Playful, elegant, and not above the judicious use of the word “shit."

Meet The Exodus Road

Monday morning I left my house at 6:30AM and landed three planes later on the other side of the world at what would have been noon my time on Tuesday afternoon, a total of almost 30 straight hours of travel. In the weeks leading up to this trip I had prepared myself for the discomfort of that amount of time sitting in a small chair up in the air, but in the end it almost feels like I tucked a neck pillow around my head and woke up in a far off alien land. I was perfectly fine, and I mention this only because every single person I have met in the last day and a half who works with The Exodus Road, every partner and team member has repeatedly expressed gratitude to those of us on this trip that we’d travel this far to witness what they do.

“We know how long that plane ride is,” they keep saying. “We know you had to make a lot of arrangements and compromises to get here, and thank you so much for taking this time.” This is interjected almost three or four times into every conversation, and the irony of it is humbling if not totally heartbreaking. Compromises? Arrangements? They have uprooted their entire lives, moved themselves and their families to a foreign land and dedicated their entire lives to fighting human depravity in its most vile incarnation.

The founder of The Exodus Road is a disarmingly blonde father of three originally from Bristol, Tennessee. Matt Parker spent many years in North Carolina, and I picked up on our similar accents immediately, the sing-song way we say certain words, the way we tend to chew on other syllables like a piece of gum. His demeanor is not at all what I expected from someone who has spent as much time as he has working undercover in bars and brothels, in back rooms where young girls and boys have been smuggled across several countries to have their virginity sold.

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I guess I thought he’d be more serious, more hardened, perhaps quietly pensive. Some of the team members I met yesterday were more so, but not Matt. He’s infectiously positive and hopeful. His smile is so boyish that he seems a decade younger than he really is. What you notice most about him, though, especially as he sings and chews his words, is an all-consuming love he has not only for what he does but for the people he has assembled around him: his family, his team members, his partners, and especially the people of SE Asia. He really believes in this work, is certain that his mission in life is to give significant momentum to the abolition of modern-day slavery.

“We don’t want to be the biggest organization out here, we just want to go about this in the most effective way,” he says after introducing us to a collaborator named Steve Galster, founder of an organization called Freeland. What started out as a group to end wildlife trafficking—rhino horns, tigers, illegal timber, elephant ivory—quickly turned into one that couldn’t ignore the humans being sold along the same routes. Now the tactics that they use to protect natural habitats and animals species are being pooled in the fight that is so similar to the one Matt has launched. Both of them believe that partnering and pooling their resources is a far more effective way to further this issue than to launch disparate or competing campaigns.

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It is this organization’s attitude toward building alliances that I think will ultimately make it successful. They haven’t come into this part of the world with a Superman complex. The easy, ineffective fix would be to find a young girl who has been sold or is being forced against her will into the commercial sex trade, pay for her services and then bring her to a safe house. Their “rescue” numbers would be a significant multiple of what they are if they operated like this, but in turn they would be creating vacuums that would be filled immediately with another human body. The brothel owner would simply go out and buy another girl.

Instead, Matt is assembling various teams and collaborators. Who is the best at aftercare? Who is the best at education? Who can market well? Who is good at fundraising? Who is fostering the most effective relationships with the local police force? Gathering these experts is an ongoing and organic process, and the goal of it all is to launch effective investigations: find the pedophile or the trafficker, assemble enough evidence for a raid, and make a successful arrest. If you pull it up by its root the weed will die.

Yesterday we saw the equipment that is necessary for these undercover investigations, and then watched footage of how it was used to capture footage of a “mamasan” attempting to sell two young Burmese girls highly valued for their virginity. It was as you would expect an obscene and nauseating display of moral depravity, especially as the mamasan, in an attempt to prove how precious her merchandise was, assured in detail to the undercover operative that these girls would not bleed excessively when their hymens were penetrated.

The girls never spoke a word, never turned to look anyone in the eye, and had probably long ago accepted that they would meet a certain kind of terrorizing fate.

It is this type evidence that leads to successful prosecutions.

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Yesterday and last night we got to meet two different teams who conduct these investigations, the undercover agents—some of them former military personal, some who have worked in the commercial security field—who risk their lives gathering this footage, who spend days and months collecting information, data, photographs and tip-offs. When asked why he does this work one of these operatives gave an almost sheepish shrug. He said no one would ever know his name or recognize his face or have any idea about the hours he has spent toiling away on case file after case file, especially the people whose lives have been freed by those selfless hours. And he prefers it that way, prefers the satisfaction of knowing that he is helping return slaves to their homes and families over any type of recognition or personal promotion or pat on the back. I guess you could classify that a Clark Kent complex.

So much more to learn in the coming days.

  • JessicaInSF

    Wow, Heather. Thanks for learning about all this to share with the rest of us who wouldn’t be able to make it to SE Asia in person.

  • Suebob

    I’m so glad that there are people doing this work, and that you are writing about it.

  • So glad you’re writing about this. Much to learn, indeed.

  • Tracie

    Oh my. I’m kind of scared for you in terms of what you’re going to be seeing. But it’s so important to expose this so thanks. Deep breaths… those people are amazing.

  • Tracie

    Second that Wow.

  • Jade Lee Wright

    It is incredible to be involved in something so meaningful and making a difference – well done and although scary, it is exciting that you will be learning so much!

    Congrats on your feature in buzzfeed.

    I am now a new and loyal follower and really commend you for what you are doing!!

    http://www.bohemianmuses.blogspot.com

  • Pamela Wik-Grimm

    Unfortunately, returning these people to their families is hardly an answer. It was the families that sold them in the first place.

  • Shayla Scott

    Great post as usual Heather. Curious though, doesn’t putting his face out there put him at greater risk of retaliation? These are serious criminal enterprises and I can’t imagine they look kindly at their ‘product’ being jacked. I’m looking forward to reading more about this experience!

  • So glad to hear that they’re not just buying the kids in order to rescue them. That is a well-intentioned but problematic practice. Obviously these groups have done their research. I think it’s wonderful that you’re willing and able to give their cause greater exposure. I’m hopeful it will allow them to do even more, better work to help save these kids.

    For anyone who is interested in learning more about this kind of work, and other similar problems and initiatives around the world, I recommend HALF THE SKY by Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn. It’s a hard read, but eye-opening.

  • Kimberly Wydeen

    Heather, thank you for writing this. When I read your first post about this trip, I was had one foot in the camp of “how will she bring awareness, I didn’t hear much about the Haiti trip” and another foot in the “literally any positive recognition of these organizations would do some good.”

    But after I read this post, I am awed by your efforts and the efforts of this organization. Problems like this sound so insurmountable that hearing organizations have a concrete, effective plan to tackle them is informative and hopeful. Thank you, for this enlightening post.

  • Jarmo Luukka

    I was so thrilled to hear this

  • I think it’s awesome that y’all are going on this trip and raising awareness (as well as letting folks know how to help) about this appalling practice that’s going on all over the world (including in my backyard in Atlanta; see, e.g., this post: http://fathermuskrat.com/2011/12/11/patching-walls/ )

  • I’d like to know how to help. I hope that is a part of the more to come

  • RzDrms

    Coincidentally (or not. I’m definitely thinking not.), I’ve been reading “The Forgotten” by David Baldacci for the last week or two. And now I’ve been reading all this from you. And…well, I wonder what I’m being instructed to do. Have you (or anyone you’re with right now) read that novel?

  • Heather Armstrong

    I will address this in a future post. This organization and the ones they partner with would never send a child back into a dangerous situation. There are extensive aftercare programs and policies in place and they would never send one back to a family that had put them in that situation in the first place.

  • Heather Armstrong

    It will most definitely be a part of the more to come.

  • Desiree Johnson

    They are also not always sold into slavery by their families. Some have been kidnapped or were runaways that were promised things that weren’t true.

  • twocharacters

    Yeah, I thought that sounded like a terrible idea. I saw a documentary called Half the Sky and it featured a woman who went by the name Somaly in Cambodia and she took in the children she rescued. Perhaps this group doesn’t have the resources to do that right now but I would think it should certainly be a goal.

  • faydean

    Heather,

    Please address the reality that the government in these parts of the world are notorious for being corrupt and basically ignoring this issue. If you read the international government reports on sex slavery and child prostitution in places like Thailand you see extremely low numbers of actual prosecutions. I went to Exodus Roads website and their numbers seem very inflated considering what I’ve read from “official” reports. I mean these areas of the world have been downgraded in the last few years for not following through on international promises to curb these horrible acts against women and children. I find it very hard to believe just gathering video evidence and turning it over to authorities really does much. I’d like to hear the reality of what they are up against, especially with friends from Thailand and the surrounding areas who tell horror stories and how it’s basically just accepted!

  • KC

    My heart breaks for those children, so much has been taken from them. No human being should be treated this way. It just saddens me so much that anyone can treat other human beings like this. Thank you for what you are doing, please thank the others as well. I would like to know what I can do to help.

  • cherie king

    There are advocates for legalized sex work who seem to want to deny sex trafficking happens at all. In the US it’s difficult to combat as the sex worker are prosecuted over the johns, jailed. I hope the work with these groups can breed success in the US.

  • Shannon

    I’ve been following and supporting the Exodus Road for a while, ever since Jamie Wright (who is on the trip now) went last year (I think? Maybe more than a year ago?). They have had several raids compromised by corrupt government officials. But they keep going and keep trying. Even one person saved is worth 5 cancelled raids. Their numbers include stats from 4 different teams, including one based in the US.

    Did you watch the videos on the website? There’s one on this page with actual covert footage of evidence gathering and a raid. http://www.theexodusroad.com/about/ . Look at the blog page and watch the one included in “She Ran Ahead.”

  • gcplanner
  • Jen Moore

    Thank you Heather. This is such a huge and complex issue. As a women, gender and sexuality studies teacher my students are horrified to learn that we have more slavery TODAY than ever in our world’s history. It’s so important to shed a light. I do it through teaching and you do it your way. It’s all important. A thousand thanks.

  • Jen Moore

    Being tricked is a leading cause for slavery. Girls and women are told they will be given a job in a neighboring country or far away country and in are put on a plane. When they arrive, thinking they will begin work as a maid, nanny or hotel worker (and begin to pay off their sponsor for the air travel costs) they are thrust into the worst day of their life. Often they are beaten and gang raped into submission of their new reality. It is devastating.

  • martinifontaine

    Heather, I’m so glad you’re writing about this endeavor. Even if it’s not the one and only answer. Even if there is still so much to do. Even if it seems like there will never be an end to the evil in the world. Even if there are 208,647 other issues that still need to be addressed. After all of the Even Ifs, it is worth it for you to bring awareness, to be an example of one person doing SOMETHING, instead of sitting in front of a monitor and telling you how much you’re doing wrong, and to keep doing what you believe in for yourself, your children and other humans. I’m just so glad. Thank you.