Hong Kong couple’s cross-country effort to stop human-trafficking

Sylvia and Matthew Friedman travelled more than 10,000 miles across the United States to raise awareness on a global issue

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 November, 2016, 7:03am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 November, 2016, 8:52am

Human rights activists Sylvia and Matthew Friedman have been through a roller coaster of emotions and had their fair share of roadside feuds. Travelling thousands of miles across the United States for weeks on end will do that to a couple.

Local Hong Kong people need to join fight to abolish slavery, husband and wife activists say

For 70 days between June and August, the pair ventured off on what they described as “the road to freedom”, raising awareness of human-trafficking to organisations, schools and churches.

It sounded like a pipe dream at first, but looking back, the couple said the journey was the most rewarding experience they ever had.

“So many people told us it was impossible,” Sylvia said.

“I could not do it (alone) for sure, but Matt has something extra special. He was able to break through into global companies that other NGOs had been knocking on the door for a long time… I think it was a sort of a miraculous trip,” Sylvia said.

“In the first 20 days, we thought what we had decided to do was not humanly possible. We were constantly moving... I totally underestimated what the challenges would be. But once you start, you have to just keep going,” Matthew said.

Sylvia, a journalist and author of Silenced No More: Voices of Comfort Women, is the co-founder of the 852 Freedom Campaign in Hong Kong. Matthew, meanwhile, is the head of charitable organisation Mekong Club, which encourages the private sector to combat human-trafficking.

Hong Kong losing the fight against human trafficking, US report finds

By the end of the trip, they had travelled more than 10,200 miles across 17 states and visited 27 cities. From Sylvia’s hometown of Vancouver, Canada, to Matthew’s hometown of Hartford, Connecticut, in the US, the pair delivered presentations to 112 organisations, including Bank of America and Disney.

We kept telling ourselves to think of the 45.8 million women, children, men in slavery. That was what kept me going
Sylvia Friedman

They explained what human-trafficking was, who the victims were, where it could be found, the impact on the private sector and what people could do to help.

“Everywhere we went, we talked about what was happening in Hong Kong, mainland China and the region,” Sylvia said.

Sylvia said she found strength in the legacy of the American president Abraham Lincoln who first took a stand against slavery.

“We kept telling ourselves to think of the 45.8 million women, children, men in slavery. That was what kept me going,” she said.

Matthew, a former United Nations officer who has been based in Asia for more than 25 years, said his driving force “was basic faith and the idea that something could be done”, and an extreme sense of frustration.

The pair eventually returned to Hong Kong, where they first met in 2012. They said the trip made them stronger than ever – both as a couple and as human rights activists.

“As a couple we learned in a variety of ways. First of all, we got to know our strengths and weaknesses better,” Matthew said. “I have a German background. Germans tend to be ten minutes early to everything, Koreans, or this Korean, was not necessarily early …So there was this tension going on,” he added.

“It’s a miracle that I ended up loving my husband more and appreciating him more, but at the beginning of the trip, I was like ‘I am going to wring his neck’… Why did I ever marry this guy?” she recalled, laughing.

Hong Kong does not need laws against human trafficking, says government

Despite of the challenges, both said they had achieved more than expected on the trip, and their resolve to continue fighting human-trafficking had hardened.

“Our commitment to this is life long... When you meet someone who has been exploited in unspeakably evil ways, how can you be cold in that situation? It does change you... It’s the greatest human rights violation of our time. I pray, I hope that local Chinese will wake up to it,” she said.

Some people say ‘why pick this issue?’ Because it’s a combination of so many bad things coming together in one place
Matthew Friedman

Matthew said human-trafficking is fundamentally not just about being forced into unpaid work.

“It’s about loss of freedom. You loose control of your life, of your sense of justice, health, ability to educate yourself… everything is lost as a result of that. Some people say ‘why pick this issue?’ Because it’s a combination of so many bad things coming together in one place.”

While there are 45.8 million men, women and children in slavery, the combined efforts of the United Nations, governments and NGOs only manages to help approximately 0.2 per cent of victims, Matthew said.

He calculated that the human-trafficking business makes about $150 billion in profits each year, but there were only $350 million in donor contributions to combat the problem.

“We’re not winning the fight against human-trafficking,” he said. “The world needs more people to get the word out there about what’s happening. It’s not just in the US, Hong Kong… People don’t know about this topic and if they don’t, they will not do anything to help.”

Since completing their trip, Sylvia and Matthew Friedman have already received invitations to return to the US and also to go to Europe to spread their message.