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Human Trafficking Survivors Persevere, Inspire

Montclair’s Global Center on Human Trafficking’s Legislative Breakfast honors survivors, advocates; examines housing shortage and solutions

Posted in: Education and Human Services, Homepage News, University

A woman hugs a man as a woman claps nearby.
Human trafficking survivor Cristian Eduardo, the Wellstone/Smith Award recipient, receives a hug from Montclair’s Global Center on Human Trafficking Director Ali Boak, as survivor and advocate Gina Cavallo, vice president of the New Jersey Coalition Against Human Trafficking applauds.

Montclair State University brought survivors of human trafficking, as well as state legislators, to campus recently to address the issues of homelessness and a shortage of housing for those trying to escape their traffickers.

The gathering was for the Global Center on Human Trafficking’s  2nd Annual Legislative Breakfast on Human Trafficking on February 2 at University Hall, where the audience heard about survivors’ experiences and the importance of housing to help trafficking survivors rebuild their lives.

As part of the breakfast, the Center also presents the Wellstone/Smith Awards (named for the sponsors of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act signed by President Clinton in 2000) for Outstanding Efforts to Address Human Trafficking. Last year’s winner, survivor and advocate Gina Cavallo, presented this year’s award to Covenant House New Jersey, which provides housing to youths facing homelessness and human trafficking survivors, and to Cristian Eduardo for his advocacy and leadership work on behalf of other survivors.

“This is a very healing moment for me because I was trafficked between New Jersey and New York for a very long time,” said Eduardo, adding that he’d vowed never to return to New Jersey because “my trauma was right here.”

Eduardo, who shared his experience of being labor and sex trafficked, now does advocacy and consulting work on the issue of human trafficking in New York and New Jersey. He said he could not have imagined ever receiving an award. “The reality is that nine years ago, I was waking up thinking that I was going to die or maybe even taking my life was an even better choice than to continue experiencing the exploitation. Now, being in New Jersey and being recognized and working alongside other survivors is really, really healing.”

Eduardo was studying mechanical engineering in his native Mexico, when he was delivered into the hands of traffickers by a campus employee. He was trafficked between Mexico and Canada before arriving in the U.S. He escaped and after much ongoing healing work, he is now an advocate for human trafficking survivors and the LGBTQ+ community. In accepting his award, Eduardo encouraged others who are struggling, telling them their struggles are valid “no matter what you’re going through, things will get better,” he said. “Please don’t give up.”

A woman in a black dress stands amid an audience speaking into a microphone.
Isabelle Ramos, director of the Pre-Law Program in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, a co-sponsor of the event, asks a question of panelists during the 2nd Annual Legislative Breakfast on Human Trafficking.

Eduardo ended his speech acknowledging other survivors of human trafficking. “I wouldn’t be here without other survivors,” he said. “I’m here fighting because I don’t want anybody, any survivor or anyone struggling to feel alone. Let’s continue fighting together but let’s also continue supporting each other.”

Cavallo, who was unable to attend last year’s ceremony due to a necessary life-saving surgery, shared her story of childhood abuse, domestic violence and sex trafficking. “I am a survivor of human trafficking but it’s important to recognize that I am also a leader within the New Jersey Coalition Against Human Trafficking.”

Cavallo, who serves as vice president of the coalition, said “giving survivors the opportunity for meaningful leadership of nationally known organizations such as the New Jersey Coalition is incredibly important in the fight against human trafficking, since there is no group with better knowledge of this issue than those who have been directly affected by it. I am proud of the New Jersey Coalition Against Human Trafficking for making meaningful survivor inclusivity a vital part of how this great organization operates. It is stronger for who leads an organization matters and whose voices are heard matters.”

A man and woman laugh while a woman speaks at a lectern.
State Assemblyman Sterley Stanley and Center Director Ali Boak laugh as State Senator Nellie Pou introduces Stanley as an award winner.

State Senator Nellie Pou presented the Wellstone/Smith Award to Assemblyman Sterley Stanley, calling him “one of the unsung heroes in the fight to end trafficking and related violence.” 

After the awards ceremony, Center Director Ali Boak said, “We’re so fortunate in New Jersey to have such strong, amazing, talented, dedicated survivor leaders. You truly are an inspiration for all of us.”

Housing for survivors of human trafficking was the primary topic of this year’s breakfast, attended by state legislative, law enforcement and nonprofit organization leaders, survivors and students. 

“Housing is often the single biggest determinant of whether someone is going to get back on their feet,” said New Jersey State Attorney General Matthew Platkin, who served as keynote speaker. “When you think about what survivors of human trafficking go through, nothing could be more important than having four safe walls around them, where they’re not pushed back into the arms of those who have preyed upon them.”

Two men wearing suits chat while seated side by side.
Montclair President Johnathan Koppell visits with New Jersey State Attorney General Matthew Platkin before introducing him as the keynote speaker.

Platkin said the issue is pervasive, prompting the creation of the Division of Violence Intervention and Victim Assistance within the Department of Law and Public Safety, and a recently launched a campaign called STALLS, or Sanctuary from Trafficking: Awareness & Linkage to Law Enforcement & Services. The campaign, launched as part of Human Trafficking Awareness Month, calls for posters (in English and Spanish) to be installed in all public restrooms, including at universities, across the state “all geared towards building awareness about the scale of this problem,” Platkin said. The posters will encourage people to call the national or state Human Trafficking Hotlines or to text “BE FREE.”

“The scale of the problem is massive and affects every aspect of our society,” Platkin said. “There’s a perception sometimes that human trafficking is awful but those are people over there. Victims of human trafficking are walking in plain sight amongst all of us – you’re interacting with them and don’t even know it.”

Boak thanked sponsors of the event, which included the NJ Coalition Against Human Trafficking, HR Recovery Initiatives, Legal Services of New Jersey. Family Service League, Volunteer Lawyers for Justice and Covenant House New Jersey.

Learn more at the Global Center on Human Trafficking.

Photo gallery

An audience listens to a panel of leaders on human trafficking.
A man at a table gestures as three women look on.
People who won awards pose for a photo with leaders on human trafficking.

Story by Staff Writer Sylvia A. Martinez. Photos by University Photographer Mike Peters.