While it’s a hard topic to discuss, it’s important to shine a light on sex trafficking, which is a common occurrence in the Seattle area. That was the message delivered by Shama Shams, director of philanthropy and marketing for Real Escape from the Sex Trade (REST), during the Lynnwood Chamber of Commerce monthly luncheon on Wednesday, July 20.
REST provides pathways to freedom, safety and hope for victims of sex trafficking and people involved in the sex trade against their will. Shams has lived in the greater Seattle area for three months but has been working for REST for a little over a year.
“Don’t be fooled,” Shams said. “Sex trafficking isn’t just in Seattle or another country. It’s here. It could be happening to someone you know.”
Once a sex trafficking victim herself, Shams said her goal is to show victims there is a way out of the abuse they are enduring.
“If they knew there was a way out, over 90% of women and men that are trafficked would leave ‘the life,’” she said. “But traffickers make victims feel like there is nothing else.”
Last year, REST helped 647 individuals in Seattle successfully escape sex trafficking, but Shams said for every person who is helped, there are a thousand more waiting to be saved.
“That doesn’t even scratch the surface of the women and the men who are out there,” she said. “An average of 2,000-3,000 people are sold every night for sex in just the greater Seattle area alone.”
REST has a drop-in center in Seattle where victims can go to get a hot meal, take a shower, charge their phones, get resources and have a room to sleep in where they don’t have to worry about being attacked in the middle of the night.
In addition, the organization also has two rest houses in the vicinity for victims to live in while they work to get back on their feet.
Shams said it often takes multiple attempts to help someone get out of the life of sex trafficking due to traffickers’ coercion and manipulation.
“Every time you go five steps ahead, those guys [the traffickers] are already ahead of you,” Shams said. “They know what they’re doing.”
Shams also noted the organization has seen a large increase in boys being trafficked. When boys come out as gay, she said, the parents kick them out, they have nowhere to go, and they end up getting pulled into the trafficking industry.
“It could just be that you’re needing somewhere to live, and someone comes to you and they say, ‘Hey, I’ll take care of you,’ and then you’re sucked right in,” she said.
Shams said sex trafficking is an uncomfortable topic to cover, and for a while even she didn’t want to discuss it. However, she said the time for silence is over.
“What is it about us that makes us want to look the other way?” she asked. “We can’t afford to look away. When are we going to start caring? When it’s our own daughter? I’m asking you to not be those people who look away. I didn’t want to talk about it with my own daughters, either. But I had to. For the longest time, I was afraid to talk about it because I didn’t want to destroy their innocence. But I’d rather destroy their innocence than have somebody else do it.”
Shams said REST is constantly looking for volunteers and urged everyone to consider helping in any way they’re able, whether monetarily, by volunteering at the drop-in center, donating clothing or making dinners for survivors.
To learn more about REST and how to get involved, click here.
–By Lauren Reichenbach