In Pursuit of Justice

Published in Metro Society magazine, July 2014

Once Andrey Sawchenko talks about justice for victims of human trafficking, passion and urgency resonate in voice. “It matters for people who are, desperate for rescue today, and survivors who need hope for a new life. We get that for real people – today.”

Sawchenko is National Director of International Justice Mission (IJM), a global organization that protects the poor from violence. The organization is composed of lawyers, investigators, social workers, community activists and other professionals at work in nearly 20 communities in the developing world. They partner with local authorities to rescue victims of violence, bring criminals to justice, restore survivors, and strengthen justice systems.

He discovered IJM when he was at the University of Washington, School of Law and part of the Christian Legal Society in 1998. “We had a conference and IJM’S President, Gary Haugen, was one of the presenters.  I was just a law student, but I thought that what Gary was presenting as a possibility was really exciting, and it seemed right to me that when the Bible said that we should seek justice we should actually be doing that in the most practical sense.” After completing law school, he interned in the Manila field office.

After his internship, Sawchenko returned to the US where he practiced law for three years in Seattle. But the desire to pursue the work of justice had seized him, and he returned to IJM. He went to Thailand and led a team dedicated to fighting sex trafficking. After another three years, he found himself back in the Philippines, where the staff now tackles cases of child sexual abuse and the sex trafficking of minors.

There are currently three field offices. The Manila office was established in 2001, and provided IJM’s first ever conviction, that of a rapist who had assaulted a young girl. The Cebu office followed in 2007, where they launched Project Lantern, a study that put to the test the idea that when anti-trafficking laws are enforced by well-trained and equipped police and courts, minors would be better protected from traffickers. External auditors found that the availability of minors for sex decreased by 79% after four years of partnership with local authorities. The latest office, opened in 2012, is in Pampanga.

IJM has been lauded as one of the ten non-profits “making a difference” by U.S. News and World Report. The model that it has developed to combat everyday violence has proven to be so effective that it is recognized by the U.S State Department, the World Economic Forum and leaders around the globe. Its effectiveness lies in its specificity and willingness to engage different sectors of society. “Our work couldn’t be more practical, and the connections with local communities and organizations more necessary. It takes collaboration between all kinds of agencies for just one victim to be rescued, restored, and for justice to be achieved,” he said.

“One of the things we learned over the past few years is that dedicated law enforcement focused on a specific issue, like human trafficking, are more effective.” He emphasized. “We’ve been partnering with the Philippine National Police (PNP) to establish, train and deploy police anti-trafficking units, and these units have been effective in intervening on behalf of trafficking victims in Manila, Cebu and Pampanga. We’re excited to be partnering with the PNP as they look to expand that model into other areas.”

He added that, “When victims are rescued, they’re brought to police stations. Unfortunately, police stations are not the most therapeutic environment for newly rescued victims, so several years ago IJM Cebu partnered with the DSWD to create a special place for victims to go to immediately after being rescued. Now, the DSWD is replicating that model in something they’re calling ‘SafeSpace’ right here in the national capital region. We’re really excited to be able to partner with them for that excellent project, and we believe that it will be a model for various regions here in the Philippines and even other countries around the world.”

Local communities also have a part to play in the fight against human trafficking, which IJM acknowledges and encourages. “One of the best opportunities for people in the community to get involved is to participate in activities leading up to the International Day Against Trafficking on December 12. We will be working very closely with the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking, the Philippine Interfaith Movement Against Human Trafficking and other civil society groups to raise our voices and say that human trafficking is absolutely unacceptable and we won’t stand for it.”

The work Sawchenko is engaged in is serious and intense, but he has his own haven to retreat to: his wife and daughter. They are currently based in Cebu and have embraced the local culture easily. He knows a smattering of words in Bisaya, and without realizing it, has adopted some Pinoy quirks. “When I go back to the US or Canada, I find myself pointing with my lips or raising my eyebrows. Sometimes that kind of stuff can get you in trouble in some places,” he laughed.

He also enjoys Filipino food. “I love lechon. But my other favorite Filipino food is kinilaw. I also like utang bisaya and tinola. It’s delicious. I do not like balut.” He shared. “I love nature. In Cebu, you can go up to the mountains. Sometimes we just go out of town to breathe some fresh air, run around and fly a kite. Or you can go to the ocean and it’s pretty great to be able to ride around in a little boat and jump into the sea to do some snorkeling or diving.”

After seven years in the Philippines, Sawchenko is still ready and willing to continue the fight – this time, against labor trafficking in India. Leaving the country, while exciting, won’t be easy for Sawchenko and his family, especially his daughter (who was born here). “We love living in the Philippines and it’s really been home to us. Everything just fell into place when we came in. The best thing about the Philippines is the Filipinos. That’s an un-artful quote, but it’s true.”

“When you first move aboard, the things that strike you are the differences; how everybody is so different, how people’s perspectives and the way they communicate and understand and even use their eyebrows are so different.” He smiled.

“But after you live abroad longer, you realize that actually, we aren’t so different. The fundamental things about who we are as people are the same, everywhere. We all want enough food to eat. We all want our kids to be okay. We all want to be safe. We all want to be loved. We’re pretty much the same. That’s the thing to remember.”

So Many Stars

Published in Metro Society magazine, October – November 2008

It’s hard to imagine that the handsome man in front of me, with his firm handshake and ready smile, has gone through more loss and death in a few years than one should have in a lifetime. “2003 to 2005, those were difficult years,” he shares. His name is Robert “Bobbit” Suntay, a man with a degree in education – both academic and real. “My wife, father and father-in-law were all diagnosed with cancer within six months of each other. They all died within a year of each other.” Despite, and because of, his experience with loved ones taken by cancer, Carewell was created.

The Cancer Resource and Wellness (Carewell) Community was founded by Bobbit and his late wife, Jackie in 2005. It was fully operational by 2007. They took their inspiration from The Wellness Community (TWC), an international, community-based psychosocial support organization in the US. At the moment, Carewell is currently the only International Affiliate of TWC in Southeast Asia. Like TWC, they provide free resources, support and various services to people and their loved ones who are living with cancer. This foundation is nonprofit. They only have one paid employee, an office secretary, and the rest of the staff and key members are all volunteers.

The resources and services vary. There’s a Library and Resource Center with materials from their partners abroad (such as the Lance Armstrong Foundation and the American Cancer Society). On their shelves are books that range from Philip Yancey’s Where is God When it Hurts? to Italo Calvino’s Numbers in the Dark.  They provide support groups, counseling and medical consultation, international referral programs, wellness activities, and facilities for meetings and workshops at the S & L Building in Makati, where their office and resource center is located.

“Our flagship program is the support groups. That’s what a lot of people really look for,” Bobbit states. Carewell runs support groups in various venues, from the café in the building their office is located at, to hospitals such as Veteran’s and Asian. Aside from the lovely Carebelles, the women’s support group, there is also something for the men. “We have the Husband’s Happy Hour. You can’t call it a support group because the husbands don’t like it,” He jokingly warns.

As a husband who cared for someone with cancer, Bobbit knows how difficult it can be, and wanted to offer the same support he received to other men. “We started advertising it as the husband’s support group. No one ever showed up.” So they began to call it the ‘Happy Hour’, complete with free beer and pika-pika. That’s when the men showed up.  “I thought these guys would come, drink and talk about basketball, or something. But then they actually talked about the experiences of caring for their wives.” They also have mixed groups where spouses, caregivers, other family members and doctors can come together to discuss, share and reflect on the illness that has changed their lives so dramatically.

Carewell also hosts a number of annual events to bring the community together and raise awareness. This October, they will be celebrating a benefit concert, the Carewell Star Night. It will be held on October 2, from 6 – 9 pm at the Manila Polo Club. “When someone is ill with cancer, the spotlight is on the person who has the disease. But cancer isn’t a disease that affects only one person. Everyone is drawn into the cancer journey. Those relegated to the sidelines, despite being very much part of this journey, are the caregivers and family members; there’s also the best friend who brings them to chemo, and the office colleague who drives them to work. These are the people who help someone with cancer continue living their life. We wanted to do something for them too.”

14 cancer survivors were selected; men and women, old and young, all with different cancers and at different stages. They were asked: Who is your star? Who walked alongside you every step of your cancer journey, when you were at your worst, sickest, and most desperate? The answers varied from husbands to best friends, and the Carewell Star Night is dedicated to all of them.

The main part of the event will be a fusion of photographs, music and videos. Photographer Wig Tysmans shot portraits of the cancer survivors and their respective stars, while renowned cinematographer and cancer survivor Marilou Diaz-Abaya, made videos of the stars and the survivors who chose to honor them. Bobbit explains that, “We’re going to present these to our greater cancer community and say that while we know that the people who really need attention are the ones with cancer, we’d also like to acknowledge and recognize these people who’ve faithfully stood by them every step of the way.” About 500 people are expected to attend, and light dinner and cocktails will be served. “The second part will be fun too. We got Ryan Cayabyab and the RCS Singers to do a show.” They also plan to launch the Carewell Hub Project, a comprehensive development plan that aims to link a network of individuals, organizations, resources, programs and activities for the Philippine cancer community.

Before leaving Carewell, our photographer points to a felt paper doll taped to the bookshelf. “I’m seeing this everywhere,” he comments. It’s a smiling girl with her hands raised up, wearing a bandana, red shirt, black pants and boots. “Ah, that’s our logo. Here, I’ll show you how it came about.” Bobbit goes into his office and comes out with a framed photograph of a smiling woman on a beach, with her hands up in the air. “This is a photo of my late wife.” He explains how she was about to undergo very sensitive surgery while in the US East Coast, and the day before the procedure they went to one of her favorite spots, Crane Beach. “That’s where the picture was taken. As you can see, she was still pretty upbeat.” Jackie’s younger sister Lara conceptualized the logo from a self-portrait that Jackie had done, based on that photo. “So Jackie became our Carewell girl.” He looks at her picture fondly. After that, we say goodbye and Bobbit continues a busy day of interviews and coordination.

I wonder about Jackie, Bobbit, the Carebelles and the husbands who meet in the midst of pain and chemotherapy, but could still laugh, go to events and enjoy long weekends. “Try to find humor wherever you can, because laughter always helps.” Bobbit said. If there’s anything I want to keep with me from that brief visit, it’s the strength and steadfast hope that the Carewell community seem to embody as they continue to expand, stretch their arms skyward, and smile.