Azza Cohen said she was filming a documentary about human trafficking in India when she realized how pervasive it was in her home state of New Jersey.
Cohen, a senior at Princeton University and a native of Highland Park, told about her experiences filming Specks of Dust — her 2015 documentary about Guria, an Indian organization working against human trafficking — at a panel discussion on “modern-day slavery” held Jan. 31, at the Jewish Center of Princeton.
Cohen addressed the gathering, describing how in India, she went to an Internet cafe and saw a TV news report on a brothel raid back home in New Jersey — in fact, “on the street where I grew up.”
“I am across the Atlantic in another country and making a film about human trafficking, and it was right on my street, and I didn’t know,” she said.
In addition to the synagogue, the event was sponsored by Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Mercer County, the NJ Coalition Against Human Trafficking, the Center for Jewish Life/Hillel at Princeton University, and Project S.A.R.A.H.
The interfaith coalition is made up of over 100 organizations working on education, advocacy, and assistance to survivors. Among the members of the coalition, which is convened by the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, are several synagogues and Jewish organizations.
Panelists shared statistics and individual stories in describing an illegal industry that traps victims into the sex trade or as unpaid laborers through force, fraud, or coercion. A diverse audience of about 60 also learned of the extent of the “modern-day slavery” problem in New Jersey.
“We are a destination state with three airports, a large port, and the beginning of Interstate 95,” said Melanie Roth Gorelick, coalition convener and director of the Greater MetroWest CRC.
She said that according to some estimates, 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked annually in the United States.
Trafficking “is all over the region, but we don’t see it,” agreed Sophia Lane, director of consultative services for the Polaris Project New Jersey. “Traffickers know how to keep this really hidden and keep victims quiet, through tactics that are psychological and manipulative.” At the same time, she added, the exploiters make the victims believe they are at fault.
Sex traffickers, Lane said, often control women using psychological techniques, like arranging sham marriages and getting them pregnant, or making threats against their families or children.
Citing the International Labor Organization, Lane said three out of every 1,000 people worldwide are in situations of forced labor. Although the media has led many to think sex trafficking is more pervasive, “labor trafficking affects more lives” — an estimated 12.3 million people worldwide.
Heather Hadley, special deputy attorney general in the office of the NJ attorney general, shared a CNN clip detailing the story of young teens lured to Newark from Ghana and Togo with promises of a better education. Instead, they were forced to work for no money in a hair-braiding salon. For five or six years the women lived in poor conditions and were ill fed. The perpetrators, a husband, wife, and son, earned $4 million from their labor.
Labor trafficking is widespread, across many fields, including nanny work, factories, hotels and resorts, cleaning services, restaurants, construction, and landscaping.
Labor trafficking may also involve women who come into this country to work for a diplomat and find themselves in a situation with minimal or no pay, insufficient food, and sometimes sexual exploitation.
Princeton attorney and Jewish Center member Sally Steinberg said she had a client from the Philippines who had been held as a domestic worker in the District of Columbia by a Saudi Arabian diplomat. She escaped by climbing out of a window, then called family members in New Jersey, who picked her up.
Roth Gorelick said she was optimistic that audience members would make the issue a priority in Mercer County. The coalition, she said, monitors the state’s response, raises public awareness, and works with teachers to form abolitionist clubs. It also advocated for New Jersey’s 2013 Human Trafficking Prevention, Protection, and Treatment Act, which increased penalties for perpetrators and established a survivors’ assistance fund.
“I see the Jewish community as a leader in educating the community and being the ones to convene meetings and bring the issue to the community at large,” said Roth Gorelick.
Isabel Vincent, author of a book on the trafficking of Jewish women in the early 20th century, offered historical perspective. She spoke about poor Jewish women from Europe who were brought as prostitutes to Brazil and Argentina around 1916 by a Jewish organized crime ring called Zvi Migdal. One of the women, Rebecca Friedman, started a cemetery for the prostitutes because they were banned from the city’s Jewish cemetery.