A TED Talk Review of Barbara Amaya’s: “I was human trafficked for 10 years. We can do more to stop it"
“I’m Barbara Amaya. I’m not 21. I’m 15-years-old, and I’m from Fairfax Virginia. Please help me. Please find my family, I just want to go back home.”
Those were Barbara Amaya’s words to the staff at Riker’s Island Prison, where she was sentenced to serve time at 15 years of age. If you’ve heard about Riker’s Island, Amaya confirms your suspicions by showing a simple slide on the screen behind her during her TED Talk. It contains a picture of a cell next to the name of the prison. Below the name are two words: It’s Hell.
Amaya’s TED Talk, entitled: “I was human trafficked for 10 years. We can do more to stop it”, isn’t even eight minutes long, but in watching it, its brevity only added to the feeling I’d been sucker punched. It’s a dark story. At 15, Amaya had already been to prison. Unfortunately, this was only three years into what would be a ten year long experience as a victim of human trafficking and heroin addiction. When the prison did release her to her “family,” the man waiting to take her home from prison was her trafficker.
Amaya ran away from her abusive home the summer she turned 12. She went to Washington, D.C., and met a woman who seemed sympathetic, but turned her over to a human trafficker. That trafficker sold Amaya to another trafficker from New York.
“My memory’s pretty messed up from some of the stuff I’ve been through, but I can remember that day,” Barbara says with great composure, as she recalls to mind the man who held her captive to this awful facsimile of life. “I remember the money exchanging hands, and I remember him driving me up to New York.”
She was 12-years-old. She had run away from an abusive situation before. But Amaya states plainly, “I always get asked, ‘Why didn’t you just leave? How could that be possible?’ I bonded with the trafficker. He knew how to create that bond.” And the trauma bond kept Amaya there.
Amaya’s youth was taken from her. She recalls the absence of innocent teen romance and school dances. She recalls an 85-year-old man dying on top of her when she was 16. It’s hard to imagine someone living through such a thing, and Amaya agrees. “And heroin saved my life,” she says, “it numbed me to the existence that I was surviving. I don’t want to say I was living, because I was merely surviving.”
And the story gets worse. Amaya has a criminal record. “In every state in the United States there are laws that say you can’t have sex with a child, and if you do, you’re going to jail,” Amaya says. “But if money’s involved, if there’s money on the table, that child is criminalized.” Years after her experience in human trafficking, she returned to New York to vacate her criminal records, which means to have them set aside as if the first trial and conviction never happened. But your case can still be picked up and pursued again. “They don’t just go away,” Amaya says of her records, “they’re still there.”
In spite of all this horror, Amaya doesn’t speak like a woman trying to shock an audience, like she wants to create drama and drop the mic. It’s more down-to-earth than that, and deeply hopeful.
“Today I’ve taken my life back,” Amaya says. The audience can’t help it—the room breaks out in cheers and applause. Amaya has been to the White House. As an advocate, she helped get the safe harbor bill passed in Washington, D.C. The safe harbor bill is a nickname for the Sex Trafficking of Minors Prevention Amendment Act of 2014. It provides immunity from prosecution for underage persons in prostitution.
Amaya warns us that traffickers prey upon the vulnerable, whether it’s a 12-year-old runaway, or a 35-year-old man trying to feed his family. The second example is upsetting because we don’t hear about it as much. It’s a reminder of the scale of the problem. And Amaya is speaking of human trafficking only within the United States.
It’s easy to feel like the things we do to fight trafficking are just a drop in the bucket. And if anyone can tell us so, it’s Barbara Amaya. But she doesn’t: “I don’t quote statistics, because I think they’re all over the place,” Amaya says, “but would it really matter to you if it was one billion children exploited or one? It would still matter, wouldn’t it? Do the numbers matter? I know one person can make a difference, because when I speak across the country, I have young victims of human trafficking talking to me and telling me their stories, so I believe we can all make a difference.”
I am one person. You, reading this, are one person. But, like Barbara Amaya says, one person is capable of helping others, even healing them. What matters is that we make the effort, great or small, to make a difference. The numbers don't matter.
About the Author
Lucas Moore is a writer in Los Angeles. He likes Neo-noir films, running and cycling, classic American novels, small venue music shows, and burritos.