Making a Difference: Stopping the Traffic

Nonprofit helps hidden victims of human trafficking and torture.


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Illustration: Jing Jing Tsong

You may have seen them in Chinatown or working the streets at night in Waikiki. Many fear for their lives, appear bruised and battered or are confined in their place of work. They are the victims of human trafficking.

“It’s a hidden social problem and it happens pretty much in every state in America—Hawaii is no exception,” says Pooja Sood-Payeur, the co-executive director of Pacific Survivor Center (PSC), a nonprofit providing services to victims of torture and human trafficking for forced labor or sex.

PSC—started in early 2007 by Dr. Nicole Littenberg and Dr. Chad Koyanagi—offers free medical, psychological and legal assistance to human trafficking victims. The nonprofit runs on grants and donations and is also part of the Hawaii Coalition Against Human Trafficking, which consists of approximately 25 organizations that provide housing assistance, food and protection for its clients.

Men are primarily trafficked to Hawaii for agricultural labor, women for prostitution or domestic servitude. “They live in fear,” says Littenberg. “Many are threatened by someone they trusted who betrayed them.” So far there have been no child traffic cases.

“We get a lot of victims from the Asia-Pacific region,” says Sood-Payeur, adding that PSC helps victims statewide. “Our goal is to work with victims once they’re identified. We provide them with any initial forensic treatments or medical exams they might need, and then we work with them throughout their lives as they slowly start to heal and recover.”

Sood-Payeur and Littenberg both have backgrounds in public health. As Littenberg went through medical school she interned for human rights programs. Upon returning home to Hawaii, she found there were no medical programs for the local population of trafficked victims. Since co-founding PSC, she and her colleagues have helped 150 patients.

“Many of our clients come to us after they’ve escaped and either contact a lawyer who refers them to us, the national human trafficking hotline or HPD,” she says. Littenberg adds that there are currently thousands of sex and labor victims in the state; hundreds more are trafficked in each year. “We have about three to five patients per month, but it depends on the situation; we’ve had 50 clients at one time.”

“We have three primary staff members at PSC, but also work with 10 other healthcare providers in our network, some that do alternative medicine such as acupuncture,” she says, adding that each healthcare provider donates her or his time and services to PSC clients and works with patients’ cultural backgrounds and medical needs. Physicians then stay in contact with the victim as long as is required, usually years. Littenberg hopes to work with Neighbor Island healthcare professionals in the future.  

PSC also helps torture victims who have escaped to Hawaii and are seeking asylum from their home country because of persecution, abuse or fear of death from the government or a militia group. Physicians work with lawyers from federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement Department (ICE) to provide forensic exams in court.

Pacific Survivor Center relies on the community for help. It conducts two to three community trainings per month, held at healthcare clinics, church groups, shelters as well as the University of Hawaii School of Public Health. It teaches community members what to look for to identify a trafficking victim, such as lack of ID, fear of talking to you (or someone else speaking for them) and signs of physical abuse.

PSC does have success stories. Littenberg describes a woman who recently obtained asylum after being repeatedly beaten and raped in her home country because of her political views. The nonprofit is now helping her apply to nursing school. 

“These patients have experienced the absolute worst in humanity, and yet are incredibly resilient,” says Littenberg. “Once they’ve recovered, a surprising number of them look for jobs that involve helping people; after the horror they’ve faced, they still want to help others.”

To volunteer with the Pacific Survivor Center or make a donation, visit www.pschawaii.org.        

Next Page: How to recognize a victim of human trafficking
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