289 – Survivor Led Advocacy, with Keeya Vawar

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Dr. Sandie Morgan is joined by survivor, author, and advocate, Keeya Vawar. Together they discuss partnership between allies and survivors, survivors redesigning their life, and much more!

Keeya Vawar

Keeya Vawar advocates for victims of sex trafficking globally. She is a lived experience survivor expert, mentor, speaker and author of “One Thousand Elsewhere: A True Survivor Story.” A powerful voice of hope in a growing ecosystem of despair, her motivation and passion for youth and women of all ages is inextricably linked to her own story of hardship and survival against insurmountable odds.

info@keeyavawar.com  |  Instagram: @keeyasays  |  Facebook Page: Keep Encouraging Everyone Young At Heart

Key Points

  • Healing is a lifelong journey that requires lifelong assistance.
  • Inadequate services and unrealistic expectations can lead victims back into the life.
  • Survivor mentors and non-survivor mentors both play a significant role in the healing process as allies to survivors.
  • Redesigning your life


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Dave [00:00:00] You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. This is episode number 289 Survivor Led Advocacy, with Keeya Vawar.

Production Credits [00:00:09] Produced by Innovate Learning, maximizing human potential.

Dave [00:00:29] Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. My name is Dave Stachowiak.

Sandie [00:00:34] And my name is Sandie Morgan.

Dave [00:00:37] And this is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking. Sandie, of course, one of the most important voices we always have as part of these conversations is the voice and the experience of survivors. I’m so glad to welcome today Keeya Vawar. She is an advocate for victims of sex trafficking globally. She has the lived experience as a survivor expert, mentor, and speaker and author of One Thousand Elsewhere: A True Survivor Story. Keeya, we’re so glad to have you with us today.

Keeya [00:01:13] It’s my honor to be here.

Sandie [00:01:14] I’m really excited to meet you because Antipas Harris, Dr. Antipas Harris is the one who introduced us. So big shout out. And he was on Episode 275 Reflections on Human Trafficking from a Community Leader. And he told me that you are a powerful advocacy leader, your voice, your story, and you’re just a beacon of light. So let’s dig in and tell me a little bit, first of all, about your lifetime goals.

Keeya [00:01:56] I’ve ten goals. You know, pretty simple. I want to make impact in the space against human trafficking. Simply put, I use my story to do that right now. But really, to continue on this journey of training and directly being involved in the lives of survivors. And so that’s it’s simply put, I could do this for the rest of my life.

Sandie [00:02:24] And you told your story in a book called One Thousand Elsewhere: A True Survivor Story. How did you choose the title One Thousand Elsewhere?

Keeya [00:02:39] Well, I chose the title based on my faith. And there was a scripture in Psalm 84:10 that said, “Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere.” I’d rather be a doorkeeper in the House of the Lord then dwell in the tents of the wicked. And I think about the years that I discussed in my book as being the journey to elsewhere. It was everything else in between doing right things. It was my story of struggle. It was my story of victimization. But also my story of escape.

Sandie [00:03:15] Well, let’s start right there with your story of escape and what you see as the first steps when a survivor literally escapes that being elsewhere.

Keeya [00:03:29] Right. And, you know, it’s complicated. For me, I can say that I didn’t go or experience a rescue that was formal. I simply reached out to my brother, who I finally, after years of hiding the truth of what I was doing as a teenage runaway. I reached out to him from a psych ward and I told him that I needed a place to stay. And I shared with him what I had been through. And he drove from Dallas, Texas to Elizabeth, New Jersey to get me off the 13th floor of the Elizabeth Emergency Care Unit. And I started my life over again at his house. And so back then, in 1997, there was no program to rescue someone out of human trafficking. They didn’t even call it that then. There was no terminology other than juvenile delinquent and prostitute. And so it’s only in recent years that we’ve developed language around sex trafficking. And so to give that definition for your listeners who are not aware. Of course, sex trafficking is the act or practice of illegally transporting people from one country or area to another for the purpose of sexual exploitation. But this could also happen on the Internet, of course. In my case, that was not what happened. I was a runaway and it happened physically.

Sandie [00:05:02] And you didn’t even have to leave the country to be exploited.

Keeya [00:05:06] No, I didn’t. I didn’t. But I did cross state lines. I left from Dallas, Texas to Atlanta, Georgia. And that’s when my journey of being trafficked began.

Sandie [00:05:20] So let’s focus on what your process was once your brother picked you up. It wasn’t like, okay, now I’m fine. But you described a life time process. Can you give us a little more information?

Keeya [00:05:40] Absolutely. It actually started off because my exit from sex trafficking happened by accident. I wasn’t trying to escape. I had become comfortable over a six year period of that lifestyle, money that it brought, et cetera, et cetera. And I had a nervous breakdown. And that nervous breakdown caused me to pause everything just to find out who I was. And so through that and having a new moniker of bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress along with ADHD, I began a journey that was on and off again with mental health providers, and it was a rocky road. I felt as though initially something was wrong with me, and so I really did not like taking my medication and going and talking to a counselor about every bad thing that happened to me. I felt that it meant if I accepted that, that something really was wrong with me. And so over the years, and it took over ten years for me to come to grips with the fact that I did, as a result of those battle scars, have a mental illness that I needed to deal with. And when I took that seriously and I educated myself and I realized that, oh, I’m not the only person who has these type of issues. That’s when my healing journey truly began. The time in between, I was just trying to go under the radar unnoticed. I didn’t want anyone to know what I had experienced. I was young enough to where I could hide it, quote unquote. So I thought. And so I just tried to assimilate back into regular, normal society and keep that part of my life a closed door and a topic that was not to be brought up. But, yes, once I came to grips with the fact that the mental health professionals were there to help me and actually provide solutions–like I said, it took me about ten years to come to that agreement–then the little changes began to happen.

Sandie [00:08:01] So we here use the terminology of survivor informed practitioners, professionals, volunteers. And your insight on this process is especially helpful for newcomers who are often expecting a 90 day turnaround. How would you advise volunteers who want to get involved in working 1-to-1 to serve newly identified victims who are on their journey to survivor?

Keeya [00:08:43] Well, Dr. Sandie, that’s a wonderful question. I would, first of all, encourage them to set realistic expectations. It is going to take more than 90 days to have that turnaround. I’m grateful for the optimism of people who believe that that’s all that it takes. But that’s not all that it takes. It’s a lifelong journey. Survivors, victims of sex trafficking need a lifelong line of assistance. Or community, excuse me, of assistance. And it many times takes years for them to actually get their footing and understand what it takes to live in this outback lifestyle. And unfortunately, there is a high number of people coming out of that lifestyle who return because they don’t maybe have adequate mental health care or maybe they don’t have a program or maybe they have a program, but unrealistic expectations on what it really takes to unlearn the behaviors of being abused. And so what does that mean? Let me break it down. There are people coming out who have children, got mothers, even fathers, because this doesn’t just happen to women. This also happens to men. Okay. And that’s very important. Even though the vast majority of cases that we know of involve women, there are still many men who are affected and many boys who are affected. And so there are so many different things. I’ll just give you an example. My life. So for me, it took I was 25 years of age before I got my GED. And the reason why I waited so long, even though that I knew that it was important and education was important, is I did not feel smart. I felt if I was smart, I would not be in the situations that I was in that would cause me to lose so much self-esteem and human dignity. And so therefore, to even try to get me to understand that I was smart enough and that all I needed was training to be able to get that GED, it took quite some time of convincing. And I had a mother and I had a brother who loved me and who tried to gently convince me that I was, first of all, smart enough. So there are so many layers that are built into the life of someone who is trying to survive, not turn back. So there’s the basic needs. I didn’t have a work history. I needed a job. And so I did not have basic skills that were necessary above a cashier. And so the first job that I got was at Wendy’s. But when you are 23 years of age and most of your peers are in college, it is a struggle. And so I needed a lot of encouragement. And so survivors who were once victims, they need a lot of encouragement. They need structured assistance in how to build routines. And, you know, they come from different walks of life. Everyone does not come from being a run away like I did. There are very educated women who I met along my path who are in college, who obtained degrees, yet still had pimps because that’s how they paid their way through college. All right. So there are so many different scenarios. But to support a survivor who was once a victim, it’s going to take longer than 90 days.

Sandie [00:12:28] Absolutely.

Keeya [00:12:28] And it’s also going to take understanding that there may be mental illness to deal with, self-esteem issues and things of that nature. And it takes time. I believe I heard a neuroscientist, I believe her name is Dr. Caroline Leaf said it takes 21 days to break a habit and three cycles of that for one habit. So that’s about 63 days for one habit. So not to mention trauma, which is much more involved.

Sandie [00:12:57] So you’re you’re giving some really wise advice that anyone who works with survivors of exploitation, violence. Your description of not feeling smart and how when people tried to encourage you, you reframed that in the context of feeling more responsible for what you experienced. And it kind of reminds me of working with a domestic violence survivor who once told me when people say how awful my abuser was, they think they’re making me feel better. But instead they’re making me feel not very smart for getting involved. And this idea of well intentioned volunteers, social workers, law enforcement teachers and family members listening to the survivor and understanding and following their lead on where they are and how they’re responding to their situation at the moment. And when we do that, we become and I loved the way you framed this when we had another conversation. They really become allies. And I think we could talk a little bit about how important allies are to the survivor experience.

Keeya [00:14:42] That’s huge. That’s huge. And you know, just another point before that, with domestic violence, it is well known that it takes approximately 11 attempts to escape in order for that escape to be final. And that’s just another thought for the volunteer to understand that this is more complex.

Sandie [00:15:05] And we can stay there for a minute, Keeya, because that is one of the biggest discouragements that especially law enforcement and direct victim service providers. We were doing so well and she left. But understanding that parallel. We learned this before and she’s going to be back. We’re going to get her back.

Keeya [00:15:29] It’s unfortunate truth, but yeah, it can be very disappointing to see that process. But I would say stay the course, stay. Help those who you can, because there are those who do get away or turn back. And I’m a living witness of that. But it is harrowing.

Sandie [00:15:50] So then lived experience survivor led survivor voices encompasses a really broad set of practices and different expressions of what that looks like. And you explain to me how important having allies in your survivor journey has been. And what role do those allies play?

Keeya [00:16:23] So the necessity of allies and survivors is that you have survivors who are reaching out to victims to help them make that leap to survivor hood. And to help them to abandon their pasts and start their new path. Healing and normalcy, if at all possible. However, they have gone through things that require a lot of sensitivity, a lot of therapy, and new learned behaviors have to be established, et cetera, et cetera. So it’s quite a task and each situation is not going to be the same. There’s a lot of complexities. And so you need to have the teamwork of survivors and allies because the survivor can identify one, I would say an emotional level and a lived experience level. But then you have the ally who brings another set of skills. You would need to be able to have someone to come in who does not have the emotional attachment to be able to guide through the process. I can say just for me, I can only speak for myself as a survivor in the space helping other victims cross that threshold, working directly with that population. It’s very important to them to know that I do have a clue about what they might have experienced. I have a point of reference to understand what the level of hopelessness they have experienced in their lives and the level of pain and anger and all of these different mixed emotions. I have an understanding of that. And so there is a need for the skill of lived experience, but there’s also a need for the ally who comes in, who may not necessarily have those experiences, they may have just observed or just have a desire to help in this space. What’s necessary to have someone to have a viewpoint that’s not colored with the trauma because they’re able to give something different to the solution space. And so that’s as sensitive as I can explain it, but they both play a role and really need to work together. And it shouldn’t be like, I’m sorry, I might date myself. Move over bacon here. Something leaner.

Sandie [00:18:42] Oh, my gosh. I haven’t heard that in years.

Keeya [00:18:44] I’m dating myself. But, you know, it shouldn’t be that. It should be. Okay, we need everything on the plate.

Sandie [00:18:50] Oh, that’s so good. And and a phrase I’ve heard you use is redesigning life. So when you describe this partnership between allies and survivors, it makes me think of the design and building process. Lots of times people use terms like rehabilitation, which I do not like, but this idea of redesigning. You need construction workers, you need an architect, and there is a time element in a redesign that is not going to happen as we started in our conversation at the beginning in a 90 day program. So what do you see for your life moving forward and your goals?

Keeya [00:19:42] Absolutely. Well, in my redesign, it really has to do with my interpretation of healing. It has to do with my interpretation of helping. And so there are a lot of, I would say, radical acceptances along the way that I had to realize that I still have triggers. I work with the population that I consider my tribe, people who I’m only years ahead of them in the process. But we’ve been in the same trenches, with different experiences. And so redesign for me looks like, okay, therapy is going to be a part of my life just as much as my nail tech is. So let’s just get that settled. But it also looks like developing partnerships with other organizations and allies and survivors and communities who would like to see the same goal. They would like to see the ending of human trafficking and sex trafficking. And so it really takes partnership at this point. And so my redesign looks like a lot of partnership. Standing shoulder to shoulder, linked elbow to elbow, and across the globe. Looking for, searching for, researching, advocating for solutions.

Sandie [00:21:08] You are a part of that solution. And I want to be too. What are you doing right now in your own community?

Keeya [00:21:19] Yes. I’m glad that you asked. In my own community, I’m proud to work for an organization. Bochys.org. And they have so many things that they’re doing, but they have a safe house. And I get to work with my tribe. I get to work with victims and survivors and I get to lock arms with allies who have the same mindset. But in addition to that, because I do a lot more, I do facilitate workshops with organizations. At this point, it just became global when I got my invitation to go to Kenya. And in addition to that, I work with organizations formulating workshops, helping to sensitize allies to the plight of the survivor, and also doing trainings in schools and in various places. Anywhere that I have a platform at this point to point us towards solutions. We can bellyache over the problems. It’s overwhelming, but that’s not going to solve anything. And so, yes, it looks like that right now. And even this invitation to be here with your listeners, every opportunity I get, I want to be able to unify and advocate for and speak for the cause.

Sandie [00:22:42] Well, this conversation has been really helpful in sensitizing allies to the point of view of survivors. So you’re definitely accomplishing your goal. I’m also really interested in learning more from you. And so how would I find more information about Keeya Vawar?

Keeya [00:23:06] Well, it’s pretty easy. I’m in the social media streets. Okay. So, I’m on LinkedIn and Instagram primarily. I’m on Facebook as well. Twitter, I’m trying y’all. It’s a lot. I’m 47 years old, let’s just say that. And so, you know, it gets overwhelming. I just have to stick with one platform and then I can send that message to the rest. And that’s Instagram. But I’m @keeyasays, that’s on Instagram where I live. And then also I have a website which is www.keeyavawar.com that’s Keeya Vawar .com. That is where you can find me.

Sandie [00:23:53] All right, so she has info@keeyavawar.com to reach out to her. You can find her book on the website, and I’m going to go follow you on Instagram. I have so thoroughly enjoyed having this conversation and honestly, I feel like you have encouraged me and inspired me to do a better job of helping other allies join this cause in a way that is mutually respectful and with humility and as a true partner. I loved how you framed that as a marriage and we all need each other. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Keeya [00:24:49] Thank you, Dr. Sandie. It’s been an honor. I love what Global Center for Women and Justice is doing. And I’m a follower, fan and partner.

Sandie [00:24:59] All right.

Dave [00:25:00] Keeya, thank you so much for your time and sharing your story with us. We’re inviting you to take the first step along with us. Take a moment to hop online over at endinghumantrafficking.org. It will provide all the links, the resources we’ve mentioned in this episode, including all the links to Keeya’s ways to reach out. I hope you will take a moment to do that. Also on Endinghumantrafficking.org, you’ll see a opportunity to get a copy of Sandie’s guide, “The Five Things You Must Know: A Quick Start Guide to Ending Human Trafficking.” The guide will teach you the five critical things Sandie’s identified in her work that you should know before you join the fight against trafficking. You can get access to it again by going over to endinghumantrafficking.org, plus lots of other resources on the website. If you are taking a moment to go over there, you’ll see an opportunity to find out more about the Anti-Human Trafficking Certificate program. The next Ensure Justice conference coming up, March 3rd and 4th, 2023. And of course, an opportunity to get more connected with everything that’s going on here at the Global Center for Women in Justice. Take a moment to join us over there and send us a message if we can help. If today’s conversation has brought up questions for you, feedback@endinghumantrafficking.org is the very best way to reach us. Or again, just the endinghumantrafficking.org website. We will be back in two weeks with our next conversation. Sandie, always a pleasure. Take care.

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