Members of Waco community fight human trafficking in Ukraine

Ukrainian refugees arrive at a shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, on April 21. Photo courtesy of Associated Press

By Matt Kyle | Staff Writer

Members of the Waco community traveled to the border of Ukraine and Poland earlier this month to assist Ukrainian refugees and fight human trafficking.

Advocates from Unbound Global, a Waco-based anti-trafficking organization, as well as Joseph Scaramucci, human trafficking detective for McLennan County Sheriff’s Office, were on the ground identifying possible traffickers, helping refugees cross the border into Poland safely and giving supplies to refugees. Scaramucci also said he helped train local law enforcement to fight human trafficking.

Scaramucci said people fleeing a combat zone are vulnerable and at a high risk of being trafficked. He said that traffickers will often offer to help refugees cross the border in exchange for their passports and money but that transportation for refugees is free.

“They’re leaving their jobs,” Scaramucci said. “They’re leaving their income. They’re leaving everything. That’s generally where you come across traffickers that are looking to exploit that.”

Unbound was founded in 2012 in Waco by Baylor graduate Susan Peters, who is currently the global director of the organization. Peters said that Unbound sent several teams to Ukraine after receiving calls from aid agencies that were seeing traffickers and that it will continue to send teams as long as necessary.

“When they first landed, there were all kinds of people showing up offering rides to people,” Peters said. “There weren’t any safety nets to vet people. There were buses showing up. There were vans showing up. And, of course, good-hearted individuals that really wanted to help. But then you also have the criminally minded that are taking advantage of that. Our teams were able to try to kind of intervene in some of those conversations and help those people.”

Peters said Unbound advocates made cards with information in Ukrainian and Russian on how to travel safely and handed them out to refugees. She also said they handed out practical goods like diapers and food and comforted refugees.

Scaramucci said he felt this work was important not only for helping people avoid trafficking but also for being able to comfort those who are dealing with trauma.

“You’re dealing with people who are dealing with PTSD and all the trauma that goes with not signing up to be in the military and having your house exploded,” Scaramucci said. “So even simple things like being able to carry bags for somebody or help them with the fear of what’s on the other side of the border, more than anything was important in tracking that human connection and that ability to do something for somebody else.”

Liz Griffin, executive director of Unbound Austin, said due to the crisis, there is not much infrastructure to help get refugees across the border. She said Unbound having a presence on the ground was helpful for stopping human trafficking, as her team was able to intervene in several situations where a possible trafficker was interacting with refugees.

Griffin said one of the most significant moments of her life was seeing hundreds of Ukrainian refugees sing the Ukrainian national anthem.

“A lot of people had just been waiting for hours and hours and hours,” Griffin said. “They were exhausted. They’re tired, hungry. They’d seen a lot of traumatic events. This one woman started singing. We later found out it was the Ukrainian national anthem. She just started singing it herself, loudly, and she had just tears coming down her face. One by one, everyone else started joining in. In probably 20 to 30 seconds, the entire line of hundreds and hundreds of refugees were just singing so proudly their Ukrainian national anthem — many of them just through tears. It was such a powerful moment that I think speaks to the spirit of the people in Ukraine. Even though they’ve been through so much, they have so much hope and faith for what could be for their country and who they are and where they’re coming from. It was a really powerful moment. We were all choking back tears.”