Symposium On Human Trafficking

Upstate New York Philoptochos Chapters Hold Symposium On Human Trafficking

On Saturday, September 21, 2019, the Ladies Philoptochos Societies of St. Sophia (Albany, NY), St. George (Schenectady, NY) and St.Basil (Troy, NY) Greek Orthodox Churches sponsored “TRAPPED: In Our Own Backyard: A Symposium on Human Trafficking & Story of Survival”.  The event took place at St. Sophia and was co-sponsored by the Schenectady County Safe Harbour Anti-Trafficking Program.

During the first half of the program, presentations were made by six panelists: Mary Armistead, Esq. of The Legal Project; Karen Sessions, Youth Development Specialist with the NYS Office of Children and Family Services; Nettie Crossman, Chairman of the Board, Safe Inc. of Schenectady; Debbie Fowler, President & Founder of Eyes Wide Open NENY; Amy Kowalski, Investigator, Office of the Albany County Sheriff; and Salka Saverio a survivor of human trafficking. Elaine Houston, Anchor of NewsChannel 13, the local NBC affiliate, served as moderator. During the second half of the program, the audience participated in a question and answer session with the presenters.

While human trafficking is a global issue, it is also a local one affecting many smaller communities, not just major metropolitan cities. A prime example is the high profile NXIVM case which occurred in a suburban community near Albany, NY. It affects a variety of victims and crosses all socio-economic classes. Major vulnerability factors are addiction, abuse, fear, mental health issues, homelessness and being an undocumented immigrant. The goal of the symposium was to develop awareness and support by sharing knowledge and concern with others, being active in support for government action, seeking volunteer opportunities to assist organizations which provide shelter and counseling for survivors, and to “see something, say something.”

According to Debbie Fowler “A large component of the mission of Eyes Wide Open NENY is awareness training of the very real existence of human trafficking in our community. I was thrilled to participate in the symposium. The Ladies Philoptochos Society did a tremendous job of bringing together professionals in the field to present.”

The presentation of survivor Salka Saverio was most compelling. She told a harrowing personal story of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her own family members that began when she was five years old. She fled her home in Virginia at the age of 14 when she could no longer endure the abuse. A trusted “friend” promised he would help her get to a safe location with his family in Brooklyn, NY. This “safe” place led to further abuse and ultimately sexual trafficking. With no home and no family to turn to, she was powerless. When she was arrested or taken to a hospital for medical attention, police and hospital staff never spotted the red flags or recognized her as a victim. She was returned to her trafficker again and again. A most powerful moment occurred when moderator Elaine Houston turned to Salka and said “I stand here today as an adult, and on behalf of all the adults who failed you and let you slip through the cracks…I apologize.” Now in her early 30s, Salka is currently a case worker at the Crime Victims Assistance Center in Binghamton, NY. Using her own experiences, she educates teens about red flags for trafficking in order to equip them to protect themselves from exploitation.

As stated by Nettie Crossman, "What was extremely striking about the symposium was the stillness in the audience, the intense listening. People want to know. I hope there are more opportunities to raise awareness that sex trafficking (formerly known as forced prostitution) among youth, sometimes as young as 14, really is right in our backyard. Safe Inc. of Schenectady was grateful to have had a role in planning the event because we serve homeless youth who fall prey to sex traffickers. We are one of several local organizations working to address this human rights violation. Local organizations like ours are often very small, in need of more funding to thrive and grow. But we remain steadfast."

The National Philoptochos includes human trafficking as one of its major philanthropic initiatives.  By raising public awareness, we hope to give a voice to silent victims everywhere. In doing so we become friend of the powerless, not only friend of the poor.

Olga Delorey
President, Ladies Philoptochos Society
St. George Greek Orthodox Church
Schenectady, NY