Stop Silence End Violence
A few years ago, a 14-year-old girl was admitted to a Honolulu hospital after she attempted suicide. The girl, Sam (real name withheld for privacy), was on meth and was extremely volatile — she trashed her room and had to be restrained. Hospital staff was at a loss about how to deal with her, and suspecting abuse, they called in Kathryn Xian.
Speaking with the girl, Xian uncovered that she indeed had been a victim of horrific abuse: Sam had been sex trafficked, and Xian linked her to a Ward Avenue brothel bust that had occurred recently.
Up until that point, everyone — social services, her school, her parents — had given up on Sam. But once she was identified as a survivor of human trafficking, Xian was able to connect her with the appropriate services, placing her in a facility for survivors.
As the founder and executive director of The Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery (PASS), Xian works with survivors of labor and sex trafficking, advocates for anti-human trafficking laws and educates the community about the issue.
And it’s a big issue.
While statistics are difficult to determine, the International Labor Organization estimates that there are more than 20 million trafficked people worldwide — 5.5 million of whom are children. The National Human Trafficking Resource Center received 18,645 reports of trafficking in the U.S. to its hotline between 2007 and 2014. (And that’s just what is called into this one number.) Hawaii has been home to a few high-profile trafficking cases, including a 2010 indictment of a labor recruiting company that forced more than 400 immigrants into farm work, for little or no pay.
“Human trafficking is the extreme distillation of the worst of our society,” Xian asserts. “It’s the worst of capitalism, the worst of gender discrimination, the worst of racism, all wrapped into one issue.”
But it’s not an issue that most people are keen to talk about — something that Xian has worked tirelessly to change for more than a decade.
Currently, she’s advocating for the passage of SB 265, which would establish harsher penalties for promoting sex trafficking. As of press time last week, the bill was set to be reviewed by the House.
Once survivors like Sam are rescued from traffickers, that’s really only the beginning of PASS’ work.
“It’s a long-term process that includes an investment in the person,” Xian explains.
“Our job is to encourage them in a healthy setting to get used to not having to be afraid all the time and to learn to make their own choices.
“We never rush healing,” she continues. “Everybody heals on their own time.”
Once survivors are out of immediate danger, PASS directs them to legal and/or mental health services. Plus, the nonprofit can guide them through making their next steps in life — going back to school, getting a job, whatever they want to do.
“Our main goal is to teach (survivors) how to live like a non-assaulted person, and to them, that is very, very strange,” she says. “It’s getting used to not getting beaten or called names, not getting forced to work — that is really new to them. It’s just getting used to that feeling of being normal.”
To raise awareness about human trafficking, PASS also conducts outreach to medical professionals, social services and the community at large.
Prior to founding PASS, Xian had had a successful stint as a documentary film-maker and created a string of films that tackled topics including suicide, homophobia and marriage equality. But over time, Xian wanted to impact the community directly. (“I had this really idealistic view of changing the world,” she recalls, laughing.)
At the time, Xian was living in a quad of apartment buildings in Waikiki. With the way the complex was structured, sound travelled. One night, she had been up late packing for a trip to Los Angeles to receive an award for one of her films. She was just drifting off to sleep when she was awoken by the screams of a woman being violently assaulted in the parking lot. She couldn’t see what was happening, but she heard everything.
“Almost on a nightly basis, there was some sort of assault or domestic violence dispute,” Xian recalls of her former apartment. “The gruesome assault of this woman was pretty much the cherry on top of that horrible sundae.
“I didn’t know who this woman was. It didn’t matter to me. It just mattered to me that no one should ever have to go through that kind of abuse. Ever.”
So in 2003, Xian organized GiRL FeST to take on violence against women through film, art, music and panel discussions.
“It was started on the premise of violence prevention — not after the violence had happened.”
GiRL FeST, run entirely by volunteers, also began to tackle policy change, rallying to outlaw sex tourism and urging University of Hawaii to revise its sexual assault policies. Through that work, Xian discovered that human trafficking tended to fall to the backburner and founded PASS in 2009.
Most recently, in December, Xian launched Pono Soap, a for-profit subsidiary of PASS. Pono Soap creates organic, vegan soaps — the proceeds of which benefit human trafficking survivors and houseless families. Products can be purchased online (ponosoap.com), but ultimately, Xian hopes to open a storefront that can provide job training and employment opportunities to survivors.
For Xian, Pono Soap also is a much-needed outlet to deal with the trauma she witnesses on a daily basis.
“I am trying to reprogram myself, to remind myself that life can be a very great thing, and society can be a really great thing,” she says. “People can — and have — done horrible things to each other. But if you get too wrapped up in that, it can imbalance you.”
Xian’s acquired a lot of bad memories during her time running PASS. But there are success stories, too. There’s the woman who was rescued from trafficking and reunited with her family, just in time to have her baby. Then there’s a child victim who recently earned her GED.
It’s that — the fact that she has the potential to change someone’s life — that keeps Xian going.
And as for Sam, she ran away from PASS’ care, then got picked up by police — a cycle that repeated itself several times. But Sam has since finished a rehabilitation program. She now lives on the Mainland and is a mother.
“Now she is totally fine — and happy,” Xian says.
For more information, visit passhawaii.org or email email@example.com.