What could make a woman with a masters degree from Columbia University spend a year making no salary, living off cottage cheese and apples, and periodically asking herself if she’s insane? For Faith Huckel, it was the determined drive to meet a desperate need in New York City — a shelter for women trafficked into the commercial sex industry. Her story is one of how a woman turned her passion into a fresh start for hundreds of trafficking and abuse survivors.
As a social worker in Philadelphia, Huckel began noticing a pattern among the women whose cases she managed — sexual exploitation. In addition to issues like poverty, incarceration, and HIV, most of the women she worked with had been sexually exploited at some point in their lives. Some were molested as children, others raped as adults, still others pushed into the commercial sex industry by coercion or circumstance. When Huckel moved to New York City, that pattern added a new dimension — the sex trafficking of women from overseas into the U.S.
So when she and a group of friends were talking around a dinner table about what they would do to change the world, Huckel immediately knew she’d want to address sex trafficking. After asking around the city, one need above all others became clear: there was no shelter in New York City for foreign women to feel safe while they healed from violence and abuse. So in 2008, Huckel quit her lucrative job and applied herself full-time to creating a shelter, even though it meant a lot of cottage cheese and a lot more telling herself she wasn’t crazy.
Today, she has proof she’s both sane and successful. Restore NYC is the first ever long-term safe house for international trafficking victims in New York City, and one of the few in the country. To date they have served over 100 women, mostly from China and Korea. Many of these women were brought to the U.S. under student or tourist visas, saddled with inflated debts up to $60,000, and forced into prostitution to pay back those debts. But now they have a place to heal from the abuse with 24-hour, live-in support staff fluent in Korean and Mandarin and help dealing with everything from immigration paperwork to trauma.
But nothing makes the success of Restore NYC real to Huckel as much as the story of one survivor we’ll call “Jing Li”. Jing Li is a 20 year old woman trafficked from China and forced into the commercial sex industry. When police found her in a brothel in New York, they immediately identified her as a trafficking victim and connected her with Huckel. For awhile, she was working with a lawyer to get a T-Visa and receiving support from Restore NYC. Then one day, she vanished. Huckel soon received a phone call that Jing Li had been arrested in Washington, D.C. for prostitution. Huckel spent weeks trying to convince Jing Li there was a safe house in New York where she could live for free and where people would help her get back on her feet. But so much in Jing Li’s life had been a lie, so many offers had come with a terrible catch, she refused to believe the place existed until she saw it. Bnce she took a tour, Jing Li was sold. She moves in November 23, and is now planning to get her GED and go to college.
Huckel says getting to where Jing Li is isn’t easy. Survivors have to overcome immigration issues, PTSD, language barriers, lack of basic education and employable skills, racism, and the stigma behind prostitution, in addition to the mental, emotional, and physical trauma of sex trafficking. But at Restore NYC, they have a community of volunteers who make that a possibility. And it’s thanks to these people who were willing to do something to end human trafficking that Jing Li and her peers have a chance to start over. As Huckel says,
“N0 matter how big problems may seem, don’t throw your arms in the air and think you can’t do anything. We have a responsibility, when we see injustice, to act and not to walk away. Whatever you can do, do it, even if it’s in a small way.”
Faith Huckel knows about big and small. Restore NYC may be a small organization but they’re having a big impact in the fight against human trafficking, one survivor at a time.