By Meredith Kreigh
Women who thought they didn’t matter: That is what matters to Katherine Chon.
“The realities of human trafficking are so harsh that you want to separate them (the victims of human trafficking), dehumanize them, let them be the ‘other’,” said Chon.
Chon is Senior Advisor in Trafficking in Persons at the Department of Health and Human Services. DHHS created the position specifically for Chon to gather information and provide strategy for several Federal outlets. Chon has a Sc.B. in Psychology from Brown University and M.P.A. from Harvard Kennedy School.
Chon first got involved in this realm during a group discussion. Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, Chon and a group of friends began a discussion of religion, violence, social justice and slavery of the past.
Soon enough, the question was asked: “What would you do?”
What would you do if you had been alive during the abolitionist movement?
“Of course, I wanted to say that I would have been on the abolitionist side. So I started learning about human trafficking,” Chon said.
But Chon said she felt disheartened because she was “just a college student.” She kept going back to the conversation about abolitionists and the Underground Railroad. She said it made her wonder why there was no modern equivalent of that grassroots movement.
In response to that absence, she co-founded Polaris Project. Its namesake is the North Star, the guiding light for the Underground Railroad.
Chon said the transforming moment of her career was her first case. She moved to Washington D.C. in 2002, the day after graduating from Brown. There, she received a news alert: Two women from Asia were found and arrested in a massage parlor. They were about to be deported and they didn’t speak the language.
Still, there was no mention of abuse or trafficking.
Chon said she was not convinced. So she and Derek Ellerman, partner and co-founder of Polaris Project, called the reporter who published the story and contacted the attorney. Then they began a two-hour drive to the prison that was holding the women.
The trip seemed to be in vain, for the women denied any abuse. Chon and Ellerman left, promising to return in one week. One week later, the women again denied everything and Chon and Ellerman left, promising to return in one week.
The next time there were different results. Chon and Ellerman arrived and asked once more. The women broke down crying.
The women had been given a script in case they were ever caught, Chon said. They were to deny everything and say they did not know what was going on.
“One woman turned to me and, with tears in her eyes, said ‘You are strangers, but you care.’ It is hard for victims to believe that sort of truth,” said Chon.
One woman returned to Asia to be with her family. The other arranged for her husband and son to come to the United States. Her husband found a job and her son is now married.
Since 2002, Chon has continued to work in anti-trafficking efforts. Chon stressed “mattering” to the victims of trafficking.
Chon’s mission is to show victims, those who are told they do not matter, that they do.