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Human Trafficking Big in Oklahoma, Elam Says

April 11, 2011

Mark Elam, executive director of O.A.T.H. (Oklahomans Against Trafficking Humans) Coalition, spoke about Oklahoma's fight against human trafficking during a Monday, April 11, Blitz Week chapel service.

Blitz Week is a fun-filled week of activities that raises money for various non-profit organizations or humanitarian efforts. While OBU is a Christian college which sends global outreach teams around the world every year, one week a year students host a major fund-raising blitz to meet a special need for a charitable organization. This year, Blitz Week activities are raising money for the Not For Sale Campaign, which seeks to end human trafficking and to re-abolish slavery in America and around the world.

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Elam became aware of human trafficking in 2003 while watching a television documentary about people who used their vacations to work with organizations which rescued girls from sex trafficking around the world. He told his wife, "That's like espionage for Jesus! I want to do that!" He traveled to India, South Asia and the Philippines to engage in the rescue work.

Traveling to more than 30 countries, Elam said he felt compelled by God to continue his work in this specific area. It was during his time that he discovered human trafficking and child sex trafficking are a growing problem in the United States. He realized the truth that wherever Jesus was going, he would feel compassion for people, stop what he was doing, and help them.

"One of the things I've learned in my journey with Christ is that there is a lot of stuff out there to do, there is a lot of need," Elam said. "The trick is -- what are the ones God has designed you to be involved in? Which ones were you made and placed here for that purpose?"

Of the 177 countries monitored by the U.S. State Department for participating in human trafficking, he said the United States is one nation leading the problem. In 2003, he said, the Department of Justice reported the largest concentrations of trafficking survivors who received federal assistance resided in California, Texas, New York and Oklahoma.

Elam said he felt challenged to ask himself: "How dare I fly around the world helping others when, in my own backyard, there is a need unmet?"

In 2008, Elam helped organize O.A.T.H. with an initial mission to bring awareness about human trafficking and the activity of traffickers operating here in Oklahoma and to create a victim-centered approach to advocacy. He visited several cities to learn what the federal government is doing to combat the problem in America, and then implemented a plan here in Oklahoma. In the first year of operation, O.A.T.H. partnered with more than 60 federal, state and local organizations to service victims of trafficking found in Oklahoma.

In February 2009, O.A.T.H. was invited by representatives from the Federal Bureau of Investigations, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Department of State, U.S. Attorney General's Office, and Oklahoma City Police Department to become the state-wide agency promoting awareness and education about human trafficking in Oklahoma. Elam was asked to organize and moderate the FBI working task force on human trafficking and its network agencies and service providers to help identify victims of human trafficking and provide them the services needed.

While drug trafficking is the largest criminal industry in the world, he said human trafficking has proven so lucrative it is expected to surpass it within three to four years. When the FBI rescued children from forced prostitution in 40 cities around the United States, he said they found an alarming correlation: that nearly every city had exploited children from Oklahoma.

Elam said the FBI's discoveries about human trafficking in Oklahoma have been astounding. Oklahoma cities are on human trafficking routes throughout the Midwest and beyond, including a route from Houston, the No. 1 city for human trafficking in America. He said the FBI learned it is well known among truck drivers that if someone wants good bar-be-que, they should go to Kansas City; if they want to find young girls for exploitation, they should go to Oklahoma City.

He said the work through O.A.T.H. continues to be interesting and challenging, while also being disturbing about the issues it deals with every day: people forced into sweatshops, prostitution, migrant farm work and more. He said 800,000-900,000 people are bought, sold or forced into slavery every year, and 300,000 children are at risk of commercial sexual exploitation every year in the United States.

Motivated to help

A missing child is reported every 20-30 seconds in America, he said, numbering 2 million each year; 1.7 million of them are runaways, and of those, 1 million are girls. Many of the girls are making a life-changing mistake as they get caught in the web of human trafficking circles. While the numbers are staggering, he said being part of the solution is engaging.

"Life with Christ is an adventure," Elam said about the ongoing work he does with O.A.T.H. "And anything apart from that is probably not life with Christ because he is expanding the Kingdom. So every day has been like being on a missions trip here in the United States. It's my first time to ever experience that -- that every day is exciting."

For Elam, the motivation to help victims and raise awareness is personal: he was a victim of sexual molestation as a child by someone at his church. He said statistics reveal that one in three girls will be a victim of sexual molestation, and one in four or five boys will be a victim -- and that as he speaks to an audience such as the OBU students, he realizes one-fourth to one-third of them could already have been victims of such assault. Studies show 95 percent of all sexual assaults happen by someone a person knows or trusts, he said.

Elam said his one bad experience affected his life tragically. He dropped out of high school, became involved in drug trafficking, and received seven felony convictions. After 15 years of self-destructive behavior, Elam said it took him another 10-15 years of positive behavior to recover from that one incident. Yet the girls O.A.T.H. attempts to help have experienced sexual assault hundreds of times.

"We've been led to believe in society that the prostitute is a bad person, that it's some kind of choice of theirs: they're a wild girl, they're tattooed, they're body-pierced, they're troubled, and we need to deal with them and get rid of them," Elam said. "And hence, they get arrested, they get treated really poorly.

"The issue between prostitution and human trafficking is an adult -- male or female -- who makes a choice, and they keep the money, and they say 'yes' or 'no' to customers. But human trafficking looks identical to prostitution and you can't tell it apart -- not even law enforcement can tell it apart."

Children and minors, however, have been conditioned into the lifestyle of human trafficking, Elam said. O.A.T.H. is all about trying to identify and expose the issue and to raise awareness and education. He said the No. 1 way predators find victims today is through social networking. One-third of the 30 million children online will leave home at some point to meet someone they do not know but met online. For many, that is the hook into the human trafficking world.

"We haven't understood what this is about," Elam said. "In arrest records around the nation, only 2 percent of the customers or 'johns' or pimps are every arrested. The ones that are driving and doing this market aren't dealt with, with justice. We have focused our anger or injustice against the victims. Society has cast them out, law enforcement arrests them, the church doesn't want them in our building. That's not right."

Elam said meeting one rescued victim brings to light the need for more intervention by Christians around the world.

"It's not just a social problem, it's not just an injustice problem on the issue of humanity," he said. "It's really a spiritual attack. It's really a spiritual problem, and something the church needs to rally to."

For details about Blitz Week, click here. For information about the Not For Sale Campaign, click here.

For information about O.A.T.H. and how to become involved with the fight against human trafficking in Oklahoma, click here.