Brook Parker Bello's first sexual experience happened at age 11, when she was raped.
As a teenager who suffered repeated sexual assault and abuse, Bello fell into alcoholism, ran away from home and was lured into prostitution by a “madam” in Los Angeles. She was eventually arrested in New York and served time in prison for prostitution.
Years later, Bello is sharing the story of her harrowing past in an effort to shed light on the horrors of human trafficking and sex slavery. She has partnered with the International Black Women's Public Policy Institute to produce a documentary that tells her story of survival from human trafficking and her journey of overcoming her past.
On Thursday, Bello brought her story to USC Aiken. Along with a screening of Bello's film, “Survivor: Living Above the Noise,” audience members heard a presentation from Bello and a panel discussion that included Chief Charles Barranco of the Aiken Department of Public Safety and former Solicitor Barbara Morgan.
The event was hosted by USCA and The Imani Group, and a portion of the proceeds will benefit S.H.A.R.P. (Sisters Honoring African Rites of Passage). The group for teenage girls is partnered with Clemson University's Youth Learning Institute.
“Human trafficking is an umbrella,” Bello said before the screening. “Underneath human trafficking, you have farm workers and house slaves and the sex trade, but they all pretty much go together. ... He or she looks for some child who is broken and in need of something or someone. They're easily enticed by food or clothing, not knowing at all they're going to be pushed into sex slavery.”
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, human sex trafficking is the fastest-growing business of organized crime and the third-largest criminal enterprise in the world. The majority of sex trafficking is international, with victims taken from places like South and Southeast Asia, the former Soviet Union, Central and South America and other less developed areas and moved to more developed ones, including the Middle East, Western Europe and North America.
A 2006 U.S. State Department report said 14,500 to 17,500 people are trafficked into the United States annually.
In the film, which premiered at the 65th annual International Film Festival in Cannes, France, Bello travels to the Middle East and shares how she overcame suicidal thoughts, the mental scars and addictions. She also hears other women's stories of abuse, rape, addiction and sex trafficking, and their efforts to recover following their physical freedom.
“It's about life after sex slavery,” she said.
Bello said an important part in recovering from sex slavery and trafficking is recovering one's identity from what she called “soul assassination.”
“There is no drug, nothing in the world that can give you an identity,” she said. “There might not be bleeding and cutting on the brain, but you do not need to be physically violent with blood to ruin a life, to steal a human being – to steal a life.”
Cheryl Cummings, a counselor at Stairway Counseling, said she deals regularly with clients who have experienced molestation, rape and abuse.
“The one thing that stood out to me was the courage to overcome,” she said. “I see people on a daily basis who are scared to take that first step, and they don't understand that there's healing in taking that first step.”
The Rev. Brendolyn Jenkins, executive director of The Imani Group, said the issue of human trafficking hits close to home, even for Aiken County, where five people were indicted in September for trafficking illegal immigrants with the purpose of making them engage in prostitution.
“We don't tend to think that it's within our borders, not in our community, not in my neighborhood,” she said. “But it is.”
Barranco said awareness is key in fighting the horrific practices.
“One thing that we struggle with is getting people to say something,” he said. “If you see something and you just don't think it's right, it's OK to say something to somebody. That insignificant information you think you have may be very important to somebody else.”