Amanda Buenger, Executive Director of Unbound Bryan College Station, is expanding her human trafficking prevention work by joining Unbound Global on the border of Poland and Ukraine.
Buenger and the five other members who have been there since Monday and will stay until April 11 are the third Unbound team to make it to the frontier, and more teams will follow. His team includes another representative from the local office, as well as others from the Austin and Waco sites.
The amazing thing, Buenger said, is to see all the agencies around the world working together to provide refugees with food, clothing and toiletries and all their other needs.
“It’s a strange and interesting world,” she said of the scene at the border crossings. “It’s just a lot of people, a lot of chaos, a lot of moving parts, but it’s just amazing to see the support from all the organizations here and the beautiful spirit of the Ukrainian people; the courage and the smiles on the faces of these beautiful children, despite what they are going through, is absolutely amazing. It’s this very strange combination of joy, courage and beauty with a lot of pain, despair and a lot of chaos.
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The lines are even longer as people in the southeast of the country, which is now the target of Russian bombardment, have reached the border, she said.
“These people, as we were communicating with them in the lines with the translators, are just in absolute despair,” she said. “They literally left their towns bombed. They traveled 24 hours to get to the border. Most of them left their families behind. They have no resources. They are traveling with young children; all that is with them is their bag.
This desperation is what leads to many human trafficking situations, Buenger said. Ukrainians are looking for anything, whether it’s a safe place to stay, a route to get somewhere, or even just someone to help them figure out how to cross the border. She said they would believe anyone who made false promises to them to provide this.
“I cross the border from Ukraine to Poland every day, and I had no idea what this experience was going to be like; neither do they, and they want someone to help them across,” she said. “And so people say to them, ‘Well, pay me that, and I’ll take you across and take you to the other side. And those are very exploitative types of tactics that are happening right now.
Thousands of information cards are being distributed, Buenger said, with a Poland-specific human trafficking hotline number and basic advice on how to avoid becoming a victim of human trafficking. These tips include that it is free to cross the border, reminding people not to provide their passport or documentation information to anyone other than the official Border Patrol which checks passports out of Ukraine and in Poland and confirming the identity of the driver of the car if they use a private driver.
They also monitor touchpoints where women and children get on and off buses and connect with drivers.
On Thursday, they intercepted a trafficking situation of three women and children, she said. They saw the group giving their passport information and money to a woman, and they approached the group and had an “intentional conversation”, telling them what is stated on the information card. She said she told them it didn’t cost money to cross the border and that they shouldn’t give their passport information to anyone other than the Border Patrol. One of the women, Buenger said, had a bad feeling about the situation and wasn’t sure it was safe.
“We ended up walking with these women and children to the border post, and the [potential trafficker] followed us to the line and just got frustrated. She knew we intercepted it and we just ran away,” Buenger said.
A detective from their team performed facial recognition on the woman and determined that she was in contact with people in the human trafficking world.
Beyond the help Unbound is able to provide to prevent human trafficking situations, Buenger said they offer small acts of kindness such as offering to hold a woman’s baby, change a diaper or bring her food or a stroller.
“It really is a real honor,” she said of helping at the border. “And the courage and the spirit that I saw in them is incredible. We were just standing along the border with them one day, and they spontaneously started the Ukrainian national anthem and sang, and it was kind of this very sacred moment. I mean, it was like no one was talking. Just the passion for their country, the determination they carry with them through desperate times and the courage they carry at the border to cross over and start a different life, a life they didn’t want, is a bit really hard to put into words.
They don’t have a lot of time to process the stories they hear or the scenes they’re going through in the moment, she said, because their focus is on meeting the next need and loving the next person. . She called it an honor to hear the stories and see the challenges the refugees have overcome and said it changed her perspective and worldview.
“You kind of have this perspective of what you think you’re going to walk into a war-torn crisis situation, and I think I was blown away by the strength and the courage of these people,” Buenger said. . “Rightly they are desperate; they hurt. … But the joy that I saw in them, the strength that I saw in them, the courage that I saw in them, the love for their country that I saw in them, I think that just changed me in a way that just makes me proud of humanity in the best way. I see a lot of bad, but I’ve seen so much good here.
Prior to his current week-long trip to the Polish-Ukrainian border, Buenger has already completed Unbound Global international trips to Mongolia and Indonesia. She said her daughters have been involved in this trip through FaceTime and messages, and she hopes to be able to empower them to take similar trips and continue the work to fight human trafficking around the world.
One of the goals of being on the Polish-Ukrainian border, she said, is to establish a longer-term team that can stay in the area to get the job done throughout the current crisis, then continue it in the future.
There are several options for getting involved with Unbound. People can volunteer or donate to Unbound Bryan-College Station which serves survivors of human trafficking locally, or they can donate to Unbound Global to help globally.