Saving the New Mothers of Nepal

Posted on December 21st, 2012

A family next to me is holding a newborn baby wearing a necklace with a locket. Inside the locket, is a tiny cylinder. I ask the mother about it. “My baby wears this necklace to connect us. Inside of it is a piece of our umbilical cord. So that he doesn’t forget me, he wears this his entire life.” The umbilical cord serves as a reminder of the previous physical connection between mother and child.

Unlike Western culture, which unceremoniously discards umbilical cords, Nepalese culture has a very different perspective of childbirth. Nepalese also have significantly more challenges. High maternal mortality rates during childbirth result from a combination of factors, particularly scarcity of medical resources and existing social mores that put expectant mothers at risk when delivering their children.

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After a day of travel I am five-hundred miles east of Kathmandu in Ilam. The Dr. Megh Bahadur Parajuli Community Hospital, overlooking a valley of tea fields, was built during a civil war by a team of volunteers. Although it serves as an imperative medical resource for the local population, the hospital struggles to survive under financial and political strains. These strains create occasional yet dangerous dearths of medical talent, technology and medicines. However hope comes with the arrival of a team of Western doctors who will be volunteering their time and money. Word spreads rapidly of their arrival and patients make their way to the hospital from all over the region.

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It’s 7:00 AM, and part of the Western team has been laboring all night over the first childbirth. Sadly, the baby is stillborn. It is a rough start for the medical mission.

Two triage tables are set up against the outside walls of the hospital where hundreds of local men and women wearing colorful saris line up to see the doctors. A small piece of masking tape with a drawn on smily face grants the individual who has it access upstairs to the open air roof, the unlikely location of an obstetrics and gynecology (OB/GYN) clinic. Sheets hanging off of tin roofs serve as examination rooms and a waiting area is constructed from two large plastic tarps tied together with rows of plastic chairs.

A small piece of masking tape with a drawn on smily face grants the individual who has it access upstairs to the open air roof, the unlikely location of an obstetrics and gynecology (OB/GYN) clinic.

The Western medical mission responsible for the creation of the impromptu OB/GYN ward is a nongovernmental organization named Worldwide Healing Hands (WHH) which was founded by California OB/GYN surgeon Dr. Paula Dhanda. On this trip Dr. Dhanda is accompanied by Dr. Henry, Dr. Khatib and Dr. Woods. The doctors are supported by a small team of nurses, medical personel and volunteers willing to take on any roll that is asked of them.

The frenetic pace of the ward and the great number of patients makes the sad first case seem like a distant memory even though it occurred just hours ago. The team of nurses meet with patients. Calmly and efficiently they ascertain each patients’ needs. Doctors follow up with vaginal exams and ultrasounds to determine if surgery is indicated.

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Healthier patients often protract the process of triage by learning the right “buzz” words to trigger additional but unnecessary testing which takes up the doctors precious time. By the end of the first day, four surgeries are scheduled for the following morning.

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The patients who do not need to see the surgeons, are treated downstairs in the hospital by emergency room (ER) doctor, Dr. Khatib and her team. Her role here is critical, and probably the most overwhelming. Unlike doctors who are educated in the West and eased into the trenches through a residency program, the local doctors who Dr. Khatib oversees are put into their positions right out of medical school.

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Armed guards stand in a line marking the end of the first day. The hospital is locked and the patients that weren’t seen today go home if they live close, or camp out if they live far. Up on the roof the OB/GYN ward becomes a hotel for the visiting doctors and their support team. As night grows darker a camaraderie develops among the medical staff. They have all successfully survived their first day.

Beatboxing, a Different Type of Street Music

Posted on September 11th, 2012

As a young man in his early twenties Benjamin Stanford, aka Dub Fx, set out to liberate himself. Through beat boxing, the art of vocal percussion, he found a way to travel to over forty countries and earn a living wherever he goes.

Forever moving my body’s always grooving
The sounds are always soothing
And my heart is always using
The love that I feel when I bounce in time
I’m free like a bird in the sunshine
I crouch down to the sound if I like the bass
I put my hands in the air and I scrunch up my face
I dance till my legs get weaker
To the rhythm that I hear from the speaker

Street performers typically play in metros and on street corners with musical instruments. In a radically new form of busking Dub Fx has taken the electronic sounds of the clubs and recreated them on the street – using only his voice.

Dub Fx’s medium is an extended form of beat boxing. He vocally produces sounds of musical instruments, and then using loop pedals and other special effects gear he layers those vocal sounds one on top of another. The result forms the symphonic background to his singing.

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Dub Fx joins the ranks of street musicians like this punk band playing for the public in Tokyo, except Dub Fx brings only his voice to the performance.

Dub Fx’s is sometimes accompanied by his friend, Mr Woodnote who adds a saxophone which is fed into the same mixer to create a rich, earthy and yet angelic sound. A good example of this is on the video ‘Flow’ recorded live on the street in Bristol, England.

Joined at the soul with a pair of headphones
We need nobody to let ourselves go
Always on my side as we rock a stage show
In an ocean of music we move with the flow

Dub Fx has been able to fund his travels by selling self-produced CDs which his girlfriend, Flower Fairy, sells to the gathering crowds while he performs. Dub Fx also distributes his offerings through his own label, Convoyunlimited, which he set up with his best friend and manager Cade Anderson.

The video ‘Flow’ has garnered over thirteen million views on YouTube. This popularity has gotten Dub Fx invited to play clubs and festivals around the world. He has been able to make a living without being reliant upon the music industry.

One of his latest videos finds him on a rooftop high above the metropolis of Mumbai in India. The sun is setting as we hear the sounds of evening prayer rising up from the smoky cityscape below. Dub Fx presses a few buttons with his foot on the electronic boards spread out on the ground before him and launches a percussive drum and bass beat that is joined by Mahesh Vinayakram’s jaw’s harp.

Soon Mahesh’s soaring voice is sending Hindu sounds into the evening sky before giving way to Cade Anderson’s rap. Dub Fx continues to step on his loop pedals building a hypnotic backdrop to the passionate incantations of the three men while, behind them, the sky turns dark pink and turquoise. This music cannot be categorized.

Dub Fx started out life in St Kildas, a suburb of Melbourne, and played in a regular band. But, his attraction to soul and reggae and other cultures was not shared by those around him. So he began a journey to discover what lay beyond the parochial local scene of his native land. The most receptive environment he found was in Europe, in Bristol, England in particular.

In the people there he found a level of authenticity that was refreshing. If people didn’t like his music they told him so to his face. Without the distance created by a stage it takes a lot of courage to connect with people when they are right there in front of you. You have to lose yourself to the music and let go of your self-consciousness.

I’m just a humble soul on the side of the street
Making my own tunes with my voice and with my feet
Ye I’m living day by day
Like a nomad stumbling on out of his cave
I celebrate the sun, I live my life for the earth
I let the rain come down on my endless search
I never quit, I’m planting seed by seed
I’m evolutionising to save my breed
I’m just a cog in the machine
A part of the process, I’m here to express
That we need some progress

In baring his soul to his listeners in such a raw and immediate context he has to be able to connect with people from many different cultures. Dub Fx says that his hybrid mix of rap, reggae, soul and electronica helps this connection. “I truly believe that music is a universal language. It’s a core part of our DNA and it’s embedded into every culture on the planet.”

Former Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart said everyone in the world connects to beats; “Life is about rhythm. We vibrate, our hearts are pumping blood, we are a rhythm machine, that’s what we are.” Dub Fx puts out the beats and then injects his pure energy on top of them. It is the beats and energy that allow Dub Fx to unite with the people encounters around the world. It’s part music and part spirituality.

Alison Wright

Musicians at the Taj Mahal.

“I’m not aiming for my music to be spiritual but if some people find that in my music I won’t deny it. Spirituality can be found in surfing and skateboarding and cooking. Street performing taught me how to deliver my music with a certain conviction. And I guess that’s what touches people – they feel like a raw energy hits them. You can feel the music hit you like electricity in the chest. Marley, Dylan, Nirvana … they have that electricity.”

A Hive With a View

Posted on July 30th, 2012

I was armored with a full-body white beekeeper’s suit but I was still nervous as the bees pelted the back of my head, clearly annoyed I had invaded their space. And who wouldn’t be? I was encroaching on their private pad, their outside terrace perched on top of the city of San Francisco.

Jardiniere Restaurant, one of the city’s finest culinary establishments, is home to thousands of bees that live on top of the two-story brownstone on Hayes Street. The hives have only been there since May, but the bees are already producing honey thanks to the abundant food sources at the nearby Hayes Valley Farm.

Joel Sartore Bee

Terry Oxford, owner of UrbanBeeSF, manages these hives, and several other bee communities, or apiaries, located on top of some of the best restaurants across San Francisco. On the same Saturday afternoon, Oxford cleaned up some of the honeycomb and harvested honey that would be served later that night at Jardinere as an accompaniment to the cheese plate.

“The restaurants care more about the bees than the honey,”.

But Terry – and the restaurants she works with – doesn’t do this for the honey, though it is certainly a tasty result. She says she does it because bees are a critical part of the ecosystem, even in the urban jungle of San Francisco.

“The restaurants care more about the bees than the honey,” Oxford said. “I provide the restaurants with honeycomb, but it’s more of an essence than in bulk. Having the bees on their roof is almost like having a mascot for organic, sustainable [products].”

Oxford, also a property manager for San Francisco’s human residents, always keeps an eye out for prime bee real estate. She said she tried hives on top of residential buildings before, but quickly recognized the symbiotic relationship she could forge with restaurants. They give her roof space, she gives them honey.

For restaurants like Quince in the Jackson Square neighborhood that also boasts a rooftop garden, complete with a perfect view of the TransAmerica pyramid building, the bees are an added bonus as they help pollinate the garden’s plants. Other San Francisco restaurants Tony’s Pizza and Nopa, which also have apiaries atop their establishments, are benefiting the neighborhood flora with their honey suppliers.

Terry became interested in beekeeping after spending a day with a beekeeper up in the Sierra Mountains in the 1990s. The “amazing experience,” in tandem with Oxford’s research into the bees’ decline in population, inspired her to take beekeeping classes and start a venture of her own.

“I found out I was pretty good at it,” she said. “My bees survived year after year, my queen reproduced, my bees reproduced and the population grew. I’m still able to split the hives and make more. And I do it all without medication or pesticides.”

Joel Sartore Bees on Honeycomb

Oxford was quick to note that she is no expert; instead she calls beekeeping a practice, “like Buddhism.”

In doing this for more than 4 years, Oxford said she’s learned many lessons, from what you need for healthy hives to which type of bees to use in the San Francisco climate (and microclimates).

After watching Oxford and her team heave several heavy stacks of hives over the top of Quince’s second-story rooftop, it was clear that urban beekeeping requires flexibility. If one location loses a food source, or lacks enough water or sunlight, or too many other bees move into the area, then the hives must move too.

It’s clear when Oxford talks about her bees that she has an unmatched passion for these creatures. To her, the queen is the “badass” of the hive, but, she notes that the drones deserve more respect than they get. Each type of bee, from females to drones to the queen bee herself, is a vital part of a healthy hive, and, in Terry’s mind, a healthy planet.

“Seeing a bee in a flower, it’s this beautiful relationship of keeping each other alive.”

Joel Sartore Bees on a sunflower.

Putting a Face to Refugees Worldwide

Posted on June 21st, 2012

During the height of sectarian violence in Iraq, many Iraqis left their country to find solace in Syria. Yasir Imad, 29, was one of them. In 2006, Imad was almost killed when a road bomb exploded on his car in Iraq. Later that same year, he was kidnapped and held captive for three days without knowing why. Ten days after he was released by his kidnappers, he received a note telling him to flee the country or risk being killed. “Some people think it might be because I worked for a telecom company and also for my religious views,” said Imad. “My family said you have to go now. We love you, but we don’t want to lose you.”

Iraqi refugee and his Indonesian wife await relocation to Australia.

The grim reality of war, persecution, and growing violence, forced a record number of people to flee their homes and across borders in 2011. “In the last year, 4.3 million people became displaced (within their country) and 800,000 people became refugees. That’s more than any time since 2000,” said Khaled Hosseini, best-selling author of The Kite Runner and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Goodwill Envoy.

A former Afghan refugee, Hosseini took on the role of Goodwill Envoy for UNHCR in order to put a human face to the growing crisis. According to UNHCR’s 2011 Global Trends report, Afghanistan is the largest source of refugees followed by Iraq and numerous nations in Africa. “The issue is that 80% of the refugees around the world live in either under-developed or developing countries,” said Hosseini. Most of the Afghan and Iraqi refugees flee to neighboring countries like Iran, Pakistan, and Syria. “A lot of these host nations have social economic, political security and economic concerns of their own.”

Imad chose Syria because it has the easiest and least expensive visa entry process. However, he was not legally allowed to work there. “I worked so many jobs where the employer wouldn’t pay because they knew I couldn’t do anything about it. I couldn’t sue or anything,” recalls Imad. “I remember there were days that I couldn’t afford a meal… I got into a depression and tried to commit suicide a couple of times…It (being a refugee) is degrading. It’s about trying to have a life when you actually don’t have a life.”

With no legal status and no work authorization, refugees like Imad live in constant fear of arrest, detention, and deportation. He describes the over-all feeling among Iraqis living in Syria as divided into two groups. The first is waiting anxiously for years to be resettled, putting their lives on hold, yet not knowing the status of their cases. The other group is in despair, resigned to living the rest of their lives in limbo with no hope for a future.

“My family said you have to go now. We love you, but we don’t want to lose you.”

Since 2010, a series of protests and demonstrations across the Middle East and North Africa known as the Arab Spring created even more displacement, uncertainty and tension for the refugees in those regions. In Syria’s case, escalating violence between Syria’s government troops and the opposition made the security situation too volatile. United States, among other nations, closed its visa office and postponed sending officials from the Department of Homeland Security to conduct required interviews for the completion of the visa applications.

“While Iraqi refugees living in Syria, approximately 100,000, are not affected directly by the events in the country, I am increasingly concerned about the disruption of resettlement activities and thus the lack of durable options since the majority of them cannot return to their country of origin,” said Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR representative for the United States.

Imad was one of the lucky ones. After years of waiting, he was recently allowed to immigrate into the United States. “I definitely consider that I’ve wasted four years of my life because I was waiting. You can be hungry in New York City and you can be hungry in Damascus (Syria), but at least you are safe and can go to training and have a career in the United States.”

The question becomes: why should the international community care what happens to people and countries troubled by poverty, violence and corruption? Aside from the moral obligation to respond to massive human rights abuses, local conflicts and unrest can spread quickly to neighboring countries. The instability also creates economic and security threats for the industrialized regions like Europe, Israel and United States. A war in a country like Syria can destabilize an entire region and create serious political and diplomatic problems for the rest of the world.

A Sudanese doctor weighing a child at a health center in Kass, Darfur.

In May 2012, a new solutions strategy, which was drawn up between Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and UNHCR in Geneva, focuses efforts on supporting Afghan refugees wanting to return back to Afghanistan. Since 2002, 5.7 million Afghans have returned home. However, there are still two million Afghan refugees in Pakistan and almost one million in Iran. The number of people wanting to return has slowed down in the recent years due to lack of infrastructure. According to the UNHCR website, “The strategy aims both at preserving asylum space for Afghan refugees in neighboring countries over the coming three years and beyond, and at supporting sustainable reintegration for those Afghans who return home. It also calls for assistance to host countries.”

“The first is to help those refugees that want to return to Afghanistan with logistical assistance, legal aid, legal advice, and help with reintegration. The second is helping to improve the reintegration inside Afghanistan by looking at development at the village level. And also to advocate for the returning communities to be included,” explains Hosseini. “The whole idea is to improve the conditions inside the country. Get rid of those push factors like lack of jobs, access to schools, clean water, food security, shelter. So that Afghanis feel that there is a chance of a viable life for them in their home country.”
Khaled Hosseini’s goal is to bring worldwide attention to this humanitarian crisis. “This is more than just a burden for the developing countries, but rather an international issue. This is a huge crisis that affects everybody globally,” he said.

National Geographic photographers have covered the struggle of refugees around the world for decades. With unprecedented access and unyielding bravery, our photographers have helped build a visual history of this issue. Click here to see more of this image collection.

A Brief History of Science Fiction

Posted on June 14th, 2012

Last week science fiction author Ray Bradbury passed away on the same day as the incredibly rare astronomical phenomenon the transit of Venus was taking place. The coincidence could not be more fitting nor more bizarre. A real life occurrence that played out like a scene from one of Bradbury’s own novels. Which is what makes science fiction stories so wonderful, the outlying possibility that what we are reading, or watching, could in fact happen one day. One only need to view an episode of the original Star Trek television series from the late 1960s to see that some of the TV props of yore have manifest in the technological wonders we use today.

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In these contemporary times science fiction is often associated with outer space. But if you distill the genre to its base, it’s really about traveling to the unknown. Very early novels like “Gulliver’s Travels”, about venturing out to the as yet undiscovered areas of the our own planet, were arguably some of the first science fiction novels of history.

As the surface of our planet became less of a mystery with the advent of pioneering expeditions of discovery, many backed by the National Geographic Society, writers like Jules Verne took science fiction to the unfamiliar depths of the ocean with “20,000 Leagues under the Sea.”

HG Wells continued the trend of writing about mysterious worlds with tales of time travel, travel to the moon as well as an alien invasion with his novel “War of the Worlds.” A story that briefly paralyzed part the United States with fear when it was broadcast as radio program in October of 1938. An exemplary example of how primal humanity becomes when faced with the unknown.

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However if you dig a little deeper into the depths of any good science fiction story, you’ll see some familiarity. The themes are often metaphors for present-day. In the sixties, Star Trek, which really brought science fiction to the forefront of the societal mainstream, is replete with metaphors appropriate to the cold war era portraying the Klingons as the Russians and Romulans as the communists of China.

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A more recent cinematic offering is Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus.” If you look around the internet you’ll find hundreds of interpretations of a theme which is a constant of the human condition. The question; where do we come from.

The 75th Anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge

Posted on May 26th, 2012

The Golden Gate Bridge represents a multitude of experiences and emotions. For some, it’s a sign of homecoming, to others, it’s an escape. For thousands, it’s part of a daily commute. But to everyone, it is an icon which that celebrates its 75th anniversary on May 27.

The bridge was completed in an exceptionally fast four years, with cutting edge calculation devices that included an abacus and a slide rule. Connecting San Francisco and Marin counties, the Golden Gate Bridge has withstood countless earthquakes, the daily strain of thousands of cars, and perhaps most perilously, nearly 800,000 people on its deck during the last anniversary celebration 25 years ago.

More than 3,000 miles away in Roebling, New Jersey, the company that made the thick cables for the bridge – John A. Roeblings’ Sons – are showcasing the spinning technique patented by the company and used for the Golden Gate. Patricia Millen, executive director of the Roebling Museum and curator of Spinning Gold, said that the wheels that were brought over to San Francisco for the project could spin up to 1,000 miles of wire in an eight-hour shift.

“Each cable was made up of 27,572 individual wires, each the size of a pencil,” Millen said. “Each cable measured three feet in diameter. On the 50th anniversary, that was the most weight the bridge had ever experienced, and the Roebling cables held.”

Many companies, like Roeblings’ Sons, can boast the completion of the Golden Gate Bridge in their history. But to a select number of people, the Golden Gate Bridge is deeply intertwined in their family’s history, a bridge that not only connects two counties but also generations.

The descendants of these engineers maintain a fascinating oral history of the bridge that most of us recognize from postcards and history books. Their family treasures include original photographs of the bridge under construction.

“My grandfather showed up on Valentine’s day in 1933 and he took care of the men, made sure they all worked, wore their leather hard hats,” recalled Lucinda Cone, granddaughter of Russell G. Cone, the resident engineer for the project. “My grandfather was the advocate for putting a net underneath the bridge and the extra safety measures. It saved many men’s lives.”

Mr. Cone was also key in preventing any of any sort of slacking. Lucinda Cone said that her grandfather used to make hungover men drink sauerkraut juice to keep them working. However, even with strong safety measures danger was always looming in one form or another as evidenced by Russel Cone’s harrowing tale of getting the bends when he had to dive to inspect the bridge’s foundations.

Susan Morris is the granddaughter of Harry Hilp of Barrett & Hilp, the construction firm that won the bid to build the two anchorages and piers of approach spans. A historian herself, Morris said the company was young when they put in their bid, but they felt they had the necessary experience after constructing the Third Street Bridge over the China Basin, now neighbor to AT&T Park.

Both Frank Barrett and Harry Hilp were born and raised San Franciscans, and Hilp lived every day in view of the Bridge that he helped build.

“To him, and what was passed onto our family, was a tremendous sense of civic pride,” Morris said. “It was extraordinary to be able to gather funds and put people to work in the depression. Every time I go over the bridge, I feel pride for our city and what we gave to the world. I’m proud of my grandfather and his partner too; they had this entrepreneurial spirit that I think is embodied in the bridge and its history.”

When Lucinda Cone crosses the bridge, she thinks of the homecomings, the weddings, the departures that the Bridge has seen and represented to so many over the years. For her, the bridge provides a connection to her past.

“Every time I drive across it, I talk to my grandpa.”

As tourists and locals alike prepare to gather at the bridge on May 27, so are the descendants of the bridge’s engineers and workers, many of whose names appear on a dedication plaque on the bridge’s south tower.

For Lucinda Cone, granddaughter of Joseph Strauss’s Resident Engineer Russell G. Cone, they are particularly excited to celebrate a new addition to that plaque. Charles Ellis was the designer and architect of the bridge. It was his job to build a structure that would withstand earthquakes, winds, tides and whatever else nature (and man) would throw at it over the years. He succeeded, but has never been recognized because he was fired before construction began in 1933.

Cone and her family have been advocating for his recognition for years, and she said the addition of Ellis’s name on the plaque will make the celebrations of the bridge much sweeter.

Stephen Alvarez Masters Light on Assignment for University of the South

Posted on May 1st, 2012

National Geographic Assignment photographer, Stephen Alvarez showcases the University of the South in a breathtaking time lapse video where he condenses a perfect day into three minutes. Alvarez’s unique style of visual storytelling reveals the wonderful feel of the campus which the University of the South wants to convey to prospective student candidates.

To convey the personality of the campus Mr. Alvarez went back to the campus many times over the course of a month. In the final video below over five thousand still images were combined to create a piece in motion that is striking and unique among college promotional films.

Put your feet up for few minutes, turn up the volume and let the light guide you.

Click here to browse Stephen Alvarez’s portfolio.

The Slaves in the Shadows of America

Posted on April 25th, 2012

Hidden in the shadows of polite society in America are thousands of enslaved men, women, and children. This modern day slavery is known as human trafficking. According to the U.S. Department of State, there are 14,500 to 17,500 victims trafficked each year into this country. These numbers are often under-reported because the victims live in obscurity, hidden from the general public and are afraid to speak out.

A common myth is that human trafficking only refers to forced prostitution. Yet trafficking often occurs in legitimate settings like farms, factories, hotels, nail salons, restaurants, and even private homes in ordinary towns. I spoke to a human trafficking survivor Arti (her name has been changed for her protection) about her experience coming to the United States.

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Jodi Cobb

A resident of Casa Regina Pacis, a shelter for trafficked immigrants.

At 17 years old, Arti was working as a nanny for a family in her home country of Indonesia. She was offered $150 per month with one day off per week to work as a nanny for her Indonesian employer’s cousin in the United States. “They told me that I don’t have to pay for anything to come over; passports, visa, plane tickets. I came with my cousin and the family I worked for back home.” When they arrived, their employer took Arti and her cousin’s passports for “safe keeping”.

After a few weeks, Arti was told that she was going to work for another Indonesian family and her cousin would stay working for the current one. They were promised that they would be able to see each other and talk on the phone all the time. However, none of the promises were honored. Arti worked for three years without any pay, sleeping on the floor and working all day without a single day off. “I worked from the moment I woke up at six, until midnight or sometimes two o’clock in the morning,” said Arti. “I took care of the baby, cooked, did laundry, washed cars, gardening, and whatever needed to be done around the house. The only time I was allowed to go outside was to walk the dog. Also, on Sundays we would all go to church and I would take care of the child but I wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone.”

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Jodi Cobb

Residents of Casa Regina Pacis, a shelter for trafficked immigrants.

Arti was physically and emotionally abused on a daily basis by the wife, who would threaten to call the police and have her arrested if she was to escape or talk to anyone. “She said that since I have no papers the police would throw me in jail and that I could get raped in jail.” Arti was scared and kept her mouth shut even when she was being battered. “The wife would pull me, throw things at me and push me at the wall. One time she hit me with a ceramic salt shaker on the side of my forehead and it was bleeding. After arguing with his wife for a while, the husband took me to the emergency room to get stitches. The wife told me not to tell anyone what happened. If asked, I should tell them that I fell and hit my head on a rock or something.” Arti followed the wife’s instructions and kept quiet until one day when she couldn’t take it anymore. “The wife hit me in the face with a bag of ice and I was bruised all over. I wrote a letter to the nanny next door asking for help. I don’t write English and took me a long time to write the letter. A few days later, she [the nanny] arranged my escape and took me to CAST (Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking), a human rights organization in Los Angeles.

Sadly Arti’s story is not unique. Many of the traffickers are not the stereotypical gangsters of the movies. They are often trusted family members, friends or community business people that understand the culture and thus vulnerabilities of the people they are victimizing. This was the case for Tala (her name has been changed for her protection), a 28 year old woman who wanted to help her family in the Philippines. Her aunt was already working in the U.S. for a Filipino woman who owned a licensed residential care facility for the elderly. When Tala’s aunt found out that there will be a second facility opening, she told Tala about the opportunity. Excited about the possibility of earning money to send to her family, Tala spoke to her future employer over the phone. “She explained to me that it would be easier for me to get a visa if I was trained as a Tae Kwon Do instructor. She said that I wouldn’t have to worry about anything and that she will take care of everything.” Tala’s trafficker knew that certain foreign professionals with specialized knowledge like Tae Kwon Do can obtain an entry visa more readily. She gave Tala the name of the instructor in Manila that would train her and bring her to the United States. Tala trained for two months in Tae Kwon Do and in October of 2005 she arrived in Los Angeles with her instructor. “When we came to LAX, the instructor asked me for my passport for safe keeping. I didn’t think about it like why is he keeping my passport. I was just thinking, it’s fine I’m here and they are Filipino so I trusted them.”

Upon meeting her employer, Tala was informed that this great deed of bringing her to this country came at a price. “When I met my trafficker, she told me that I’m so lucky that she paid for me to come here and that we need to help each other. She helped me to come here to work and now I need to help her with her business. She said I will need to work for her for 10 years to pay my debt and that I also owed her $12,000. We call it an utang na loob.” In the Filipino culture, an utang na loob is a debt of gratitude. It runs deeper than just ordinary debt or owing a favor. It is a debt that must never be forgotten since no money can ever fully repay it. Often this loyalty is used by those who have the power and material resources to create a dependent relationship, and by those who have not been empowered to break from these ties because it would bring great shame.

Tala worked for her trafficker for over two years. She was one of three Filipino trafficking victims living in the residential care facility taking care of the elderly around the clock. Tala was paid $600 per month of which her trafficker kept half to pay off the $12,000 owed. “We worked from 4:30 am to 11 pm every day. We slept there (the care facility) and would have to get up every two hours to check on the residents,” said Tala. To make sure that Tala and the others never left, the trafficker would also threaten them with calling the police. “She said that if we run away, she would call the police and tell them that we stole something from her.” The three workers slept on the floor and ate whatever food the residents didn’t finish, which often was nothing.

One day on a daily stroll with the residents, a neighbor that became increasingly suspicious of what was going on gave Tala his phone number. “I said to him, what am I going to do with this number? He said, if you ever need anything, you can call me,” Tala recalls. Victims of human trafficking often do not seek help right away. This is mostly due to lack of trust of the authorities, self-blame, or being directly brainwashed by traffickers that they would not be believed.

Tala finally did call the neighbor, but was too scared to speak. “I felt like I was going to kill myself. It was too much.” Lucky for her, the neighbor reported his suspicions to the police and eventually the FBI got involved. The government worked with Tala to get her out the situation and into a safe place.

In both cases, the woman received Green Cards in exchange for their cooperation. However, in Arti’s case, the traffickers were never convicted because she did not press charges. “My family didn’t want me to and there wasn’t enough evidence for a conviction. Now I wish I did,” said Arti.

To confront the atrocity of human trafficking, a modern day abolitionist movement is emerging. At a Freedom Summit held in the San Francisco Bay Area last year, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, “Little by little, by naming and, indeed, shaming, we begin to address that this is an issue that the United States will not tolerate.” In 2000, U.S. Congress passed into law The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (VTVPA). It has been amended several times since then to offer protections for persons in the country illegally who may be a victim of human trafficking. With this law an interagency task force was established to monitor and combat trafficking. The task force also assists in evaluating progress in trafficking prevention, provides victims assistance, and aides the prosecution of traffickers. Although the identification, investigation and prosecution of human trafficking cases remains a complex issue, there is more emphasis on the formation of local human trafficking task forces and community outreach programs these days. Even is small, seemingly idyllic communities like Marin County in Northern California, officers are being trained to spot the sign of a human trafficking victims.

Jodi cobb03

Jodi Cobb

Memorial statue of a slave breaking his bonds.

“I personally believe that we need to be training and conducting advocacy and outreach in all levels of law enforcement and prosecution, all levels of service providers, and the community also needs this awareness about trafficking,” said John Vanek, Anti-Human Trafficking Consultant and retired Lieutenant of the San Jose Police Human Trafficking Task Force in California. “We touch these slaves unknowing every day. The food we eat, the coffee we drink, where we get our clothes, how we perceive women and their role in sex. All these things touch slavery in one way or another and therefore they touch us.”

The images here were taken from Jodi Cobb’s National Geographic Stock collection on human trafficking.

Water, Water Everywhere, Just The Way I Like It

Posted on April 12th, 2012

Heather Perry doesn’t know this, but when I called her to interview her about her latest underwater pictures, I was wearing a swim suit. It only felt right. Miss Perry seems to have spent more time in the water than on dry land, and I wanted to fit in.

It all started somewhat innocently for Perry. When she was in college, in spite of being prone to ear infections, she got herself on the swim team. Then, as part of her biology major she was required to get certified for scuba diving. It was the beginning of an obsession with the water that would become the foundation for the rest of her life. Soon after she graduated from college she landed in the Caribbean for a few years. Exposed to the stunning undersea landscape of the area she deliberated on how she could find a job that would let her spend the rest of her life subsurface. She found the answer to her career query in a closet.

Heather Perry was working at an aquarium when one day she opened up a closet and found a disused underwater camera. The aquarium gave her leave to do what she wanted with the gear and her photography career was born. A profession she pursued with the goal of making it to National Geographic along a path that she says she traveled by putting one foot in front of the other. Each step calculated to take her in the direction of the magazine.

Perry’s current passion aside from her photography work is a company called Swim Vacation where she is one of the partners. It’s a guided tour company for open water swimming in the British Virgin Islands. Once again fate nudged her in the direction of another opportunity to get wet. Perry got involved with Swim Vacation because she had been out of the water for an extended period because of an illness. After getting back in the pool post illness she started to pursue open water swimming events which is where she connected with Swim Vacation’s founder. Once she heard about the company she asked how she could get involved. It was a match made in, um, the waves.

Heather Perry is exceedingly passionate about the water and what it can do for us both physically and emotionally. Even though the water isn’t a natural habitat for humans, I can attest to the connection that Perry feels that she has for the environment. And with Jim Cameron’s expedition to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, I have a feeling more landlubbers are going to be looking at that horizon of infinite blue with a yearning eye.