In 2009 Alezandra Russell (’03) declared war on sex trafficking in Thailand and hasn’t stopped fighting.
Four years ago Alezandra Russell, then a teen educator in her hometown of Washington, D.C., traveled to Chiang Mai, Thailand, with the image of one of her students in her head—a young, teenage girl who had been rescued from a locked apartment, where they had no food or water. When it was raided, all that was found were mattresses and contraceptives.
Deeply moved by her student’s story, Russell raised enough funds to take a two-week exposure trip to teach her peers and social workers about sex trafficking. Walking through Chiang Mai’s notorious Red Light District for the first time, Russell was exposed to a reality she never anticipated: young girls sitting in bars, being exploited by Western men who were there to purchase them for sex.
But what Russell wasn’t prepared to see was young boys in different bars just down the street pandering to similar-looking men. She witnessed groups of pre-teen boys being fed alcohol and propositioned for sex, sitting on men’s laps, kissing. She was outraged.
“How is it that I had never heard any organizations mention that human trafficking affects boys? How could I have been so naïve?” Russell was assured by locals that social service providers choose not to waste their resources on rescuing young boys from sex slavery, because “they’ll just get HIV and die.”
“They told me the boys are alcoholics, thieves, liars, and would kill themselves with drug overdoses anyway,” she recalls. “I was shocked. As a Pepperdine student, we were taught to serve and freely give of ourselves to help our neighbor. I felt an overwhelming sense of shame just walking by those boys, making eye contact with them, and not doing anything to help.”
That evening Russell returned to a bar in the district to understand what the reality was. As soon as she walked in, “this 5’9” Latina girl walking into a bar full of men,” she was greeted by a frustrated young boy named Oy who, in broken English, immediately told her to leave. She refused and bought him a Coca Cola instead.
“Before I had realized it, I had spent four hours with these boys,” she says, recalling being surrounded by 10 rowdy, charismatic Thai boys high-fiving and playing Connect Four. When it was time to go, Oy grabbed her and asked, “‘Tomorrow you’ll come back?’ Of course, tomorrow I came back.”
Over the next four nights, Russell returned to those bars and found Oy waiting outside for her. She would never forget the time she saw him leave with a Western man. “I couldn’t believe I couldn’t save him.”
When she returned home, armed with the images and information that had jolted her, as well as the support of her husband, Russell quit her job, sold her valuables, and headed back to Thailand four months later, prepared to declare war on sex trafficking and child prostitution. She walked into the same bar where she had first met Oy and saw him sitting at a table. He couldn’t believe she had returned.
“I looked him in the face and asked if he wanted this type of life. I had to make sure I wasn’t being an idealistic Westerner,” she admits. “Oy said it wasn’t what they wanted to do, but that they did it because they’re expected to. They wanted to learn English to become tour guides or taxi drivers for tourists.”
By the end of the week, Russell had rounded up 10 boys from the bar, eager to learn the alphabet. With Oy’s help, she found space in the Red Light District to open up a small center, one of the only ones that worked with boys from the area. The center soon grew; Russell hired a case manager, a Thai director, and another teacher. Named Urban Light, the center appointed a youth director to educate victims of exploitation about teen pregnancy and addiction, help them with communication, and teach them life skills. A case manager was also brought on to help the boys find housing and keep them away from the bars and streets.
Urban Light’s greatest competition remains the men who tempt the young boys with money. “When you feel like nobody cares about you, it’s really easy to take that $100 instead of coming to the center,” she laments. “When I started Urban Light, I was not looking at the reality of how complex this is.”
Russell’s hopes of partnering with the Thai community were also overlooked. “Locals still ask why I don’t just go to the Thai beaches and relax. These boys are completely disposable in the eyes of the community. We want to show them that it’s not a title they should bear.”
Four years later, Urban Light has gained support from local colleges and churches that are beginning to warm up to Russell’s idea of educating and empowering young men. Now, Russell spends six months out of the year in Thailand continuing to work in the Red Light District, creating a model for other organizations to follow, and building a new space for a computer lab and counseling room. Russell and her team also work within villages to set up prevention units that provide support for boys before they are thrust into a dangerous lifestyle.
While stateside, Russell travels to raise funds and awareness to make the boys part of the sex trafficking dialogue. She also finds time to “rejoice in the challenges you face,” scripture inscribed inside her wrist as a reminder to remain convicted in times of trial and weakness.
“I don’t think I would be able to do this job if I didn’t have a really strong conviction,” she admits. “When you’re by yourself in another country, it’s really easy to lose yourself. I feel so often when I’m completely shattered, my strong faith and the strong community of believers around me is a big piece of what I turn to for support.”
The WAVES OF SERVICE movement celebrates, supports, and connects Pepperdine alumni committed to volunteerism and careers of service worldwide. Learn more about alumni like Alezandra Russell and how you can get involved at www.pepperdine.edu/wavesofservice.