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The Florida School Shooting Tragedy: Some Thoughts

May the souls of those who perished rest in peace.

The nation is once again reeling after the recent high school Florida shooting tragedy which left seventeen people dead. In the aftermath come the questions: why did this happen? How do we prevent this from happening again? Theories abound: banning guns, more security in schools, make mental health care more widespread and accessible, etc.

All of these measures have merit: Enforce tougher background checks for those who want to buy a gun, increase security in the schools and provide more counseling and resources for those who are troubled and going through a rough patch in their lives. But there is one I would like to discuss in this article, which is to reduce the amount of violence in the media.

When I watch television, I am frequently repulsed by commercials for upcoming movies. Actors are constantly shooting at each other. I once joked to my family that if these brave, macho actors were dealing with these situations in real life, instead of fighting, they would be running for their lives. What happens is people get desensitized to violence—after all, they see it in the movies, on television shows, the news, books, video games, sports, etc.

And who are the most impressionable? Young people. They grow up immersed in this violent culture and some become convinced it is the only way the world will pay any attention to them.

Out of this tragedy came many heroes, people who showed tremendous bravery and even sacrificed their lives to protect others, but I am sure everyone would agree that it would be much better if these school shootings could be prevented in the first place.

Much work has to be done. Unstable people should not be allowed to buy guns, counseling should be available for all, every student has the right to be safe in school and the media has to stop its glorification of violence.

Book Review: Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan

Anatomy of a Scandal reads like a story ripped from today’s headlines: a prominent man is accused of sexual harassment. I couldn’t put the book down—I actually felt edgy when I wasn’t reading it, almost like the story was an addiction.

Taking place in England, a tall, handsome, charismatic politician named James Whitehouse, a man from the upper echelons of society, is accused of raping one of his parliamentary researchers. Most of the novel centers on the trial while in between there are flashbacks from his youth at Oxford University. Unbeknownst to him, the prosecuting attorney, Kate Woodcroft, who is from a working-class background, spent her first year of college at the same school and remembers him well. The reader soon realizes how well and why this case now dominates her life.

The defendant’s wife Sophie also plays a pivotal role. She too attended the same university at the same time her husband and the attorney did and she is also from a privileged background. The novel focuses on her feelings about her husband and whether she will stand by him and keep their family intact.

What struck me most about the novel was the superb writing. Author Sarah Vaughan’s use of language and the story’s editing were top-notch. The pacing was also phenomenal, making it difficult to put down—as a reader, I always wanted to know what was going to happen next.

The topic of sexual harassment is timely, and from reading the story, I couldn’t help thinking about how men and women can take measures to avoid this situation in the first place as well as how to prevent a working relationship from going a step further.

For all the book’s merits, author Vaughan relies on the stereotypical one-dimensional wealthy, privileged man feeling entitled to commit despicable crimes without remorse. In reality, their psychological make-up is often far more complex. The female characters are much more sympathetic and relatable. The topic of sexual harassment is not going away and unfortunately, the very nature of the “he said, she said” crime makes it immensely difficult to prosecute. In order for the accused to be declared guilty, the evidence must prove a crime has been committed beyond a reasonable doubt. A tough case all around, yet its complexity makes Anatomy of a Scandal a compelling read.

President Trump and the Autism Community

 

Following President Trump’s State of the Union address on January 30th, the Autism Society Public Policy and Advocacy Newsletter wrote about their concerns regarding the President’s failure to mention any policy initiatives for people with autism and other disabilities in terms of housing, education, employment and other supports. Members of the Autism Society fervently hope the President will include aid for job training, family supports, and health care for these citizens in the upcoming government budget, which is scheduled to be released to the public in a few weeks.

The newsletter included an alarming proposal from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS), which called for reducing penalties for nursing home violations of health and safety standards.

Although President Trump is trying to reduce the government budget in an effort to cut taxes and boost the economy, he cannot sacrifice the needs of the country’s most helpless and vulnerable citizens. Nobody asks for disabilities and families already struggling to provide for their special needs loved ones do not need additional challenges. If the President is committed to helping families, he ought to include those who must take care of loved ones with special needs as well as those residing in nursing homes.

An Eye-Opening Discussion: A Community Conversation: Modern Slavery—Global to Local

I have been researching and attending events related to human trafficking ever since writing and publishing my novel True Mercy. Still, when I attended a discussion entitled “A Community Conversation: Modern Slavery—Global to Local” at Seton Hall University, I gathered a great deal of new information. Slavery/human trafficking concerns everyone whether we realize it or not. It is occurring throughout the world, but many are surprised to find out it is also happening in cities and suburbs across the United States.

Before I relate the eye-opening information, first I would like to list the event’s speakers.

U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (Hamilton, NJ) is serving his 19th term in the House of Representatives and is the author of the comprehensive legislation, “ The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (PL 106-386).” This is a federal, multi-agency approach to prevent slavery, protect victims, and punish traffickers to the full extent of the law. He gave his talk through telephone conferencing.

Ingrid Johnson is a registered nurse and a member of the New Jersey Coalition Against Human Trafficking. She has worked tirelessly in the cause of human trafficking awareness ever since she rescued her daughter from the clutches of human traffickers fourteen years ago.

Dr. Bernard Freamon is a professor of legal philosophy specializing in Islamic Jurisprudence and Islamic Legal History. He teaches at Seton Hall School of Law. He has written extensively on human trafficking/slavery in Asia and Africa. Dr. Freamon is currently working on his latest book, Possessed by The Right Hand: The Problem of Slavery in Islamic Law and Muslim Cultures.

Kate Lee is the Administrator of the NJ Coalition Against Human Trafficking and Co-Chair of the NJ Governor’s Advisory Council Against Sexual Violence. She has organized numerous conferences and workshops to raise awareness.

Robert Boneberg is the Coordinator of the Slave-Free Community Project and is the Co-Chair of the Slave-Free Commerce Committee of the NJ Coalition Against Human Trafficking.

The five speakers made the following points:

  • There are an estimated 21 to 46 million slaves in the world. There are many different forms of slavery. They include slavery, human trafficking, forced labor, sex trafficking, and debt bondage.
  • Approximatley 15,000-18,000 slaves are imported in the U.S. annually. They comprise of sex slaves (50%), and others, including slaves in domestic service, business enterprises, and agriculture.
  • In regards to slavery around the Indian Ocean in Asia and near Africa, human trafficking is a continuation of what has been happening there for the last 3-4,000 years. Efforts to eradicate slavery in this part of the world have been a failure.
  • There are three reasons slavery is still happening in the world: 1.) Migration-People are migrating around the world in a manner never seen before. Criminals take advantage of this by trafficking people escaping their countries. 2.) Climate disasters— Traffickers again take advantage of people escaping natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis. 3.) Conflict—Militant Muslim groups like ISIS take slaves.
  • Women from Mexico and African countries have been trafficked in various parts of New Jersey, according to arrest documents .
  • One way to eradicate slavery is to pay attention to the products we buy. The US Dept of Labor has identified the following products that are often made by child or forced labor. Among them are coffee, fruit, nuts, cotton, chocolate, rice, gold, and footwear.
  • Red Flag: If one sees a young person getting gifts that are inappropriate, that may be a sign that a person may be trying to lure them into trafficking.
  • Slaves are very cheap now because of migration. They are considered disposable people. It is more expensive to fly to Haiti than to buy a slave in Haiti.
  • There are more slaves today than ever before in history.
  • Approximately one quarter of them are children.
  • Approximately one fifth are in sex slavery.
  • Approximately 15 million people are in forced marriages.
  • There are approximately 58,000 slaves in the U.S.
  • Traffickers make approximately $150,000,000,000 from slavery per year.

The meeting concluded with speakers telling audience members that only when people work together can slavery finally be eradicated once and for all.

If you suspect slavery/human trafficking is taking place, do not attempt to rescue that person yourself. You may be putting that person in even more danger. It is best to call the following number:

National 24 hour hotline 1-888-373-7888

or Text INFO or HELP to BE FREE (233733)

Join in the fight to prevent slavery!

Website:  http://slavefreecommunityproject.com

Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/slavefreecommunityproject/

Instagram:  https://www.instagram.com/slavefreecommunityproject/

YouTube Channel:  ow.ly/xF4M30hAlZX

Twitter:  https://twitter.com/SlaveFreeCP

My Three Favorite Books of 2017

  1. The Heart’s Invisible Furies By John Boyne

The author of The Boy in Striped Pajamas wrote another tour de force that tugs at your heartstrings, forcing readers to examine their own values and judgements. A man who was adopted by upper-class yet eccentric parents discovers he is a homosexual in post-World War II Ireland. At this time homosexuality was forbidden and punishable by hard labor. The man must navigate his way through life with his secret while struggling to find stability and happiness.

  1. A Gentleman in Moscow By Amor Towles

A Russian aristocrat who is now declared a “non-person” by the new Soviet Communist regime becomes a prisoner in the famed Metropol Hotel in Moscow. The life experiences, personal character and wisdom he imparts upon his readers made this novel a runaway hit with readers. I always felt joy when I had the chance to read it and despite almost 500 pages, was disappointed when it ended. A man that was used to the best life had to offer is now relegated to a small room and the freedom and luxuries he once enjoyed severely curtailed. The gentleman handles his reduced circumstances with grace, wit and courage.

  1. Grant by Ron Chernow

Historian Ron Chernow, author of the much celebrated Alexander Hamilton, triumphs yet again with an account of the 18th President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant. Grant was moral and upright but not a particularly ambitious man who nevertheless rose from impoverished businessman to army general and then President for two terms. He fought a life-long battle with alcoholism and although astute in battle, he was naive in his judgment of character. As President, many people surrounding him took advantage of his trusting nature, which led him to make several poor decisions while in office. Still, his support of the newly-freed black slaves was unwavering and admirable.

Progress!

I was so pleased to read that the efforts of human trafficking prevention groups have yielded success! For years now, pimps have been forcing young girls and women into sexual relations with strangers in hotel rooms while hotel owners and staff would often look away. Krista Torralva of the Orlando Sentinel reported that a  bill is being prepared for the Florida Legislature to approve that would allow human trafficking victims to sue hotel workers who ignore these crimes.

Another bill would require hotel staff members to receive training in recognizing the signs of human trafficking. If these bills pass, it would greatly impact the 400 hotels in Orlando and the many more in the surrounding areas.

A similar bill was already passed in Pennsylvania in 2014 when a human trafficking victim was able to sue a Philadelphia motel when staff members ignored her travail when she was forced to sleep with hundreds of men.

According to The Polaris Project, an anti-human trafficking organization, Orlando, Florida is ranked number three in calls per capita to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

Let’s hope to see more progress throughout the world in combatting the proliferation of human trafficking. It is everyone’s responsibility to spot the warning signs and act to prevent this crime.

To learn more about The Polaris Project, log onto https://polarisproject.org. The phone number of the National Human Trafficking Hotline is 1-888-373-7888.

Self-Publishing: A Learning Curve

As this year draws to a close, like many people, I am taking stock on how the year went. It was exhilarating to publish my first novel, True Mercy, although there were many snags with the interior formatting. But fortunately, the book was ready by the time of my launch party on January 11th, which is Human Trafficking Awareness Day. I was able to sell 24 books at that launch party, which I’ll always remember as one of the highlights of my life.

As my novel was getting published, I kept reading that marketing was even harder than writing the book. At first, I couldn’t believe it—writing the first draft of True Mercy felt like an epic accomplishment. Editing it felt like a marathon, but when the book was published, I finally understood how marketing is even harder. After all, an estimated 1 million books get published every year. The trick is how to stand out. I originally thought writing the best story I possibly could suffice, but I was wrong. Writers have a tremendous task getting their book discovered among all the competition. This is where writer conferences and writing groups are so important: writers need resources and ideas on how to get their books discovered. It is not a job a writer can accomplish alone.

I am grateful for the family and friends who came out to support me, bought the book and told others about it. I have also become immersed in support groups for the prevention of human trafficking because it is a much larger and growing problem than I ever realized when I wrote a story about a young woman from Moldova who is kidnapped and escapes from a human trafficking ring. Also, as difficult and challenging it is to have a child with autism, I hope my focus on the sweetness and innocence of the 18-year-old with autism in True Mercy gives families and caregivers a reason to appreciate those inflicted with this neurological disorder despite the hardships.

In 2018, I plan to continue to seek help and advice on marketing my novel while working on my second one. Marketing True Mercy has been trying, yet I’ve been making progress the more I learn. What I must keep in mind, as everyone who faces a new challenge, is not to give up—however difficult it is, luck can always change and the rewards can be just around the corner.

Wishing Everyone a Happy, Healthy, and Successful New Year!

Woods Winter Wonderland Holiday Market

Kaleb and I are selling True Mercy at the Woods Winter Wonderland Market.

This past weekend my family and I sold my novel True Mercy at the Woods Winter Wonderland Market in Langhorne, Pennsylvania. Woods is an educational and residential center for individuals with various disabilities, including autism, brain injury, developmental disabilities, emotional and behavioral challenges and Prader-Willi Syndrome. It was founded in 1913 by Mollie Woods, a Philadelphia teacher who began the school for children with special needs. Woods is now a 350-acre campus and services 700 residents.

While selling my book, I observed a warm community environment with fun activities for all, including pony rides, face painting, and holiday lights. Booths were set up selling holiday crafts by local artisans and a choir sang holiday songs. Vendors served food and warm drinks.

I spoke about one of my novel’s goals as giving readers a peek into the stresses and challenges of taking care of a loved one with autism. Despite the hardships, these individuals have a sweetness and innocence that others find endearing. Adam, the eighteen-year-old character with autism in my novel, always managed to put a smile on people’s faces as he played an instrumental role in saving a woman’s life.

Everyone had a pleasant day at the holiday market and I was pleased to talk to so many people about True Mercy.

Book Review: Grant by Ron Chernow

In the ranking of Presidents, I had always learned that President Ulysses Grant was ranked one of the worst. However, after reading Ron Chernow’s thoroughly detailed biography, I came away with a different perspective. Before becoming the general leading the North in the Civil War, Grant was a failure at every business venture he undertook. But he never gave up. After leading the Union army to victory, he became President of the United States and had a mixed record: Grant displayed great bravery in trying to protect newly-freed black slaves in the South and defeating the Ku Klux Klan, yet he naively surrounded himself with corrupt cabinet members. He had a tendency toward alcoholism but spent most of his life overcoming his addiction. Grant himself was an honest man, but his judgment was often flawed in maintaining loyalty to close friends who betrayed him. Despite his shortcomings, I came away with the utmost respect for Grant as both a brilliant general and an upright man. A life of many failures and successes, he demonstrated that luck can change.

Truckers Lending a Hand to Fight Human Trafficking

Truckers Against Trafficking (TAT)

http://www.truckersagainsttrafficking.org/

A few weeks ago, I happened to find an article about a truck driver who rescued young girls enslaved in human trafficking at a truck stop. This led me to discover the organization Truckers Against Trafficking (TAT). It is a very active organization designed to train members of the trucking industry as well as individual truckers to recognize the signs where human trafficking is taking place. It is heartening to know that millions of truckers on the road are joining the fight against this underground criminal industry. A representative for TAT was quoted as saying, “Those in the trucking industry are in a unique position because the traffickers are transient and often stop at truck stops.” Indeed through spreading awareness, truckers have rescued countless victims.

TAT educates truckers to recognize the signs where trafficking may be taking place. These include the following:

  • CB chatter about quotas
  • Unaccompanied minors
  • Minors looking fearful
  • Signs of branding

TAT advises people to ask these minors the following questions:

  • “Are you traveling by yourself?”
  • “Who are you traveling with?”
  • “When is the last time you saw your family?”
  • “Do you get to keep part of the money?”

The average age of these girls is only 13-15, and everyone should do their part to lend a hand in rescuing these trapped young girls. If you suspect this is happening, the hotline number is 888-3737-888 or you can text BE FREE (233733). REPORT IT IMMEDIATELY IF YOU SEE IT. IF YOU’RE WRONG, THAT’S OK. TAT cautions people not to try to save the girls themselves because this could be dangerous.As a spokesperson for TAT put it, “Trucking and law enforcement are working together to put these guys out of business.”

 

A Human Trafficking Awareness Event, The Liberty Bell and A Book Review

Screening of the Film Chosen and Discussion

Last week I attended a screening of the human trafficking awareness film Chosen. Two young women speak about their nightmarish experiences. Chosen demonstrated the most common method teenage girls get lured into human trafficking: older men pretend to be their boyfriends, lavish them with expensive gifts, take them to strip clubs, and from there force them into prostitution. In most cases, the older men had been stalking them for months, so if the girls refuse to cooperate, their so-called ‘boyfriends” threaten to harm them and their families. At the end of the film, girls are advised to tell others what is happening and to take action as soon as something looks wrong. Men in their twenties or older have no business being around thirteen and fourteen-year-old girls.

The speakers at this forum informed the audience other alarming information:

  • Human trafficking is the second largest criminal industry in the world. The first is the drug trade.
  • More than 50% of victims worldwide are estimated to be underaged.
  • Sex trafficking occurs most often in the states along the coast.
  • Girls will now most likely meet their first connections to traffickers on the internet.
  • Trafficking takes place in bathrooms at middle schools.

What you can do:

  • Educated yourself and others in your community about human trafficking.
  • Advocate for laws preventing trafficking and contact your state’s representatives to push for new measures to prevent trafficking.
  • Volunteer and donate to organizations that fight trafficking and provide support to survivors.

Report Suspicious Activity to the National Human Trafficking Hotline (24/7 150+languages)

1888-3737 or Text HELP or INFO to BeFree (233733)

Philadelphia

Earlier this month, I traveled to Philadelphia for the Bookbaby Writers Conference. Before it started, I visited the Liberty Bell. Inside the building, there was information posted about the Liberty Bell’s history. It was first used to symbolize freedom during the Revolutionary War, and later it was used to mark the efforts of African-Americans and women’s fight for equality. After leaving the exhibit, I felt it should also now symbolize the fight against human trafficking.

Inscription on the Liberty Bell:

Proclaim LIBERTY Throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants Thereof Lev. XXV. v X.
By Order of the ASSEMBLY of the Province of PENSYLVANIA for the State House in Phila
Pass and Stow
Philad
MDCCLIII

Book Review

On a more pleasant note, I just finished reading the fantastic book The Day The World Came To Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland. After the terrorist attacks on 9/11, US air traffic was closed. Over 250 airplanes carrying 43, 895 passengers were forced to land in Gander, Newfoundland. The residents of Gander opened their homes, cooked endless meals, and donated clothes, toiletries, towels, and bedsheets to the stranded passengers once they landed. Their hospitality was astonishing. Reading the book restored my faith in humanity.

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