I dealt with the business of the day at my little frozen yogurt shop, not just making and selling product, but talking to customers about the hints of human trafficking they miss every day of their vacation in Myrtle Beach. "What?"
They encounter foreign workers bringing another set of towels to their hotel room, serving their burgers, swerving at 50 mph to avoid hitting the bicyclist on highway 17. Yet 85% of my customers were clueless that the 18-24 year-old international student who can barely speak English very likely has a target on their back. I spent the whole day making my customers aware that tonight perpetrators would hit on J-1 visa students the moment they step foot into the Myrtle Beach airport after flying for some 24 hours.
Though fatigued, I closed up shop and joined a few other volunteers for the evening arrivals. Hoping the flights won't be delayed, else we be there till midnight or later, we passed through security with special permission. "Behind enemy lines" is what it feels like going upstairs to wait. Police have told us the "enemy" will be at baggage claim preying on the students. We'll throw out the net upstairs hoping to catch the most vulnerable. Signs at the ready, disembarking passengers flooded toward us, all tired and dragging suitcases. Those are not our J-1s. That's what we call them, J-1s. The J-1 visa in their passport is the key unlocking the door for each one to enter the USA and legally work during their summer break from their respective universities.
"How do you know which ones are J-1s?" I can tell, and so can the enemy waiting downstairs. Snagging a quick conversation with a few, we shoved papers in their hands informing of the upcoming safety orientations, urging them to attend. Most feel impervious to the need to waste their time. They've heard all their lives about the land of opportunity, home of the free and the brave, where streets are paved with gold, money grows on trees and everyone is nice. Nothing bad will happen to them, they think. I'll quickly ask the big questions, "Is someone meeting you? Do you have a hotel for the night? Do you know the person picking you up?"
It is surprising that these youngsters arrive with less than $100 in their pocket, no hotel arrangements, or someone picking them up that they briefly "met" on the internet from 5000 miles away. "I'll just stay in the airport tonight," the weary Luda from Moldova replied in broken English. In Russian I informed her it's not allowed. She's only slightly relieved that the nice smiling American woman speaks a language she can understand. Downstairs, at the baggage belt she'll be greeted in Russian by someone else who will ask questions. I advise her to wait for me downstairs and to refuse all offers. Off she goes and I throw out the net again.
Turkey, Ireland, Slovakia, China, Russia, and Ukraine swim in, get the brief, and scurry downstairs shoving the paper in their pockets and backpacks. Night after night the story plays out.
I made my way down the escalator, praying for Wisdom to guide my next encounters. The sea of people thins out, baggage dragging out the door. There's Luda and a few other tired young stragglers talking to volunteers. We offered to take them to the nearest Red Roof Inn a couple of miles from the airport. The kind manager gives us special rates to help keep these vulnerable students safe. Turkish guys insisted they'll sleep just fine at the airport. It took a badged security officer to convince them otherwise. Docile Luda barely standing 5-feet tall could only find her Russian words to express that she doesn't have money for the hotel we suggested. Though we're not supposed to, one of the smiling volunteers offered their guest room. Someone else made the same gesture 30-minutes earlier, handing her a business card to call for cheap accommodations and a job if she needs it. The Hit.
Reluctantly, Luda agreed to split the cost of a hotel room with another girl in the same predicament. Turkish guys negotiated and also agreed. They didn't know each other before arrival at Myrtle Beach, but that is part of the J-1 adventure.
Night after night we volunteers catch and release with a prayer that they'll be ok.
One night, after releasing two Kazakh students into the waiting black sedan, I distressfully questioned the officer on duty with me. He assured that the known perpetrators driving away were under the watchful eye of the FBI. In tears I bowed to my knees next to my bed at 2 a.m. to pray for those precious treasures. "God, keep them safe and help the police too."
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