A visit to a Mexican safe house charts a new path for an FAU student
There was a time when Abigail Howard’s knowledge of human trafficking was limited to sensationalist Hollywood movies like “Taken.” That changed in 2017, thanks to a life-altering mission trip she took on behalf of Sojourn Collegiate Ministries, an interfaith organization that fights for international justice.
The FAU undergraduate joined nearly two-dozen of her peers on a trip to Tijuana, Mexico. A late addition to the trip—she accepted the last available spot—she was unaware of its purpose, and what she saw opened her eyes to a criminal underworld she didn’t know existed.
Like her fellow-missionaries, she gazed through their van’s windows at the city’s red light district, “where you see young adults and children in these insane heels, and tourists walking around looking to use them,” Abigail, 20, recalls. “Here’s 22 of us in the van seeing this unravel before our eyes.”
At their final destination, a safe house sponsored by the California nonprofit International Network of Hearts, Howard met victims of trafficking face-to-face, and listened to their horrifying tales of surviving a life of 21st century slavery. She connected most profoundly with Guadalupe, a 4-year-old girl who had been trafficked for drugs and exploited in pornography by her own mother.
“I’m opening the door, and she’s just standing there, smiling, and runs over to me and gives us the biggest hug,” Howard says. “It’s so cool, this connection that happens. She’s speaking Spanish; she knew a little bit of English. I’m speaking English, knowing only a little bit of Spanish. But the connection throughout the week was phenomenal.”
Back home, she says, “I’m bawling my eyes out because I experienced so much down there, and here I am back in America, and people are just wanting things that don’t even matter in this world—the latest smartphone, or their Wi-Fi is not working.”
HUMAN TRAFFICKING BY THE NUMBERS
- 4,585 Human trafficking cases reported in 2019
- 466 Trafficking cases in Florida in 2019
- 3,736 Females trafficked in 2019
- 545 Males trafficked in 2019
- Over 246 thousand Contacts to the National Human Trafficking Hotline since 2007
Howard’s newfound passion led her to discover other safe houses around the world, and to develop a charity that would fund their efforts. So, on the cusp of her 18th birthday, she Googled “how to start a nonprofit.” “I played a little joke with God or the state: ‘Listen, if you’re really out there and you want this to happen, let everything be provided.’ When you create a nonprofit, you have to go through so many hurdles. … But the whole process took three months. I really think God wanted this to happen.”
Her resulting venture, Project Micah 6:8—the Bible verse was inscribed on a bracelet gifted to Howard in Tijuana—celebrated its third anniversary in April. The nonprofit has raised approximately $15,000 in its efforts to vet international safe houses, separate the legitimate ones from the fraudulent, and support those that are helping survivors of human trafficking. Additionally, Howard, a former theatre student at Pennsylvania’s Messiah College before she transferred to FAU, penned an original play, “Only One,” that premiered at FAU this year. Named after the statistic that only 1 percent of trafficking victims are rescued, it dramatizes the journeys of three survivors.
Audience members at the two (free) showings of the play contributed $1,500 in support, which goes directly to the cause. This arrangement applies across the board: Neither Howard, as Project Micah’s CEO, nor her staff of seven collects a salary for their work. She says she’s contributed “millions of hours” to the nonprofit, balancing her time with her coursework as a Criminal Justice student seeking her master’s this fall, and working as a caregiver for families of children with special needs. In 2019, Soroptimist International honored Howard as one of its Women of Distinction.
“I say my life is built on this,” she says. “I’m always on the phone, going to networking events. But to me, the hours aren’t even worth calculating. This is my passion, and this is what I love. And even if I’m not getting paid, it’s so cool.”