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How one Ugandan is fighting human trafficking in Africa—and the U.S.

After fleeing the LRA in her native Uganda, Igoye came the University of Minnesota. There she began finding resources to combat the scourge of human trafficking.

AGNES IGOYE: I had parents who believed in me and made sure I went to school—walking a long distance—and it has always been about challenging myself to go for it. So I was really excited to be a student.

So fast forward. I had to work hard to get to university. And I’ve been a student all my life, because even when I work I continue being a student. I still go off. So my activism was really intertwined because looking at how it all began when I got into the field of human trafficking: It is in Uganda. It is in America. It is in your backyard. It may manifest itself in different ways.

As I was growing up, for me I was confronted by the Lord’s Resistance Army, the use of children in conflict. I have done some state tours. I have done the state of Colorado, New Jersey, and I went to Las Vegas. And wherever I’ve gone I’ve seen one of the biggest problems in America is runaway children.

There’s that age where—traffickers know that, they rely on that vulnerability—that age when teens think that their parents are not so cool and they run away from home. So there’s always somebody, you know, to grab them and take them through a different path.

There is trafficking in agriculture in this country, among even immigrant population. But also among the locals themselves, sexual exploitation. From city to city I’ve come across victims of trafficking whom I’ve spoken to. I’ve spoken in various audiences, and after I’ve spoken I’ve seen these girls, especially, come to me and confide to me what happened to them in their situation.

So it’s everywhere. We just have to pay attention. We have to learn and empower ourselves with knowledge.

In my country Uganda we have, like I said, children in armed conflict. We have sexual exploitation. We have forced labor. They use children for street begging. We have removal of organs. The trade in human organs. We have removal of organs for rituals and exploitation, where somebody—to construct a building like this, the witch doctor tells you, “you have to kill somebody and spill some blood so that you can become rich.” People believe in things like that. So those things are real, and they happen around the world. We just have to pay attention and see how we can be involved.

When I got the opportunity to attend the Clinton Global Initiative and made that commitment of action to counter human trafficking, I knew I needed to build a rehabilitation center for survivors of human trafficking. I knew I wanted to take books, so that even children can have an education. And I remember then thinking, “Okay, how am I going to do this?!”

Because I had really huge goals! I wanted to build that center. I said I was going to train law enforcement, and I started off—I was going to train one thousand law enforcements [to recognize signs of human trafficking], and I was a student.

And I knew that, to train my reinforcement, to take books, and to create a rehabilitation center I had to be creative. Because here is a student who comes from Africa, you’re in America, you don’t have any money to implement this huge project.

But in my university what I found out quickly was that there was a lot of food at the university! So you’d go for student events and many times the food just goes to waste. So I said, “Okay, this is an opportunity for me to save money.”

So I started saving money, which I would have used to buy food, and I used to eat food from school events (and, of course, you can take takeaway), and I saved one thousand dollars. And so with one thousand dollars I went to Books for Africa, who are based in Minnesota, St. Paul.

So I went to them I said, “Listen, I want to take a container of books to Uganda.” That’s 23,000 books, that’s how I started. And I had never done fundraising before, but thank goodness when we had the Clinton Global Initiative they told us how to raise money for your commitment.

So before I knew it I raised money to take a container of books.

And one of the happiest, happiest moments in my life is going through the border between Uganda and Kenya and being in this truck. A huge truck that’s 40 feet, full of books and navigating through the roads and eventually by the time I came to this village school the kids being just so excited. So the excitement of seeing children lifting boxes and carrying them to their classroom, every kid having a book, you know—to own a book! And flipping through the pictures, mathematics made easy.

So that was really an exciting moment for me. That’s when I realized, “Wow, I can actually do this.” And so that’s how I approached even my other commitments. One thing at a time, and just being creative along the way.

Find out what is happening in your community. Find out which organizations are dealing with the problem.

And actually also find out how you can help, because believe it or not, all of us have a stake in this. I keep telling people, “If you have a big mouth like I do, yes, you learn about it, and then you talk about it.”

Some people have money, they’ll support organizations which are doing this work.

Sometimes it’s just about learning. You tell your neighbor. Be mindful if you see something wrong somewhere. You talk to the police and let the authorities know.

So trafficking exists. It exists everywhere, and we just have to be united in action. Because traffickers are so organized, are very organized. So they have the operations within countries, but they also cross borders.

And when they cross borders, that’s when we need to really collaborate. Internally collaborate: Law enforcement, social work. So everybody is important.

But also internationally to know how they are. Because there’s a lot of money to be made within trafficking of human beings. So to really pay attention on what is happening in your community and how trafficking manifests itself. And to know that whichever problems we have, like human trafficking, there’s always help.

I’m also speaking to survivors out there, because I work with them a lot and they go through really so many challenges.

That’s the reason I even decided to build a center for survivors of human trafficking. Because I know that they need rehabilitation. They have rights. They need people to pay attention to them and to really listen to what they need as they go through life to make a better life for themselves.

I remember one victim especially, whom I took to my house because I didn’t have anywhere to take her. And she was circumcised and forced to marry somebody even before she healed. And when she flee from her husband’s home, her parents didn’t want to take her back. They called her names, they said she has shamed the family. And I remember her calling me at midnight and me picking her up from where she had run to bring to my house.

And after three days she disappeared, and I’ve never seen her again. Just because I did not have a rehabilitation center to take her. So pay attention to survivors.

After fleeing the Lord's Resistance Army in her native Uganda, Igoye came the University of Minnesota. There she began finding resources to combat the scourge of human trafficking. Igoye was so determined to make a difference that she stopped buying food—choosing to eat at university events instead—which allowed her to save money. With her first $1,000 of savings, she supplied her native Ugandans with 23,000 books, knowing that education is an essential part of improving communities and stopping human trafficking. Through the Clinton Global Initiative University, Igoye is committed to building care centers for survivors of human trafficking and training law enforcement to better recognize and combat the illegal activity.

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