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COLUMN: From Coquitlam to Kathmandu

Tanya Lee, 26, grew up in Coquitlam, where she attended Hillcrest middle school and Centennial secondary, and where her family still lives.

Tanya Lee, 26, grew up in Coquitlam, where she attended Hillcrest middle school and Centennial secondary, and where her family still lives. She'll be contributing a column to The Tri-City News about her work with a human rights NGO (she also blogs at

After graduation, many of us experience a moment of panic. Old goals having been achieved and we realize that we are now directionless. We jump on any bandwagon that promises to hold grown-up life at bay, sometimes to the point of deciding "Why, yes, I WILL go to Tijuana for a YMCA youth conference. Why not?"

One trip through the red light district at 11 a.m., one glimpse of migrant girls and women on display like chattel and everything changed for me.

The scent of modern-day slavery flooded my senses and my post-graduation blues exploded in a - POOF. I had found my mission.

How do you define trafficking? It ultimately comes down to exploitation. Human trafficking can occur across borders or within nations, and along with the use of force or coercion, the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons recognizes that exploitation can occur via fraud or deception, the abuse of a position of power or by capitalizing on an individual's vulnerability. The International Labour Organization has recently estimated that 4.5 million people are currently enduring forced sexual exploitation, 21% of whom are children.

Growing up on Coquitlam's soccer fields and baseball diamonds, the realities of gender inequality had never truly set in until that moment. Upon return, I found that my rusty, old Canadian-based goals had lost their salience.

I returned to Tijuana to work with migrant youth and applied for graduate studies in International Planning and Development at the University of Guelph. Did my program look at human trafficking? Well, no But when it came time for me to conduct my research, I canvassed anti-trafficking agencies. Lady luck in my favour, Made By Survivors responded, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that helps women in India who have survived human trafficking to become artisans, training them in the art of silversmithing and jewelry making.

A few months later, I was dodging rickshaws and cows on the sweaty streets of Kolkata. In India, I met with young women who had been forced into child marriages or domestic servitude, or who had survived forced prostitution. Not all of the girls were Indian; some had been trafficked into India from Bangladesh or Nepal. Several of the girls who had endured commercial sexual exploitation had come from large families and had been sold into the sex trade by their parents.

These goofy, saucy, artistic girls taught me the true meaning of resilience. They welcomed me into their volleyball games and jewelry sanding circles, hennaed my hands and even braided my hair. Of course, being only 5" 1' tall, the girls assumed that I, like them, was in my teens. While an Indian staff member close to my age was Didi, a respectful term meaning elder sister, they hailed me with "Sister, sister!" Needless to say, it was heart-wrenchingly difficult to leave them.

After returning to Canada to finish my master's, I spent several months looking for work in the anti-trafficking field. I am ecstatic to report that I have been accepted as an intern with Human Rights Internet, which receives funding from the Canadian International Development Agency to administer human rights-based internships for Canadian graduates.

This fall, I am returning to south Asia to work with the Women's Rehabilitation Centre in Kathmandu, Nepal. I will have five months to continue learning about human trafficking, hopefully while standing picturesquely in Mount Everest's shadow, with a momo (famous Nepali dumpling) in hand.