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Closing a Highway to Hell: A Heroic Roadblock to End Human Trafficking

Globally, nearly 30 million human beings are modern-day slaves, exploited for manual and sexual labor. The reality that people can be bought and sold — sometimes for a mere $10 — is an unfathomable evil. The A21 Campaign aims to raise awareness about and rescue victims from this $150 billion a year industry. 

Bradley Hilltopics conducted a Skype interview with Annie Dollarhide Kardas ’99 while she was on tour with the Hillsong United band. According to Kardas, the influence of the Australian band’s tours has been “simply amazing in terms of raising awareness of the horrors of human trafficking.”

Annie Dollarhide Kardas ’99 fights human trafficking on a worldwide battlefield. As director of global communications for The A21 Campaign, she helped establish the campaign, an international nonprofit organization committed to abolishing human trafficking in the 21st century.

Kardas, a public relations major with a minor in marketing, noted she has called upon everything she was involved in at Bradley — academics, sorority life and even cheerleading — to do her job. “Bradley prepared me well for the leadership roles I have held, especially now that I am the voice of The A21 Campaign,” Kardas explained. “I create videos, brochures and reports and have been interviewed on ABC World News Tonight. At Bradley, I took a class on writing proposals, and after I graduated, I used the same format — and everything else I learned in that class — to write proposals and help start the organization. Much of what I learned became the foundation for The A21 Campaign. The Bradley Experience works. 

Admitting with a laugh that she has not lived a normal life since graduation, the Chi Omega member initially worked for an anti-violence school assembly program that took her around the United States for four years. She left for Sydney, Australia, in 2003 to attend a Hillsong Church conference with the encouragement of Christine and Nick Caine (soon-to-be co-founders of The A21 Campaign), whom she met while working for the anti-violence organization. In 2004, she moved to Sydney, and after learning about the toll of human trafficking, she helped the Caines create The A21 Campaign. Seven years later, Kardas moved to California to open an A21 office in Costa Mesa. The next year, she moved to Greece, and in 2014, she married an “incredible Greek man” who also works for A21. Together, they are based in the organization’s office in Thessaloniki.

Today, with a global staff of 65 and a large volunteer support group in 10 offices in nine countries, A21 has conducted research that estimates about 90 percent of illegal immigration from eastern Europe into western Europe comes through Greece. Illegal immigration and human trafficking are closely tied. Once victims are moved across borders, money from western Europe is quickly available.

In this photo from A21’s Instagram page, Kardas speaks to ABC regarding a trafficking case in Greece involving a young girl from Bulgaria.

 

How Victims Disappear

Poverty plays a major part in making victims vulnerable, Kardas explained. In post-Communist countries and countries with higher levels of poverty, it’s part of the culture for parents to send children off for summer employment to earn up to five times more than they could at home. Traffickers realize it’s easy to recruit victims by offering nanny positions or waitressing and modeling jobs. Parents give their blessing, and children leave with their paperwork, but once the victims are in a foreign country and outside of their comfort zone, “it’s quite easy to make them disappear,” Kardas added. “The average age of sex-trafficked victims in Greece is 18 or 19, but in Asian countries, it may be as low as 4.”

In countries such as Bulgaria and Ukraine, A21 is educating students at risk of being trafficked on potential dangers and typical fake job offers. “But, there is no handbook on how to do what we’re doing,” Kardas acknowledged. 

Fear As Bondage

Kardas has learned a powerful lesson on human trafficking: She thought A21 would have to find illegal brothels and break down their doors to rescue appreciative girls, but A21 fights a tougher enemy. “It’s not drugs, chains or locks that keep the girls prisoners: It’s fear,” she emphasized. “Perpetrators know one of the most effective ways to hold victims is to tell them that they can escape but their families will suffer unimaginable atrocities if they do.”

One such teen, trafficked from Nigeria for the legal prostitution industry in Greece, was too gripped by fear to consider escaping. Since prostitutes must have a permit book stamped monthly at a medical clinic, an A21 staff member was planted there. She slowly built a relationship with the teen, who confided she was being held in a brothel with eight other girls (a legal Greek brothel is allowed one prostitute and one madam). She said her captors had put a “voodoo curse” on her — a typical threat in her culture. She believed that if she tried to escape, she would go mad and die, as would members of her family. 

Although paralyzed by fear, she eventually was rescued when police raided the brothel. Once given shelter and counseling to address her deep-seated fear of the “curse,” she has done phenomenally well. She is now in her second year of nursing school and thriving.

Online

Visit A21.org to learn more about the organization’s fight to end human trafficking.

“Unfortunately, the girls can be afraid of rescue — and too terrified to testify,” Kardas added. “Ninety-nine percent never escape. Our survivor from Nigeria is amazing, and her fight and tenacity are incredible. I watched her from rescue to restoration. Many girls we rescue have no thoughts of the future because they have been devalued for so long; however, she is not going to let what happened affect her now.” 

21 Ways to Help 

A firm believer in educating about the dangers of human trafficking, Kardas admitted learning about the victims and their horrific suffering can be overwhelming. She advised consulting A21’s list of “21 Ways to Help” at A21.org. The easiest way to support the A21 cause? Write an uplifting, future-focused letter to a rescued victim in an A21 clinic. “One of our girls will hold that letter in her hand, and it is going to make a difference,” Kardas explained. “It’s encouraging for her to know that people around the world want her to be safe. I am not afraid to take responsibility to prevent, protect and prosecute. Education and awareness will help eradicate this global epidemic.”

— By Karen Crowley Metzinger, MA ’97
— Photography courtesy The A21 Campaign