8 Mile, have you seen the movie? Earlier in my life I would have been offended by almost everything in the movie. Constant “F” you and “F”ing that …I would have passed judgement and turned it off before the intro ended. It is rated R for sex, violence and language and there is a lot of all of it!

Last weekend Dave and I watched 8 Mile with our daughter and her husband who live in Detroit. Detroit is where the movie was filmed and took place. If you missed it while in theaters it is the story of Eminem, the rapper. We sat in Lydia and Liam’s living room in a suburb, just outside of the official city limits of Detroit. I sat and thought about life for so many that look like those we saw in the movie.

If you know me, you know that I have worked with victims of sex trafficking for the last several decades. I have seen the hard and traumatic life which is reality for so many. The number who live in violent and dangerous settings would be hard to count because our culture would rather not look at this population.  Many times these populations are not counted or seen. Nobody could argue this with me because at our organization we have spoken with nearly 150 victims of human sex trafficking and even more people who are marginalized and exploited just like those in the movie 8 Mile.

As I watched the movie, I wondered how many people that I know would watch 8 Mile and think that it was a movie of fiction or that the production was the creative genius of Hollywood. Many would – years ago I would have. Most of my friends who are outside of my circle of work would watch the movie as entertainment; not understanding that the movie is the reality of more people that I know than I have time here to tell you about. 

This made me think about a time that I was in Milwaukee working with a woman who is a victim of sex trafficking. I had many conversations with her as she was in jail for theft, prostitution, and other charges. One day she called and asked if we would come and get her after she got out of jail. This woman’s trafficker (pimp) had been arrested and jailed and she felt safe enough to leave. She called the Fierce Freedom office because through circumstances we had built a relationship with this woman – I will call her Vanessa. By the time we were able to drive across the state of WI to pick her up and take her to a safe place, her trafficker was released from jail…but we had made the promise, so we went and she said that she was still ready to leave.

Out of courtesy and because we really didn’t know what we were driving into, I called the Milwaukee area police department and the Department of Justice who we had worked with in the past. To my surprise, when we arrived, we had the full support of law-enforcement. In my mind at the time, I was naïve enough to think that we were going to just pick her up and take her to a safe agency. For several hours we waited to see if Vanessa would come with us. So many times, because of fear (of so many things) it takes many times for someone repeatedly abused to trust the person who is helping them escape violence, so this was valid. We sat in the hot car in the middle of July and waited as we watched law enforcement in unmarked cars, vans and SUVs circle the area for our protection. I was thankful that I had made the call. 

After more than 2 hours of waiting, Vanessa came walking out with everything that she owned. We loaded my car and before we were even out of the city limits, I looked back at her, and she was sound asleep. She slept until we were close to her safe house, which was five hours away. 

Many would stop here and think that it was a happy ending. The hard truth is that statistics show that for someone who is trying to leave the commercial sex industry, it takes an average of seven times to make that attempt. Vanessa wasn’t at seven yet. Days after we left, she found a way back to her life in Milwaukee. 

From the first time speaking with Vanessa, we learned that she had several children who were also involved in her lifestyle. For that reason, I answered the next time that she called for help. Remember that she was in a city many hours away where there were plenty of organizations that could help her. Because of time building trust and relationship, I told her that I would come for her one more time. After that she would have to seek help closer to her.

When I picked her up at a downtown Milwaukee hotel she was strung out on drugs and paranoid like I have never seen before. I have learned some things over the years and if it was today, I would ask more questions and set better boundaries. But there I was and after a long drive I pulled into Milwaukee, and I saw Vanessa at the spot that we agreed on. She ran through the rain and jumped in my car dripping wet and made sure that all the doors were locked. She told me to drive away quickly as she looked over her shoulder. Almost at the same time she was texting furiously. I asked who she was texting and told her that if she didn’t answer me, I was dropping her off at the police station. She told me that she had 2 tricks that she needed to turn before we left town.

That of course wasn’t going to happen. She was in tears and very afraid of where she would get cash to survive after we left the city. I told her that she would be taken care of in a safe place, and we would take care of getting her resources as soon as we reached the safe place where she would be staying. Vanessa then told me that before she left, she needed to say goodbye to her daughter – I didn’t know about her daughter yet, and this pulled at my heart strings more than I was prepared for. I told her that we would make a quick stop and then had to get going. 

Several turns later we were driving down a dead-end dark alley. I am not being dramatic – it felt as if I was in a movie and my life seemed to be in slow motion looking back at the situation.

This is where this whole story comes full circle. There was fighting, drugs, sex and guns exactly like in the movie 8 Mile. The movie could have been filmed right there and right then.

At the end of the alley there was no daughter. I had been taken full advantage of and we were in extreme danger. By God’s grace we were able to back out and because of a series of miraculous events (they could not be called by any other name) we were able to safely escape. 

Vanessa was not ready to leave her life, it was clear. As I left Milwaukee without her, hot tears streamed down my face as I pulled over to have a very hard cry. I was devastated and to this day I have never heard from Vanessa. Some people close to her who have reached out tell me that she and her daughters are still in “the life.”

Many people that I know would have no idea about this reality for so many. Vanessa and her lifestyle is  no Hollywood movie. These people are called marginalized for a reason. They are not seen and honestly there are few services for people who live in this reality. I would have never understood it or even taken the time to think that this population are called survivors for a reason, they have to survive.

My daughter and I were processing the movie together. She has worked alongside me in various ways since the beginning of Fierce Freedom. As we processed, we talked about our lives that seem to be scrubbed clean in comparison. We drive cars that are not falling apart, live in safe neighborhoods, and both of us can eat when we are hungry. And we rarely have ever feared for our lives.

As we were getting ready to leave Detroit, my son-in-law told me about how he and his co-worker go into inner city Detroit and bring food to the homeless. Liam and his co-worker are not funded or have a non-profit organization. They have simply seen a need and pay for this out of their own resources and go feed some people who need food. Liam is a Christian and his co-worker is a Hindu. They go together and care for their “neighbor.” Neither has a desire to be recognized or even gather more funding. They simply do the thing they can do. They go outside of their comfort zone; give money they could use for their own comfort and see how they can meet a need. 

At Fierce Freedom we often say, “what will you do now that you’ve been told?” That’s the big question in this world that needs so much. Will you see the unseen and those who are not cleaned up and out of your comfort zone? 

Once my eyes were opened to see the unseen my life was wrecked, and it is my true hope that your eyes will be opened too.

(Several details and names have been changed)

Jenny Almquist

Jenny Almquist

Co-Founder & Executive Director

Jenny first learned about the horrors of human trafficking in 2008, which lead to the birth of Fierce Freedom. As Executive Director, Jenny works to build the organization so that awareness and education about the issue can continue to spread. Her main goal is to educate and move people to action, to work toward the abolishment of human trafficking and exploitation. Jenny enjoys writing, reading, and public speaking. In her time away from the office, you will find Jenny gardening, traveling and spending time with her husband and children.

"I believe that all jails desperately need your training as the victims of human trafficking frequently pass through the system. If staff is not trained on the warning signs of human trafficking and what the victims my look like, these are missed opportunities to provide help."

Captain Curt Dutton, Chippewa County Sheriff's Office

“Your agency is my greatest resource to share with anyone I talk to.”

Amy O’Donahue, Deputy, Specialized Enforcement, Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault Officer Ashland and Bayfield County Sheriff’s Offices

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