When Evelyn Chumbow answered her phone one day last August, the voice on the other end of the line said, “This is the White House calling.” Obviously, a proverbial joke. “I [thought], ‘This is a lie.’ I said, ‘OK. How did you get my number?’” But when Chumbow Googled the caller’s name, she realized, “Oh wow. This is the White House.”
The caller asked if Chumbow, a survivor of human trafficking who has become a leading advocate for fellow survivors, would serve on a new U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking.
It was an honor to receive the nomination, but it wouldn’t be Chumbow’s first visit to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She had spoken there before with actress and activist Ashley Judd.
When Secretary of State John Kerry welcomed the advisory council on behalf of President Obama, that wasn’t a first for Chumbow, either. She had met the Secretary of State in 2014 when she received the inaugural U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Foundation’s Granting Courage Scholarship.
Kerry introduced the council members to representatives from the U.S. Departments of Education, Homeland Security, Labor and Transportation. With characteristic boldness, Chumbow approached the representative from Homeland Security and informed him that she would soon be graduating from UMUC with a bachelor’s in homeland security.
“I need a job, so don’t play with me,” she told him. “He was like, ‘Call my people.’”
That boldness and focus on practical realities has become part of Chumbow’s advocacy for survivors of human trafficking. She still recalls the time in 2014, when she was invited to speak in London at the Trust Women Conference. There she was, speaking for free to some 3,000 wealthy attendees—and worrying that the time she had taken to make the trip might jeopardize her job back home.
“When I got on stage, I was just like, ‘OK. I’m here, yes. I’m telling you my story. But really, we don’t need your compassion as survivors. We need jobs. We need job opportunities,’” she said. “‘‘If you want to help end human trafficking and slavery, you have to help the people who went through it.’”
She just couldn’t shake the absurdity of being put up at a fancy hotel where she couldn’t afford the food. “It just came out,” she laughed. “I’m glad I talked about it.”
She went on to explain to those in attendance that survivors are at risk of becoming victims again if they can’t find work; some may even return to what they know and become traffickers themselves.
She echoed many of those same points in her February 2016 CNN article, “Human trafficking survivor: ‘We need jobs, not pity.’”
Her message didn’t go unheeded. After she spoke in London, a representative from the law firm of Baker & McKenzie approached her and offered her a job. During the interview process, Chumbow provided a writing sample―an essay she composed for her studies at UMUC.
“That’s how I got [the job] there,” she says. “Everything else has been a blessing.”
Chumbow, who is not only a survivor but also a wife and mother, said one of the reasons she chose UMUC is that she was pregnant at the time and the online format was very convenient. She decided to study homeland security after noticing that homeland security officers kept asking her and fellow survivors to provide recommendations and training based on their experience.
Armed with her degree, she would be able to say, “Put me in a little corner of the office, and anytime you need me for my expertise on human trafficking, I’m there.”
College wasn’t easy for Chumbow, who had been in foster care and hadn’t attended school from ages 9 to 17. “Not having that school interaction was very, very hard,” she said. But, though UMUC was challenging and she failed some classes, she took them again and earned high marks.
“A lot of the things I learned in my classes are actually what I deal with every day,” she added.
Those dealings will inform the report that Chumbow and her 10 advisory council colleagues are working on, which the State Department will release in August. She hopes that, in part, her work will help dispel some of the misconceptions about human trafficking that arise in movies and in some media accounts, which often focus on Asians working in nail salons.
“They think that it doesn’t happen to [others], … and that it doesn’t happen to Americans. There are a lot of Americans being trafficked every day. Human trafficking involves any race. It doesn’t matter where you are from. People are being sold and traded every day.”
In her own case, Chumbow said, “I was trafficked right here from Cameroon to the United States―right here in Silver Spring [Maryland].” When she speaks in churches and at colleges, she said, she makes a point of bringing a diverse group of survivors with her to underscore the point.
“I’m going to bring a white girl. She has blonde hair. You would never know she is a survivor of human trafficking,” Chumbow said. “An Asian girl. An African girl. A Latina girl. I love to represent diversity when it comes to human trafficking.”
At UMUC stateside commencement ceremony in May, Chumbow was shadowed by journalist and documentarian Andres Cediel, who teaches in the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California–Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Cediel, whose work has aired on the PBS documentary series Frontline, is working on a new project about labor trafficking.
Cediel met Chumbow a few months ago and said it’s unusual to find someone who is so open about the trauma she endured. “Not a lot of people want to share that or expose that,” he said. “But Evelyn is an unusually courageous person in that way. She’s been very open about sharing her life and experiences with us.”
Where and when the documentary will air has yet to be determined, but Cediel is confident of its eventual impact.
“I was with her all weekend, and the whole time I was there, I just couldn’t process [it]. She never went to school as a girl, and now she’s graduating from college,” he said. “In some ways, that could be the end of our story—but that’s what we start with.”