Survivor of human trafficking shares her story in Bemidji
Rachel Thomas, a survivor of human trafficking, spoke at a conference in Bemidji held by Evergreen Youth and Family Services, sharing her story and stressing the importance of those who work with vulnerable youth.
BEMIDJI — When she became a victim, Rachel Thomas didn’t even know what human trafficking was. Now, as a survivor, she’s made it her mission to educate youth and professionals about the danger and work toward prevention.
A keynote speaker at the Evergreen Annual Conference held Nov. 1-2 at the Sanford Center, Thomas shared her story in gut-wrenching detail for an audience full of service providers who work with some of society’s most vulnerable populations.
As difficult of a story as it was to hear, Thomas ended her narrative by highlighting the different ways communities and individuals can prevent more stories like hers through education and prevention.
“I’m grateful to be in this chapter of my life,” Thomas said. “I get to be a part of the solution to a problem that has affected my life personally.”
Evergreen Youth and Family Services, who hosted the conference, selected Thomas to be one of the primary presenters during the two-day event to bring more awareness to the issue of human trafficking.
“Sex trafficking is something that’s a focus for us, and for a lot of people across the country,” said Ebony Warren, executive director at Evergreen. “We are really trying to build awareness.”
Some agencies represented at the conference work directly with victims of human trafficking and others often work with populations at a higher risk of being targeted.
This solidified a point that Thomas made throughout her presentation: that human trafficking isn’t just something that happens in other parts of the world.
“Human trafficking literally can happen to anyone, anywhere,” Thomas emphasized. “This is something that’s in our communities, and I’m a living example of that.”
'I was a victim'
Coming from a happy and supportive family, Thomas didn’t even know that human trafficking existed when she was targeted by a trafficker as a college student in Atlanta over 15 years ago.
What originally seemed like a modeling opportunity that had all the trappings of legitimacy quickly turned into a nightmare that Thomas couldn’t escape.
Through threats of violence and emotional, physical and psychological abuse, Thomas found herself a victim of human trafficking and she felt like she had nowhere to turn.
“From there it would only get worse, and deeper and darker,” Thomas shared. “There is a real robbery of identity that happens.”
It was ultimately through the compassion of an Atlanta police detective, who treated her like a victim rather than a criminal when she was brought in for questioning, that Thomas was able to escape her situation.
“One moment of compassion and connection with one officer overrode a slew of bad experiences with a system that I thought had failed me,” Thomas said. “It would be (that detective) who would tell me that I was a victim and that it wasn’t my fault.”
Thomas would go on to testify against her trafficker, and she returned to college to complete her dream of becoming a teacher. It wasn’t until years later when she began to see the signs of human trafficking in one of her students that she decided to tell her story.
“After seven years of not telling my story, healing privately, (I realized) I could turn my pain into purpose,” Thomas said.
Since then, she has become an outspoken advocate for human trafficking victims and has worked to further research, education and prevention. Her work has brought her national recognition, and eventually, it brought her to speak in Bemidji.
Thomas closed her keynote address by introducing several resources and tools that can help educate young people about human trafficking risks and prevention and ended her speech with a call to action for those in the room.
“All of us represent communities, we represent cities and agencies," she said, "and it’s our responsibility to make sure we do right by our kids.”