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As a child growing up in Ethiopia, Eyoel Firew ’15 watched the miniseries”Roots” on television.

He was enraged.

“It built this anger in me,” says Firew of the dramatization of Alex Haley’s novel about the life and descendants of Kunte Kinte, an 18th-century African man captured and sold into slavery in the United States.

But as angry as the film made him, Firew believed the horrors of slavery were a thing of the past. After all, he had learned about the Emancipation Proclamation. Firew was wrong.

He began reading about modern-day slavery, a catch-all term that includes forced labor, debt bondage, sex trafficking and human trafficking.

“When I found out that it still exists, it was a blow to me,” says Firew, who came to the United States for educational opportunities. As a high school student living in Bridgeport, Conn., Firew felt “helpless to do anything. But when I came to college, I felt empowered.”

While a student at Albright, Firew started a Facebook group called “Slavery is Real,” to keep people informed.

And the international business/international relations major interned with the Berks County-based Freedom and Restoration for Everyone Enslaved (FREE ), a volunteer movement created to mobilize the community into effective action against human trafficking.

Firew also brought the issue to campus with a film screening on the topic.

And during his senior year, Firew led a workshop called “A Walk in a Victim’s Shoes,” designed to give students insight into the complex situations that victims of human trafficking face daily. Workshop attendees were presented with scenarios and choices of where their life could lead.

“Traffickers target vulnerable people, rich or poor,” says Firew. “They mostly get young girls who have no experience. They buy them a few things to lure them in and build loyalty to the trafficker. Anybody can fall prey.”

The International Labour Organization estimates there are nearly 21 million victims of forced labor globally. This includes victims of human trafficking for labor and sexual exploitation.

Although 90 percent of countries have legislation criminalizing human trafficking, the problem occurs almost everywhere. Conviction rates are low, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 2014 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons.

TAS-Percentages TAS-graph
Source: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 2014 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons

The report also found that women and girls account for 70 percent of all trafficking victims, while children, in general, account for 33 percent of all global victims. “It breaks my heart to know that an individual has no say in what they want to be or do. It’s like they’re not a human being,” says Firew.

Traffickers, he says, use social media, including Facebook and Instagram, to find their victims, and websites like Craigslist, where they can trick people with phony advertisements seeking models.

“I want people to be enraged. They may see this as irrelevant to their life. But stop and look around. Victims are everywhere,” says Firew. “And most victims are saved by people who know the signs. One individual has so much power to make a difference.”

As an intern with FREE , Firew researched topics, created presentations, and worked to increase awareness of the problem. There’s a misconception, he says, that trafficking doesn’t happen here.

But it does.

“Human trafficking is happening all around us,” says Jordan Kirlin, director of FREE .

Kirlin knows this better than most. A fulltime Berks County emergency medical technician, Kirlin first learned of human trafficking in the area when he was confronted by a victim seeking help. Since then, he has encountered victims numerous times while working on ambulances in the county.

Kirlin, who took part in a human trafficking panel discussion at Albright in March, worked closely with Firew and said he was impressed by his commitment to the issue.

“His passion is real, and sometimes gets me fired up all over again about what we do,” says Kirlin. “He spends a lot of time on each project, because it’s not a job or an assignment to him. It’s his opportunity to educate the community about this horrific issue.”

Adds Kirlin: “Many youth are victims, and we need the youth voice [like Firew’s] in this issue. The support of youth could be the missing element to fighting this issue.”

Firew believes there’s not only a lack of awareness of the problem, but also a misconception that the individual can’t make a difference.

“People are aware of it, but they say, ‘What can I do?’”

One outlet is economic pressure, says Firew. People should research the products they buy and question whether they are being produced with slave labor.

“One voice can come together with another, and another voice can come together with that, and then another. And we can get loud. We can stop this,” says Firew. “People don’t see the power they have.”

Irene Langran, Ph.D., associate professor of political science, taught Firew in several classes and says he is “driven by a desire to help others. He is someone who will make a difference in the world.”

Firew has started that journey in Ethiopia. After graduation, he returned to his homeland and hopes to work with a non-government organization to help combat the problem there.

Ethiopia has witnessed a rise in prostitution and human trafficking, especially in the rural areas that lack support services, says Firew. The country is a source of victims, as well as a destination and transit point, according to the U.S. Department of State. Some people, says Firew, are illiterate and end up signing a work contract they don’t understand and can’t get out of.

“I’m making this my life mission, to see this issue resolved,” he says.

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