During the April 7 Stand For Freedom on the Eastern Mennonite University campus, organizers collected more than 200 signatures on two petitions to raise awareness about human trafficking. (Photo by Michael Sheeler)

Inspired by Romanian survivors of sexual trafficking, Rebekah York takes the lead and stands for #Stand4Freedom

On Tuesday, Rebekah York stood in Thomas Plaza – sometimes alone, sometimes with a crowd – surrounded by ghostly chalked outlines of feet that marked those who had stood, even briefly, to show their support for ending modern slavery.

York, a junior at Eastern Mennonite University, was making her Stand For Freedom for 12 hours in solidarity with local college students and others in more than 40 states and 10 countries to raise awareness of human trafficking. The Stand, which happens from April 6-10, is an outreach of the non-profit International Justice Mission.

York, who grew up in Bucharest, Romania, is a reluctant leader who would prefer to remain out of the spotlight, but she wants to make advocacy for victims of human trafficking her life’s work.

Changed by the stories

The stories she heard during a summer internship at a shelter for sexually trafficked women in Romania have burrowed into her heart and psyche.

“I got to know them really well and fell in love with them – that really changes you,” she says.

When she returned to campus in the fall of 2014, raising awareness among her fellow students became a priority.

“I’m out here for the seven girls I live, ate and breathed with for two months,” York says. “The Stand for me is all about them and the other women, men and children who are trapped and coerced into slavery.”

In working to stage the Stand event, York says she is called by her faith and the knowledge, drawn from personal experience, that the survivors sometimes need someone to tell their story, because they themselves can’t.

One touching story she heard from 13-year-old “Ana,” who was living in a state-run orphanage when she heard the rumors. “The director has one thing in mind for the girls here,” the older girls told her. “Prostitution.”

Frightened, Ana ran away with the help of some of the other girls. She was able to find her grandparents and ended up at Open Door Foundation, the shelter where York worked.

York’s internship concluded with a job offer that she wanted to accept. However, her parents encouraged her to finish her degree. She compromised by saying she would graduate a semester early, in the fall of 2015, and then return to the shelter.

“I would love to eventually work with the justice system in Romania,” she says. “I want the police to implement justice for the poor and not against them. The current system is keeping people in the cycle of poverty in which they feel forced to sell their bodies for money because they feel like they don’t have a choice.”

Staying connected through activism

In the meantime, back in Harrisonburg, she searched for another internship, which is how she learned about International Justice Mission and Stand for Freedom.

“I thought that it would be really cool to be a part of, but I had a lot of doubts in my ability to pull it off,” she says.

York’s experiences in that shelter and her passion for serving justice were compelling to listeners, though. On a recent spring break Y-Trip that she led with junior Hanna Heishman, she gained six more allies, including Heishman: Rachel Schrock, Jessamyn Tobin, Abby Hershberger, Amy Feeser, and Jolee Paden.

“I felt drawn into Stand because of the passion Rebekah has for her work,” Heishman says. “She shared with me her vision for humanity during our Y-trip: a life without the reality of trafficking. This is something she cares so deeply for, and it is where she will devote her life.”

Together the group grew the conversation from a Facebook message, to a living room meeting, lunch room conversations and finally to connecting with the James Madison University Stand group.

That JMU group heard York’s story and decided to partner their Stand with EMU to have a united event in a centralized location. A contingent of Dukes came to Thomas Plaza for the Tuesday Stand.

JMU students with the Shenandoah Valley Justice Initiative, a faith-based group raising awareness about the human trafficking issue, also came to campus Thursday to share their work.

A vigil tonight [March 10] at Court Square will again unite students with the Harrisonburg community, which has recently seen a rise in human and labor trafficking charges. In January, Virginia’s House of Representatives passed four bills to combat human trafficking and sex trafficking, which the FBI calls the fastest growing crime in the United States and the third-largest criminal enterprise in the world.

‘In your backyard’

York planned the week-long event to include a huge dose of education about modern slavery, which has the potential to affect the nearly 4 billion people living in poverty in countries with dysfunctional or corrupt public justice systems, according to the United Nations.

After all, she herself had grown up in a country with a long and traumatic history of sex slavery, and she knew nothing about it until a few months after graduating from high school.

That’s when she saw “Nefarious: Merchant of Souls,” a documentary that was also aired on campus Monday night.

“Let’s know what we’re standing for, before we make a statement,” York wrote in her campus-wide email advertising that showing.

With more than 200 signatures gathered on two petitions during Tuesday’s event, York is optimistic about the Stand’s impact.

“All I wanted to do was raise awareness about human trafficking and let people know that this is happening in your own backyard,” York says. “Being able to share that with someone is what I am called for.”

Discussion on “Inspired by Romanian survivors of sexual trafficking, Rebekah York takes the lead and stands for #Stand4Freedom

  1. Thank you for sharing your story and working on behalf of others
    Still being trafficked. The Open Door Foundation is a great program. I know Monica Bosef, the Director of the program well and know how invested she is as well as her staff in helping those who have had their lives taken from them thru human trafficking.
    People here in the U.S. need to know that this is not just a systemic crime in Romania but in their own backyard. They need to have discussions with their children both female and male. Come up with a code word to make sure they know if their child is in danger.

    Keep up the great work to those here in the U.S. & in Bucuresti!

    Blessings from a parent of a Romanian son born in Bucuresti but has been with me since he was three.

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