally help set the enslaved free. From involvement in organizations seeking to increase risk to the trafficker to organizations seeking to decrease the trafficker’s financial reward, to organizations caring for those set free, find a place to take action.
Through learning, connecting, and acting we started the Aruna Project with the belief that everyone can do something to combat sex trafficking. Aruna is a Hindi word that means “bright morning sun” and serves as a metaphor for the dawning of a new day of freedom for the enslaved. We exist to bring and sustain that freedom through employment marked by holistic care.
It all starts with ordinary people in ordinary places willing to move in a consistent direction, running is what it’s most commonly called. And we run with purpose; we Run for Their Freedom.
In an Aruna Run for Their Freedom you run for an exploited woman by name to raise awareness of her need and raise money to help bring and sustain freedom. The money raised enables the Aruna Project and our partners to continue to bring the choice of freedom to the enslaved through outreach programs in the brothel system. When a woman steps into freedom the liberating power of choice to reclaim a sense of self worth and begin taking steps toward a better future through aftercare relationships is now hers in increasing measure.
To sustain her freedom she is given the opportunity of employment through our freedom business partner in a safe and secure environment for her to grow, create and build a firm foundation for her future.
For taking part in an Aruna Run, you receive gear made by the hands you’ve helped to set free. We’re a growing movement of ordinary people in ordinary places helping to bring and sustain freedom, one life at a time.
Working on leadership development on the university campuses is what took me to India. Our shared humanity is what drew me into their need. Working to bring and sustain their freedom is what has consistently taken me back. Join with us. Learn, connect and act on their behalf.
September is Hunger Action Month. Take action by keeping a family of refugees out of the hands of traffickers with the gift of a cookstove.
There are many resources out there for those interested in learning from professionals how to identify and respond to human trafficking. Some of these trainings are even online!