233 – Bella Hounakey: A Fierce Survivor Advocate

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Dr. Sandie Morgan and Bella Hounakey discuss how the trauma that survivors face is often overlooked by law enforcement. They go into detail about the language that is used in court and how it has the opportunity to bring a survivor justice or to fail them. Hounakey also describes how a community has the ability to change the direction of a survivor’s life when they come around them and lift them up.

Bella Hounakey

Bella Hounakey is a fierce advocate of anti-trafficking initiatives to combat and abolish human trafficking. As a survivor herself, she understands the adverse impact of trafficking. This empathy has guided her career and interests to support policies that contribute to supporting victims as they navigate life after victimization. Bella currently serves on two Human Trafficking Council- she’s a member of the U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking and Framework -training and technical assistance project aimed at building capacity to address labor trafficking in the United States.  As part of the Council, Bella worked with the Trump Administration on an Executive Order on Combating Human Trafficking and Online Child Exploitation. Her goals remain steadfast: raise awareness, reduce the risk of victimization, educate members of the judicial system and general public, and advocate for victim protection and treatment. Bella received a Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice and Spanish; and a Master’s degree from Western Michigan University.

Key Points

  • It is important to educate others on the toll trafficking takes on a victim’s mind.
  • It can be very difficult mentally/physically for a survivor to testify in court against. their captor.
  • In court, the words used to present victims have to ability to be very detrimental.
  • When a community comes around a survivor they have the ability to give them an opportunity to live a normal life.


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Dave [00:00:00] You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast, this is episode number 233, Bella Hounakey, a fierce survivor advocate.


Production Credits [00:00:09] Produced by Innervate Learning, Maximizing Human Potential.


Dave [00:00:30] Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. My name is Dave Stachowiak.


Sandie [00:00:35] And my name is Sandie Morgan.


Dave [00:00:38] And this is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking. Today, we are honored to bring a story from a survivor here to the podcast. I’m so glad to welcome Bella Hounakey to the show today. She is a fierce advocate of anti-trafficking initiatives to combat and abolish human trafficking. As a survivor herself, she understands the adverse impact of trafficking. This empathy has guided her career and interests to support policies that continue supporting victims as they navigate through life after victimization. Bella currently serves on two human trafficking councils. She’s a member of the U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking, and Framework, a training and technical assistance project aimed at building capacity to address labor trafficking in the United States. As part of the council, Bella worked with the Trump administration on an executive order on combating human trafficking, and online child exploitation. Her goals remain steadfast. Raise awareness, reduce risk of victimization, educate members of the judicial system and the general public, and advocate for victim protection and treatment. Bella, we are so glad to welcome you to the show.


Bella [00:01:52] Thank you. Thank you for having me here.


Sandie [00:01:54] So, Bella, you are a hero for me. I met you in Washington, DC in January and I’ve just been inspired watching you. I read the U.S. Advisory Council 2020 report and I’m going to put a link to that in the show notes so other people can join me. But the thing that really inspires me is how you describe yourself as a fierce advocate. Can you tell me what that looks like?


Bella [00:02:26] I did five years with Framework, an ability, effort, and personal commitment to take adversity into advocacy for either yourself or others. And for me, it’s doing what I can with what I have and not waiting for like a savior to see victims, instead being a part of that.


Sandie [00:02:48] Wow. I love that. Not waiting for somebody to come and rescue. But being a part of your own resilience, that’s great. I want to be fierce like you.


Bella [00:02:59] I think you can. It’s possible. Yes.


Sandie [00:03:02] All right. So, let’s dig into some of these things you’ve been working on. And you, after going from victim to survivor, you went to college and you speak Spanish. That is amazing. I really love that. Even got a master’s degree. I think sometimes people don’t realize what resilience looks like and the potential for someone to really attain their dreams. That often may have been how they were lured into being trafficked. So, let’s keep digging into training agendas. What would you make, like your top three things that you want judicial system leaders to know? You got ten minutes. They’re busy. What are you going to tell them?


Bella [00:03:52] That’s a really good question. You know, I think the first thing, like you mentioned, me going to college I’m actually a trained therapist. And so, the first thing I would say, based on my personal and professional views, is this idea of trauma in the brain. What victims go through beyond trafficking. After this idea of being rescued or being found, there’s another reality that is the first door that is closed. Right now, you assume that we’re going to be in this New Haven, but that’s not the reality. So, I would like to train them on the trauma in the brain so that they understand what victims go through when they have to comply with the investigation process of sentencing the perpetrator or the trafficker. So that would be my first thing is for a victim. This is what it looks like to testify in court. This is what my body feels like. And I’ll come back to this in a second. That’s the first thing. The second thing will be to train them on understanding the importance of words, in seeing victims as criminals versus people who have faced adversities and kind of just point out a disconnect on what the policies and laws are in regard to victims and also how they are implemented. So, what I mentioned earlier in terms of trauma in the brain. I remember being 14, going to court at this point. I was in Michigan going to court and I had to testify, because in labor trafficking, unlike sex trafficking, the standard is much higher. Right. The prosecutor will have to prove either force, coercion, or fraud was involved. But it doesn’t need to be like that in the case of sex trafficking. And I remember having to be a part of that judicial system in terms of complying with the investigation. And I remember the defense attorney wanted to present the case as me. I was purchased from my parents in Togo for domestic servitude, this was normal in my culture, that I was not a trafficking victim. And I had to attest to my trauma. At this point, imagine a 14-year old just had got out of that house where I was being held captive, along with 20 other girls. And there’s only two of us who were willing who were mentally able to comply with the investigation. And Sandie, when I was telling a story of what happened to me supporting that, no, I was not purchased. No domestic servitude is different than labor trafficking. I remember my brain…, I was cold. Right. The room wasn’t cold, but I was cold. Says that my trafficker was in front of me when I was testifying.


Sandie [00:06:54] And you were 14 years old?


Bella [00:06:56] At this point, I was 14. Mind you, I was trafficked when I was 10. I was discovered later. And then at this time, we were bound. And now we have to comply with the investigation. It was a federal case. And when I say that training on the trauma in the brain, I mean, I felt aches in my body. I felt, I just feel like I was in that house all over again. The smell. Suddenly I just my nerves were so high. It was a physical response to something that didn’t even exist. Right. That PTSD was so intense that during recess I went to the bathroom and I started throwing up. And I was up there, I want to say for ten minutes and I couldn’t continue. That’s how severe PTSD is. And that’s something I wish that members of the judicial system and leaders will understand what goes through a victim’s brain and body when they have to stand there and face their traffickers. And specifically, in regard to labor trafficking.


Sandie [00:08:03] In your bio, you say this empathy has guided your career and you just pulled me into your experience and you’re very brave. And I just want to thank you. And I’m very sure that hearing your story will impact people in how they understand trauma-informed care. Trauma-informed care now is part of our vocabulary, in almost all social issues and we sort of abbreviated TIC, tic. And it becomes kind of taken for granted. But we have to go back and feel that pain. OK, one more thing. You’re going to teach the judicial system.


Bella [00:08:50] I use an example of the importance of words and criminalization. So, what I mean by that is Sandie if I place a person in front of you as a prosecutor and they say, your honor, this person happens to be a trafficking victim. And I said, Your Honor, this is a prostitute; this is what she has done; this is the type of thing that she’s done. Our human nature is going to cause us to see that victim as a criminal versus someone who has been victimized, somebody who has been hurt. But if we, if I were to be in front of you as a prosecutor and I say, Your Honor, this person is a victim of trafficking, instantly we’re going to be thinking about support services, organizations that could help this person. So, I wanted to kind of make sure that my training will also encompass the importance of words in the ways that we present victims to systems. Because that affects the reality of if they are going to be placed in a rehabilitation center, if they are going to receive support services, or if they are going to be stigmatized and continue to be exploited further. So that’s something that I have seen in other cases where certain words were used to describe survivors’ experience, and the outcome was always negative. And that just causes another path of exploitation.


Sandie [00:10:35] That’s so good. Such good wise advice for all of us. So, you mentioned how much harder it is to address labor trafficking in the courts. So why is a labor trafficking so hard to fight?


Bella [00:10:52] I don’t know if it’s a matter of labor trafficking being hard to fight or if it’s a matter of what we as the public have prioritized. I will say that labor trafficking is not a crime that people go out and look for, you know, like a speeding ticket. A police officer might be on foot patrolling the streets to see who breaking crimes is. Labor trafficking is not something that is being searched for by law enforcement. So, I usually say this thing right. This is me in terms of my trafficking advocacy, is that human trafficking has complexity for creating invisibility and labor trafficking further proves this, right? How often, Sandie, have you seen law enforcement patrolling workplaces?


Sandie [00:11:42] It’s totally not what they’re doing. I mean, they’re not going into a restaurant to find out if somebody is washing dishes as a labor trafficking victim, I think it’s easier to see sex trafficking and the issues around labor trafficking are just much more invisible. I like your analogy of a speeding car. It’s easily up. You see it, you chase it. So how can we begin to change that?


Bella [00:12:12] So that’s what I meant. As in labor trafficking is not something that they’re actively investigating. And another thing is that, when you see a story in the media about trafficking victims, there’s more emotions that are guided towards survivors of sex trafficking. It’s rare to see in the media that whenever you see a trafficking story, the labor aspect of it is not highlighted. Right? Another example I like to give, is that let’s say that there’s a nine-year-old girl who was given to an aunt and the aunt has put her on the Internet, given her drugs so she can perform, and she’s being starved, burnt, and then she was forced to have sex with men for money. If that story goes out in the media, the public is going to instantly feel really, really bad for that person, that nine-year-old girl. This is a nine-year-old girl. How could somebody do this to her? Now, that’s the story of if there’s what is sex trafficking, right? Labor trafficking, for instance, if we say the same nine-year-old girl was taken in by her aunt and was promised an education is that she was forced to work 18-hour days with no food, no money, was forced to turn over all her earnings. She’s threatened, beat, starved. That is a story of labor trafficking. Now, there is a difference between the two. Both are horrors. But then somehow we have trained ourselves to think that there is more empathy to be given to the nine-year-old who was sold on the Internet and force to get into the life of sex trafficking, and there’s not much emphasis placed on the same horror for when a person, a girl or a boy is found as a labor trafficking victim. So, I think we need to re-prioritize our attention to see both crimes as a crime that needs to stop. And I think the more we prioritize see both as a crime, that will guide narratives.


Sandie [00:14:15] All right. So, one of the things that you wanted to talk about today was your work in the Survivor advocacy role and what post Survivor life is like. Do you want to talk about how you see the best way forward for a survivor once you’re out of the situation where you’re being trafficked and now you are a survivor? What are the things that are really important for you to gain that resiliency? And how do you address the adverse impact issues that we talked about before?


Bella [00:14:57] For me, as somebody who is from another country, being trafficked to America, for me the biggest thing was basically it starts with victim services, but also there’s a sense of community. In my instance, there was like I mentioned earlier, one door closed and another one opened. I was a victim. I was found and I had to go through that process of self-efficacy. But then I had to solidify my legal immigration status. I had to comply with the investigation and to sentence my traffickers. And that’s the only way that allowed me to achieve my personal goals. I like to also incorporate, like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and tie that with survivors’ experience when you become a survivor. If your immediate needs are not met, you have two choices. Only two choices, Sandie. You either return to the life that you know or face the journey of the unknown. That’s the only two choices. So, what I mean by that is, as a survivor, if my immigration status is not set. Where am I going to go to work where they don’t exploit me again?


Sandie [00:16:22] Right.


Bella [00:16:23] As a survivor, if I don’t receive mental health services, how can I distinguish between the good memories that I had with my trafficker? And also understand that those good memories also took place in a horror environment. That takes training and practice from a clinician where your brain to know to separate bad memories versus good memories versus bad person. Otherwise, you say, you know what? Here I am. The court case is over. Now what? I can either a, go back to work somewhere where I don’t have paperwork, I don’t understand English; I don’t know anything. I also have this trauma that is left unaddressed. So, I’m trying to interpret it to the biggest capacity of the highest capacity as I can. But I still don’t understand it. So, for me, I will say that not to speak for all victims, but there is a trend here that, survivors are often, somebody like me could be seen as a token. Yes, I was a victim and I went to achieve great things. But then there are steps for that. I had a community, you know, I enter foster care as a child, as a young adult. And there was a community that helped guide me. There were these support groups. But what about survivors who don’t have that? Sandie, I mentioned to you there were twenty-two of us. It was one boy in 21 girls out of that. They were only five of us who I say are productive members of society now. And the only difference that I can see, this is not from a case study, this is a real-life story. They all have names. There are actual people, right? Out of 22 of us, there’s only five, five of us who are not back into the life. Five of us who are driving right, five of us who can say that we’re fierce. And, you know, I like to think that it’s my own goals; my own motivation and dedication to not be defined by my trafficking experience, but that will be minimizing their strength. So, I would like to say there is a sense of community. I had a GAL, guardian ad litem who made sure to hold the foster care system accountable. I had an immigration attorney who was taking care of my immigration status and making sure that I wasn’t deported or returned or faced another immigration barrier. I had a mental health person who I saw every two or three days out of the week, I had ESL. So, I had a community of support. I had different stakeholders were working together to make sure, now Sandie, that was not just me. That’s five of us that had that. Now, the rest of them did not have that. So, they were left alone. They were further, I want to say they were abandoned. Right. They were failed twice, once by their family members, then by society. And every single day when I talked to one of them, I wonder what can I do? How can I help? Because I know that if that happens to those girls I grew up with, it’s likely to happen to hundreds of survivors that are within our communities, within our country. So how can I support that? Based on my experience and Sandie when I tell you these girls, I called them sister. They are my sisters because from age nine until we were all found, you function as sisters. We share the same background. We are kind of tied by this trauma. But they and some of us are moving past this and some of them are just stagnant in that. So, I will say that as much as I like to say, hey, I have a master’s degree today, I speak five languages. When I went from not being able to speak any language because we were beaten and starved if we spoke English if we read anything English related from that to speaking additional languages to receiving a bachelor’s degree, to receiving a master’s degree to sitting on councils. That is not something that had been of my own will. I think it’s a combination of things to having a community, God. I’m a big person of faith. I think that’s a combination of God. You know, that’s a combination of my own resiliency and that’s it. Right. But it doesn’t mean that if another survivor has God and on their own, they can get to their place where they see it on successful today, it really has to take a community. And that’s what I’m striving to be a part of. By being on this council is how can I be in a community where if I’m not supporting directly in the front lines, I’m still a part of the narrative that makes sure that survivors are supported so that more of us can share stories and say, hey, today I am this and this and this and not be defined by, I am a victim. This is where my story stops. And this happened to me. And then at fifteen, my stories stop there and there is no opportunity. I just stopped and I continued this life when there’s another opportunity. Right. So, this is what I say. Sandie, it takes a community.


Sandie [00:21:57] Wow. And I did the math while you were talking. Five out of twenty-two girls means 17 sisters who did not have the same kind of community. And now they don’t have the same kind of resilience and opportunity for success that you’ve taken. Wow. That’s really hard because I was celebrating your success and I was happy to hear some of the stories of the success of the other girls rescued. But now I’m looking at the other side of that and well, we’ve got a lot of work to do. I think your work on the U.S. Advisory Council is really important. And do you feel like you’re accomplishing your goals? Do you have suggestions for how we can move forward?


Bella [00:23:03] Moving forward, Let’s just say that I would like more collaboration between stakeholders, members of the criminal justice system, community in nonprofit organizations who are committed to this work. Oh, let’s see, more collaboration and also, let’s see survivor experience, survivors included in that, not excluded in that. And I think we’re moving forward to that. Right. The advisory council, we are basically like a survivor’s voice on a national level. So, I would like to see this interdisciplinary collaboration with the members, the different stakeholders that I talk about, including survivors being one of the stakeholders. So, I feel that to an extent we are accomplishing that. And I am very happy, and I feel very fortunate to be there with other survivors who, we all have very diverse backgrounds, but we are we share one thing in common is that we like one life. It’s far too many. And we don’t want to sit aside while we wait. We want to be a part of the fight. So, I’m happy that this collaboration is happening. And I’m further happy that my goal of being a part of a Survivor leadership group who are joining different stakeholders to stop trafficking from happening. And my goal is to continue to support efforts to make sure that this continues to happen.


Sandie [00:24:33] Last question before we sign off. What does justice look like for a survivor?


Bella [00:24:42] Yes. I see justice as the ability to have a sense of autonomy, justice would be empowerment, and justice would be accomplishing goals that a survivor has for herself. Whether it’s to bring their family in America, have the access to education or access to employment or the ability to accomplish other self-defined milestones. Right. That’s what justice for a survivor looks like. And I want to point something out of Sandie. Justice for a survivor is defending what justice for traffickers looks like. So, this will be justice for a survivor. This is a sole survivor. Justice is just the ability to achieve goals and have access to be in a leadership position, just being able to be independent without having to only have two choices. Go back to the life or move forward. I think that’s when healing happens when justice is defined that way.


Sandie [00:25:48] That is excellent. And I love that you clarified the difference between criminal justice and justice that makes things right for the survivor. Thank you so much, Bella, for being on the Ending Human Trafficking podcast today. We have enjoyed this conversation.


Bella [00:26:09] Thank you for having me.


Dave [00:26:11] Indeed. Bella, thank you so much for everything you’re doing. Not only the resilience and the courage you’ve had and now having taken so much of that and to serve others. What an incredible story. Thank you for sharing it with us. We hope that you will dive into some of the resources mentioned here today. I would invite you to go over to endinghumantrafficking.org. When you do, you’ll find all the details from today’s episode notes of the organizations we’ve listed and all those links, of course. In addition, would also be an opportunity for you to download a copy of Sandie’s book, The Five Things You Must Know: A Quick Start Guide to ending human trafficking. It’s absolutely free. It’ll teach you the five critical things that Sandie has identified in her work that you should know before you join the fight against human trafficking. We mentioned some of those principles today and dove in more detail. I’ll get access by going over to endinghumantrafficking.org. And while you’re online, we’re also inviting you to discover more about the next Ensure Justice conference coming up in March 2021. That’s going to be March 5th and 6th. You can learn more by going over to ensurejustice.com for details. If today’s conversation has raised a question for you. Take a moment to reach out to us via email feedback at endinghumantrafficking.org. And we’ll see you in two weeks. Thanks, Sandie. Take care.

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