"FreeTHEM" Walkers Fight Human Trafficking On 902-Mile Walk
For almost two months, one woman walked 902 miles to raise awareness about human trafficking. She stopped in Albany last week before finishing the trek June 19th.
“The FreeTHEM Walk,” follows the route of The Underground Railroad from Lynchburg, Virginia to Buffalo, New York – because Kelly Diane Galloway says human trafficking is modern day slavery. By the time Galloway reached Albany, she had walked 607 miles.
“Human trafficking today still affects over 40.3 million people worldwide and it is a $150 billion dollar business,” Galloway said. “Slavery still exists. People are still being bought and sold for sex people are still being bought and sold for labor people are still being bought and sold for medical experimentation, people are still being bought and sold for entertainment.”
Galloway, who is Black, says the issue is personal. Two years ago, she dug into her family history with her uncle in Buffalo, and asked about her great-great grandparents.
“He said, listen, we believe that they worked on tobacco farms in the northern region of Virginia, and even some are believed to even have participated in erecting the White House in Washington, D.C.,” Galloway said. “And I learned that they were sold from this plantation to the next plantation. And then it started to sound a lot like the work that I had committed the rest of my life to do -- to fight human trafficking. People being bought and sold for labor, bought and sold for sex, bought and sold for medical experimentation, bought and sold for entertainment. And then I realized that my ancestors were trafficking victims, and the light turned on that I'm a descendant of those who are trafficked. I am a descendant of those who had to be resilient.”
Galloway says most people don’t starting caring about the problem until they’re affected personally.
“You hear the stories about those young girls who can never escape -- who feel like they can never escape what happened to them because there's videos and pictures of them floating all around the internet -- are you moved yet,” Galloway said. “Or are you gonna wait until what happens to your child or to your neighbor's child, or to your cousin or your best friend, or somebody that you personally know -- you personally care about? My call is: don't wait until it’s too late to care.”
Galloway says when her feet are tired, she reminds herself that Harriet Tubman had already achieved her freedom, but still went back to save others.
“And so I'm really walking from a place of privilege,” Galloway said. “I have no immediate threat on my life. I'm not literally walking to save my own life. I could go home and probably live another day. However, when I think about quitting, I realized that I realized that quitting wasn't an option for her and so it cannot be an option for me.”
With annual awareness events and warnings, human trafficking remains persistent if sometimes unseen in the Northeast. Just in April, 15 across the Capital Region were charged in a human trafficking case.
Albany Police Chief Eric Hawkins spoke alongside Galloway at the Stephen and Harriet Myers Residence – an original home on The Underground Railroad.
“We interview these young women and just the heart wrenching stories that we hear -- how they got into it and and how they're being kept in this,” Hawkins said. “So, I applaud what you're doing. This is great. This is this is great for our community, this is great for this country.”
“The FreeTHEM Walk” also included stops in Richmond, Philadelphia, and New York City.
“I'm on my second pair of shoes,” Galloway said. “We have been able to walk through we have been able to walk through Appomattox county where General Lee surrendered and Richmond, Virginia stood over the bodies of Black and brown people who were enslaved and sold at the second largest port at Shockoe Bottom, we were able to walk through Warrenton, Virginia where my family was enslaved and been able to track where they were. And it's the people there that have been so kind to help me find out more about where I come from.”
Galloway says she hopes her journey educates others about human trafficking and lends hope for victims of exploitation.
“We're going to end in Buffalo, New York,” Galloway said. “And we're going to get there on June 19. And why is that day significant? Because that is the day that that's what we call our freedom day. And as abolitionists, as somebody that fights for freedom of every person, it is my job to give human trafficking victims -- It is my desire to give everybody their own personal Juneteenth, their own personal day of freedom.”
Galloway runs “Project Mona's House” in Buffalo. The organization rescues women from across the country. Galloway says the goal of “The FreeTHEM Walk” is to raise $1 million dollars to build the nation's largest human trafficking restoration home in Western New York.
“We create safe places for women to be able to become contributing and functioning members of society,” Galloway said. “We're blessed to be able to serve people in all 50 states. Our first residence in Buffalo, New York, our second residence opening very soon in Lynchburg, Virginia. And I hope that by the time that I die, and I close my eyes on this side of heaven, that there will have been a project Mona's house in every single state.”
Galloway says traffickers are really good at making young women feel that they are alone with no options.
“They're trained manipulators,” Galloway said. “And they try to make you feel like you're by yourself. And the truth is you're not you have a plethora you have an army of people willing to help you. We have a team of 15 freedom walkers who have literally put their lives on hold to be able to spread awareness about something that they haven't personally experienced. So even in the bleakest days, and then the moments where you feel most alone, the truth is that you're not.”
Galloway says the hardest part of her job is convincing United States citizens that human trafficking doesn't just happen overseas.
A 2019 report by the State Department identifies the U.S. as one of the world's worst places for human trafficking.