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Native Sister Society draws attention to trafficking

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Tina Olsen, a member of the Native Sister Society, wipes away a tear as Gail Schoenfelder presents the 2016 trafficking awareness award to her group. (Photo by Naomi Yaeger)3 / 5
Fletcher Hardman, 1, wears traditional Nepali clothing as he sits on his father’s lap. He is the son of Andy and Jennie Hardman. (Photo by Naomi Yaeger)4 / 5
Duluth resident Liz Taylor and Shunu Shrestha place mango sorbet on a dessert table. Shrestha coordinated the preparation of the Nepalese dinner. She proudly donned a sari, a traditional garment, which belongs to her mother. (Photo by Naomi Yaeger) 5 / 5

More than 160 people gathered for a benefit dinner to raise money and awareness for human trafficking victims on February 20.

The event focused on sex trafficking in Duluth, though the cuisine included recipes from halfway around the world.

Shunu Shrestha, a native of Nepal and also the Duluth Trafficking Task Force coordinator, planned and prepared the meal. Shrestha wore a traditional sari as she introduced the menu: jeera rice, vegetable korma and mango sorbet.

The event took place at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Duluth. The money raised will be used as an emergency fund for Duluth victims and survivors of trafficking, which is administered through Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault (PAVSA), a Duluth agency. Emergency needs to victims trying to escape from trafficking might include clothing, lodging, food, tattoo-removal or hair dye.

A short program included a videotaped message from U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar. She said that trafficking was once thought of as something that happened far away, but it is now known that sex trafficking happens in Minnesota. She gave examples of cases involving girls in Duluth and Minneapolis. She also explained the Safe Harbor Law passed by the Minnesota Legislature in 2011. According to this law, Minnesota youth who engage in prostitution are viewed as victims and survivors, not criminals. Victims should receive support, not threats of jail time.

Actor and director Julie Ahasay dramatically read a Minnesota Native American trafficking victim's poignant story.

South Asian saris were not the only traditional clothing at the event. Several Native American women wore traditional red shawls to draw attention to the amount of Native American girls who are targeted by sex traffickers.

Gail Schoenfelder presented the 2016 Trafficking Awareness Award to the Native Sister Society. Schoenfelder is a member of League of Women Voters, one of 23 organizations to sponsor Human Trafficking Awareness events.

As six Native American women with red shawls draped over their backs walked to the front of the room, Schoenfelder said, "Their strength comes from their voices; voices that they use to educate and engage the community as well as to empower and honor survivors in their journeys to heal."

Native Sister Society member Tina Olsen wiped a tear from her eye as Schoenfelder handed the award to her.

In three years, this group of women has sponsored numerous advocacy events to make sure that Native victims and survivors are not forgotten. They are known for their red shawls and circle dance, a ceremony that is a symbol of solidarity and support of Native women who have been sexually exploited.

The red shawl honors all Native people who have survived many forms of violence throughout history. The teal-colored fringe honors victims and survivors of sexual assault while the purple fringe honors victims and survivors of domestic violence.

"They bring compassion and respect to everything they do," Schoenfelder told the Budgeteer News. "They challenged the community to remember and reach out to the most vulnerable among us."

Naomi Yaeger

Naomi Yaeger is a freelance writer and the former editor of the Budgeteer. See her blog at