Rani Hong’s childhood ended at age seven.
That was the last time she saw her mother and father, the last time she would have any contact with family for the next 21 years.
Raised in a village with no running water in Kerala, India, Hong lived at home until her father’s health deteriorated, along with the family’s financial situation. Out of desperation, her mother sought help from a respected woman who offered to take Hong into her home and feed and educate her.
Both parents regularly visited their young daughter, delighted by the care she seemed to be receiving, until one day they were told she’d been sent to a school in another town for a better education. It was a lie: Hong’s caretaker had sold her to recruiters trafficking in child slave labor.
“I was taken to an area where I did not know the language, where everyone was a stranger,” Hong recalls. “I cried for my mom to come and get me – that’s all a seven-year-old mind can understand.”
Traumatized, she stopped eating and became physically and mentally ill.
“My captors labeled me ‘destitute and dying,’ meaning that I had no value in the forced child labor market.” The only way the traffickers could profit from her, Hong explains, was to put her up for illegal international adoption.
Trafficked into Canada, she was beaten, starved, and caged – “seasoned for submission,” in the parlance of her captors. A photo of her at age eight shows an emaciated little girl with prominent bruises on her arms and legs, whose eyes are swollen nearly shut. “I couldn’t even talk,” she says. “I had completely shut down.”
Stories like Hong’s are common. An estimated 800,000 people are trafficked across national borders every year, 150,000 from South Asia alone, but precise numbers are difficult to determine in this underground market. Many victims are enslaved in sweatshops and brothels or forced to beg on the streets, and few escape.
Hong’s experience took a turn for the better when she was adopted: The single woman who raised her was a wonderful mother, a Rotary club helped send her to college, and the once-frail girl grew into a passionate voice for victims on the world stage.
As a special adviser to the United Nations, Hong advocates for human rights and the rehabilitation of fellow survivors. She also runs the Tronie Foundation, which she and her husband established in 2006 to educate the public about trafficking and to support survivors in 20 countries through mentorship and healing programs.
She’s never forgotten her personal nightmare or the people who hurt her, but Hong is quicker to recall those who helped her, especially her adoptive mother, Nell. Nell found her through a legitimate agency that was unknowingly dealing with traffickers, and brought her home to Olympia, Wash., USA.
“It took me a while to get out of the mental state I was in,” Hong says. “She spent so much time playing games with me, and just being with me.”
Unable to read or write English, the eight-year-old Hong was placed in a kindergarten class for children with special needs. To help her socialize with kids her own age, Nell enrolled her in after-school sports.
“Nobody knew what to do with me at first,” Hong recalls. “But I became good at soccer, and that built my confidence. That’s why we stress sports and arts in our Tronie programs for rescued children.”
Under Nell’s guidance, she caught up at school and her life assumed a normal rhythm. She was making plans to attend college when that stability was disrupted: Nell was diagnosed with terminal cancer. When Nell succumbed to her illness in 1989, the 17-year-old Hong had to call on all of her resources to survive – again.
“It was a difficult time,” she remembers. “I was alone, without any relatives in Olympia to turn to, not able to pay bills with my minimum-wage job and stay in high school, so I decided to drop out. A family from our church stepped in and helped make it possible for me to graduate. I was sure there was no way I could go to college.”
But in 1991, she won a scholarship from the Rotary Club of Olympia to attend South Puget Sound Community College, where she studied business administration.
“I didn’t know much about Rotary at the time, but since then, as I’ve traveled all over to give survivor workshops, Rotary clubs have played a pivotal role.” Hong has since collaborated with clubs on projects including a medical camp in northeastern India and an education and resource fair in Olympia focused on human trafficking. She also spoke at Rotary-UN Day in 2012.
Most striking about Hong, now in her early 40s, is the distance she’s put between her life today and the conditions she endured when she was young. Animated, with an easy smile, kind eyes, and the sort of intensity that commands attention, she naturally inspires others to share her goals – a quality she recognizes in the Rotarians she’s worked with.
That intensity has served her well in her role as special adviser for victims with the UN Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking. This past fall, she presented a three-point plan for the eradication of slavery to the UN General Assembly. She spoke from the heart, but her commitment, she told the assembly, “is not simply to rouse others to connect emotionally with the plight of voiceless victims, but to inspire action and ensure freedom for the estimated 20 to 30 million women and children enslaved around the world.”
In that session, she also promoted the Freedom Seal, a visual tool created by the Tronie Foundation. Similar to a fair-trade or cruelty-free cosmetics seal, the Freedom Seal helps consumers and investors identify companies, products, and services that adhere to a strict set of guidelines designed to ensure humane treatment for all employees.
On a recent visit to the Arabian Peninsula, Hong was reminded of the need for the transparency and assurance the Freedom Seal provides. A young woman in one of her survivor workshops had been working for a hotel chain in Lebanon and was offered a better-paying position in Qatar, the world’s richest country.
But when she arrived, she learned that she was required to relinquish her visa to her employer, the hotel manager, who then had complete control of her movements. The job was nothing like what she’d been promised: She was physically abused, held against her will, and forced to turn over most of her wages.
“In that supply chain,” Hong says, “the manager was colluding with human traffickers, a common situation. And if we’d been staying in that hotel, we’d have had no idea of what was going on with the treatment of the staff. It happens all the time. This Lebanese woman was just one of thousands. There aren’t adequate laws to protect these people, or adequate resources for rehabilitation. If you get out, you don’t forget the torture and the beatings.”
Hong didn’t revisit her own trauma until she returned to India in her late 20s. She had avoided the trip for years, wary of dredging up difficult memories. But during a three-week journey, she found her birth mother through a series of acquaintances and began to understand what had happened to her.
“The night I opened the door of my hotel room and saw her, and listened to her painful story of losing all contact with me, I knew I would become an advocate for anyone victimized by trafficking,” Hong says.
Back home in Olympia, she struggled at first to convince her own community that widespread modern child slavery existed. Her appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2006 and the national attention that followed began to change minds, as did her presentations to many groups, including her former high school’s Rotaract club.Last year, she shared the stage at an event organized by Rotary clubs in Olympia with fellow survivor and activist Elizabeth Smart, who was kidnapped at age 14 from her home in Salt Lake City.
Hong has made measurable progress and powerful allies: Her testimony before the Washington State legislature helped pass the first state-level anti-trafficking law in the country, and she enlisted the Dalai Lama’s aid in her cause at the inaugural Delhi Dialogue conference. And after she addressed the UN General Assembly, the delegates took action, naming July 30, 2014, the first World Day Against Trafficking in Persons. Hong hopes this accomplishment will bring international attention to the plight of victims.
Hong and her husband, Trong, who also bears the scars of a horrific childhood in his native Vietnam, are now the parents of four children.
“My work has inspired me to talk to my own kids, to educate them at a young age about slavery,” she says. She cautions them against getting into cars with strangers, as most parents do, but tries not to be overprotective – a challenge, she admits, given her early life experience.
She’s also instilled in them a compassionate streak: Her fifth-grade son, Andrew, recently participated in a school climbing competition that helped raise nearly $4,500 for the Tronie Foundation.
“His elementary school was among the first in the United States to contribute to our cause,” she says with pride.
“I’ve never met anyone so dedicated to an issue,” says Los Angeles attorney Paul Hirose, who works with the Tronie Foundation, creating criteria for the Freedom Seal and helping to get companies on board. “Most people have no idea how greatly human trafficking affects us through the goods we use every day – food, or even the cotton clothing we wear. I didn’t, until Rani opened my eyes.”
Public awareness is the critical first step in the fight against slavery, and it comes with a price tag. The Hongs have sustained the Tronie Foundation with small donations and have used their own savings to promote their cause. With adequate funding, Rani hopes to provide school supplies for rescued children and shelter for HIV-positive women in Mumbai’s sex trade, and continue to build corporate and government participation.
The cost of these efforts is high, but more significant to Hong is the value of a normal, healthy life for women and children.
“I want to get the corporate world to change how the world views slavery,” she says. “No amount of money is too much to make that happen.”
Hong finds inspiration in the civil rights movement and the words of Fannie Lou Hamer, one of the era’s most instrumental activists. Embracing Hamer’s thought that “nobody’s free until everybody’s free,” Hong bonds with individual survivors.
“They have to trust you,” she says. “And they’ve learned to trust no one. But when I speak with them one on one, they realize, ‘She’s lived it, she knows it, and she survived it.’”
• This article originally appeared in The Rotarian, the official magazine of Rotary International. Rotary connects 1.2 million members of more than 34,000 Rotary clubs to provide humanitarian service and build goodwill throughout the world through addressing issues such as disease prevention, maternal and child health, literacy, peace and conflict resolution, economic development, and clean water. The Rotarian challenges readers to become more involved in service to their neighborhoods and to the global community. It's found on Twitter at @therotarian and @Rotary.