“You’d be surprised how little people at the university, or in general, don’t have any idea what human trafficking even is. It’s scary to me. It’s a billion-dollar industry and it can happen to literally anyone,” said Alison Eagan, a Freedom Café volunteer and UNH student.
Eagan heard about the café through word of mouth--a café off the beaten path of UNH’s campus, known for its relaxed and sociable atmosphere. However, it wasn’t until she went there that she became aware of it's mission: to end human trafficking.
Human trafficking is a “compelled service usually through force, fraud or coercion,” according to Stephanie Halter, a criminal justice professor at Plymouth University. Halter is a member of the NH Human Trafficking Collaborative Task Force, which is a social services agency dedicated to creating resources for trafficking victims.
Human trafficking is another term for modern-day slavery. It can take many forms, but generally manifests in the exploitation of people by forcing them into labor, or the sex industry, Halter explains.
The Freedom Café is an all-encompassing hub for raising money and developing programs that address multiple areas of the human trafficking issue to help tackle the problem in NH, as well as nationally and internationally.
Every few months they contribute to a particular grant or program that focuses on some aspect of human trafficking, whether it be raising public awareness, prevention education, aftercare services for survivors, law enforcement/rescuing, or legislative work that strives to improve the public policies surrounding the issue. Last month, the café put its funds toward the United Nations Gift Project, a traveling display of people’s survival stories brought to different universities in the area.
The café was started by Bryan Bessette, who is now the president and executive director of the café and its movement. The idea started with a trip to Nepal where Bryan worked within school systems where students had just recently come out of a life of bonded slavery.
When Bessette returned to Durham NH, he thought about the idea of opening up a nonprofit café that could raise money for the types of tragic cases he’d seen in Nepal. Soon after his arrival back home, news broke that there was a case of labor trafficking that occurred within the construction process while the Cottages were being built.
“The news hit me like ‘wow.’ The closeness, the broadness, the lack of funding and awareness made me realize there is an urgent need and we need to be a part of doing something about it. It really is everywhere--it was on our campus. This is urgent, I needed to create a platform to continue to build consistent engagement,” said Bessette.
Both labor and sex trafficking exists here.
Trafficking in New Hampshire is typically seen in more populated areas of the state. Manchester, Concord, Portsmouth, Exeter, Dover, and Rochester are places in which multiple cases of human trafficking have been discovered just within the last year, reported Halter. Given that anti-trafficking efforts are relatively new, this is just the beginning of uncovering these sorts of cases, she said.
Traffickers’ process of coercion usually entails targeting vulnerable people, such as homeless youth. They may be runaways from New Hampshire or young people from other states who are being trafficked into New Hampshire. Individuals living in poverty and those in low wage service sector jobs are also a vulnerable population that traffickers target. People with addictions who are dependent on drugs, a population becoming ever so more prevalent with New Hampshire’s opioid crisis, is a third group that is increasingly at risk of becoming victims.
“We’ve discovered that traffickers go to places like recovery centers or disability service sectors and wait for people to come out and then recruit them. They are trying to somehow identify the youth that are at risk and in a vulnerable place,” explained Halter. “Recruiting entails befriending the victim and gaining their trust. This manipulation is planned, and purposeful.”
From there, the power dynamic slowly shifts and traffickers can start to coerce victims to do things, she continued. “In a lot of these relationships, the victim feels like this person actually cares about them or loves them. They could even be a boyfriend,” explained Halter.
The Freedom Café represents a good setting to increase awareness among people in the community, said, Eagan. The significance of coffee in the context of human trafficking is how it’s grown and processed. The Freedom Café knows exactly what they’re selling and where they’re getting it from, said Eagan. “As a barista, if [the customers] haven’t been there before it’s important to tell our customers what we’re about and why it’s important to us that our coffee is all fair trade, and that people are treated fairly, and get fair wages and have fair working conditions. Our mission comes full circle,” said Eagan.
Bessette’s idea started very small as he initially had no plans to have a fully running café right at the get-go, but as he began to pitch the idea and build a team, he realized there was a greater capacity for this than he originally had imagined. Bessette and his team went to the town of Durham and talked about the plan for the café, what would be necessary to make it work, and found some investors to help it get off the ground.
One goal of the café is to empower UNH students to apply what they are learning in school, and do what they are passionate about, to help aid in ending human trafficking, explained Bessette.
There are currently four facets to the volunteering opportunities at the Freedom Café. The barista positions represent one facet; 50 percent of café drink proceeds go toward whatever project or grant the café is supporting at that period of time.
In addition to the barista positions, there is an outreach team that began from a student initiative. Students started by presenting information on trafficking at dorm socials at UNH and, eventually, it evolved into larger presentations where students traveled to different universities to spread awareness on a larger scale.
One year after the outreach team was formed, the café created an official research team which became the 3rd facet of the volunteer program. Their research is focused on products that are known to be produced by child-enforced labor around the globe.
“We wanted to give consumers a leg up on how we can buy things that support the farmers and producers around the globe,” explained Bessette.
The fourth facet is the communications team. The café partnered with UNH’s Communications department and offered an internship opportunity for students. Students take part in social media campaigns. “We’ve had student videographers create films about our open mic nights and fundraisers to communicate our vision even further,” said Bessette.
These efforts are warranted given that the problem isn’t going away. New Hampshire law enforcement has confirmed 49 cases of human trafficking just in the last year in a half, and that’s not nearly as many cases as there are in reality, warns Halter.
The Freedom Café volunteers want more people to know about the statistics and how large this problem and how the industry is. “It’s all around you, whether it’s on a local or national scale. It’s even happening in your hometown. Most of us probably don’t know it because we don’t know the signs. It’s a human’s rights violation, and it’s right in front of our eyes,” asserts Eagan.