This road to justice in our world is, indeed, a long one. But it is not a road void of hope.
In her new book, A Long Road to Justice: Stories from the Frontlines in Asia (2021), author Sylvia Yu Friedman uncovers truth about historical and contemporary sex trafficking, slavery, and racial discrimination in a way that is powerful and raw in her honest truth-telling, and gentle and humble in her clear-eyed recounting of stories that can only be gathered through the safety and love of listening with the heart.
As a reader based in North America who has the privilege to engage in anti-racism work in an Asian Canadian context (and continue to learn, un-/re-learn, and reflect on how to do so with kindness), I liken reading this book to seating oneself behind a lens equipped with both sharp macro focus as well as wide-angled breadth. Author Yu Friedman is the one holding the lens through both journalistic and biographical accounts. With the surge in anti-Asian racism in North America during the last two years of the pandemic, racism and and societal inequities have come to the forefront of many Asian Canadian and Asian American minds; we see so clearly, often with pain and anger, the injustices our communities have had to face – historically and contemporarily. This book invites the reader to zoom out from our North American context to understand the impact of discrimination in Asia, specifically in the area of sex trafficking and modern day slavery. At the same time, it invites the reader to zoom in, come close, to listen in on personal stories of pain and indescribable trauma – as well as of resilience and beauty of the human spirit in the face of some of the darkest injustices that women and girls, men and boys, go through.
I will be honest: this book is not for the faint of heart. Reading the raw accounts of abuse and enslavement – in some cases, literally in chains – from survivors of sex slavery and those who have dedicated their lives to help victims on the frontlines made me feel physically sick at times. How can humans degrade ourselves to inflicting such atrocious acts – even organized systems and networks – of dehumanized violence and abuse? I had to put the book down, take a deep breath, release my appallment through a whispered prayer: God, please help these people. Please heal.
While opening this book with a steel-hard heart may help one get through it unruffled, journeying through the stories of trauma and pain, healing, and forgiveness with a heart that is soft will be the abrasive friction needed to strike a match of hope within. Hope for conciliation, reconciliation, and deep healing for systemic wrongs.
For Yu Friedman, the flames of hope look like something and the kindling is already being gathered: former Japanese soldiers committed to restoration and healing for Comfort Women (a horrific euphemism for military sex slaves who “serviced” the Japanese military during WWII), and petitioning for a formal apology from the Japanese government; entrepreneurs in the corporate world innovating stable, dignifying work opportunities for the reintegration of survivors that “go[es] beyond ubiquitous jewellery making” (p. 276); former pimps and “mamasans” bravely sharing their stories to help others trapped in the alleyway (and broad daylight) systems of trafficking and abuse get out and into a better life; everyday people at grassroots organizations venturing into red-light districts under the watchful gaze of pimps and brothel owners to offer supports to those forced by circumstance or coercion into prostitution, sitting with survivors as they pour out their heartbreaking experiences, and simply becoming a true friend.
Journeying through stories of how young girls and even children are tricked and trafficked into years of sexual and labour servitude, stories of “slave husbands” (indeed lesser-known), and a perspective shift of seeing the men who purchase sex as victims themselves trying to soothe and escape from their own pain, a thought echoed in my mind: Perhaps another kindling of hope is the role and power of family (biological and chosen) on this road to justice. Story after story of children from impoverished families desperate to earn money to send home taken advantage of – poverty perpetuating slavery. The story of a teenage girl in rural China running away from home to escape her overbearing father who forbade her from going to school like her brother, only to be sold into bride trafficking and chained up like a dog by her elderly husband and then tricked into years of prostitution – gender inequality. The heartbreaking plight of two sisters who found themselves working as slaves in their aunt and uncle’s family-run online porn business – I don’t have words. We need strong social support networks that guide, protect, and empower the next generation. On the frontlines, and on the sidelines. The road is long. But it must not be lonely.
A Long Road to Justice opened my eyes and expanded my heart to histories, legacies, and present-day issues of racial discrimination, sexual and labour exploitation, women’s rights, and generational pain beyond what I know and am familiar with, that shape so much of the world we live in – here in North America, across the Pacific in Asia, and across generations. In today’s climate of quickly shifting realities of globalization, migration, and war, it seems that we have a lot to learn from history. Yu Friedman’s book could not be a more timely publication. Now is the time, in times of great darkness, to remember humanity’s inherent capacity for deep compassion, forgiveness, and love; and the belief that light will triumph over darkness. We can and we must pursue justice through eyes, hands, and hearts of hope.
I strongly recommend this book to anyone with a desire to behold and become part of the light of justice in our world.