By Melissa Jane Kronfeld & Megan Legband
Evelyn Chumbow is an anti-trafficking activist with a personal stake in slavery’s demise. A survivor herself, Evelyn was trafficked at a young age from Douala, Cameroon to Maryland in the United States. After seven years in captivity, she was freed. But being placed into the American foster care system presented another set of challenges for this brave young women. After high school, Evelyn headed to university and obtained a degree in Homeland Security from the University of Maryland.
Evelyn now works as a Project Assistant at Baker McKenzie law firm, serves on the boards of Free the Slaves and The Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center, where she provides unique insights into the problem of modern slavery. In 2015, Evelyn was appointed to the United States Advisory Council on Human Trafficking, following her nomination by former President Barack Obama in 2015. As a member of the Council, Evelyn advises the President’s Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (PITF).
When she is not advocating for others, Evelyn enjoys making jokes, writing poetry, and cooking. And her sense of humor and compassionate honesty give Evelyn an irreplicable capacity to communicate her story and move people to action.
Check out what happened when we caught up with Evelyn to talk about the fight to #EndSlaveryNow!
What is one fact that every person should know about slavery?
My first thought is of my definition of slavery, which is a civil relationship in which one person has absolute power over the life, fortune, and liberty of another. With this definition in mind, everyone should know that slavery never ended, and that there are more slaves now than ever before.
How were you able to escape from a life of slavery & what did you decide to do to help others with your experience?
I am a victim and survivor of modern day slavery. As a child, I was trafficked at the age of 10 from Cameroon to Silver Spring, Maryland. My trafficker told my parents that I would receive a better education in the United States. However, instead of attending school, I was forced to cook, clean and care for the children of my captor. Every time I would ask to go to school, my trafficker said I couldn’t go because I was too stupid. I would go days and weeks at a time without eating. Sometimes I would have to stand throughout the whole night. Other times, my trafficker would beat me until she was too tired to continue. She would call me “fat,” “ugly,” and “dirty,” so dirty that I wasn’t allowed to sleep on a bed and had to sleep on the floor.
At the age of 17, I ran away, and a priest helped me contact the police. My trafficking was investigated and criminally charged. I was then placed in the foster care system, which presented a new set of challenges.
I lived in a low-income neighborhood and was surrounded by bad influences, including drug dealers, prostitutes, and gang members. Since I was too old to go to high school, I went to a public charter school. I was happy for the opportunity to get an education, but I hated the environment because many other students were gang members and drug dealers. However, I refused to let that environment get the best of me. I got my Associates degree from the Community College of Baltimore County and just graduated from the University of Maryland University College with a B.S. in Homeland Security.
As a survivor of human trafficking, I have decided to use my experience to educate others about modern day slavery. I want the world to know that slavery never ended, as many people think, and must be stopped.
What is the most critical obstacle preventing us from having a slave free world?
The most critical obstacles preventing us from having a slave free world are government, politics, and poverty.
Governments across the world know that slavery is happening, but they are doing very little to stop it. This issue affects every country, and many governments are remaining mute.
For example, I went to Cameroon, my home country, and spoke with the government in 2016 to discuss the gravity of the issue, but I have not seen any substantive change. In America, government officials are discussing immigration very heavily, but they are not talking about slavery. You cannot talk about immigration without talking about human trafficking; they are un-milavoidably intertwined.
In addressing the issue of human trafficking, the government must know that many of those who are trafficked are foreigners and are brought into this country illegally, and that not only American citizens are being affected. All must be protected—citizens and foreigners—for true justice to be served.
When I ponder why governments are not doing enough, I can only assume that politics prevent national leaders from acting decisively on this issue. As an advocate, I have heard general society and politicians talk about human trafficking, but it is rare to hear about real solutions, informed by survivors, that can make long-term change. People focus so much attention on sex trafficking that we lose sight of labor trafficking, a very real and important part of the problem of slavery.
I want people to focus on ending modern day slavery as a whole instead of separating the issue. I see this separation in acts of Congress, such as HR 4058, where children who are forced into sex trafficking are protected, but children who are trafficked for labor, like I was, are forgotten. While the government is making important steps, we must not let people slip through the cracks.
In addition to politics and government as critical obstacles, poverty is another barrier. As a survivor of modern slavery, I can tell you that human trafficking is ultimately an economic issue. People are sold into slavery to give their families money to live on (whether the families know this or not), and traffickers sell people for their own profit. And even when survivors are freed, often they do not have the tools to be able to succeed in society, especially if they are aliens in a foreign country.
For example, after being freed and exiting the foster care system, I had trouble providing for myself, did not have access to social services like food stamps, and could not afford the counselling I desperately needed. While I was able to ultimately overcome these obstacles, I was a fortunate one. Survivors like me are often re-victimized because they do not have the support or tools to be able to succeed in society, so they return to the only place they know: their trafficker. Re-victimization leads to poverty, and the vicious cycle continues to turn.
As a counterpoint, I do want to add that the government is doing good things to fight trafficking as well. I am very proud of what the American government has done in the past few years to educate themselves about this issue, including giving survivors like me the opportunity to be on the Advisory Council on Human Trafficking. The first steps have been made, and now we must build on those steps to create real and lasting change.
What is the most important lesson you have learned while fighting for freedom?
I have learned that the road to freedom is not an easy one, but it is worth the struggle to continue the fight for the voiceless. Even though I am no longer trapped in slavery, I am still fighting to experience what freedom is all about.
People often want to hear my story, and they wonder, how do I do it? How did I overcome all the terrible things that happened to me? I can tell you: I am not invincible. I still cry. I still am dealing with the trauma of being abused and forced to work for nothing, and it may never go away. My battle with the trauma of my past has been hard on my husband and young son as well. However, I keep fighting because I know I can advocate for the people who are still enslaved.
I keep fighting because I can provide a voice for the voiceless. I keep fighting so that I may be a part of the movement to end modern day slavery.
Why do you believe the Millennial generation will be the one that can end slavery?
I believe the Millennial generation is one that is willing to learn and cares about these issues. I love to talk to young people at schools and elsewhere because they truly care and want to make a difference.
I challenge Millennials to do something with your passion. Let your reality be more than reality television and social media. Act on your ideals. Educate each other, inspire each other, and keep being curious. Be the next Martin Luther King, Jr., or the next Harriet Tubman. Like these amazing leaders, be willing to give your life for the virtuous cause you believe in. Go out and do justice for the sake of the voiceless.
What does a slave free world look like to you?
I dream of that world every day. If I could pick up a newspaper and see no poverty, no slavery, and no selfish government leaders, I would be overjoyed. I dream of a world with more true leaders who are willing to give up everything for the good they believe in; a world where people care, and where there is peace, unity, and generosity. I hope to see that world one day.
What is one thing every reader can start doing right now to help end slavery?
Educate yourself and your friends about the issue and work to raise more money to fight slavery. Google “Modern Day Slavery” and read about what is truly happening to slaves all over the world. Donate to places doing amazing work to fight modern day slavery, like the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Law Center and Free the Slaves. Educate yourself and act on your passion.
Profiles In Abolition is an in-depth look at the influencers, innovators & thought leaders in the modern anti-slavery movement. An accompaniment to Millennial Magazine’s ongoing 10-part series exposing modern slavery – a project of the Nexus Global Youth Summit (catch up with Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four & Part Five) – Profiles In Abolition will examine a diverse & inspiring array of advocates whose critical voice must be heard.
Want to learn more from the world’s leading luminaries in the fight to #EndSlaveryNow? Sign up for the Nexus Anti-Slavery Speaker Series, a weekly conference call with the men and women on the front lines of the modern abolition movement! This call is open to the public and everyone is welcome to listen in! Click here to register for free. Then learn more about modern slavery by following Nexus on Twitter, Instagram & Millennial Magazine!