Belinda Ramirez is the author of anti-human trafficking book Wildflowers. The coffee table book provides inspiring stories of survivors of sex and cybersex trafficking in the Philippines – including IJM clients. We spoke to Belinda about the process, motivation and stories behind the book.
Q: Who are you and what is your connection with IJM?
A: I’m a healthcare consultant, author, wife, mother and Christian based in Sydney’s leafy north shore. I’ve been married to Joel for 10 years and we have two children, Logan and Ruby. My background is in neuroscience and medtech.
I first encountered IJM during the process of organising the interviews for my book Wildflowers. The CEO of Regenesys BPO, an agency which hires survivors of trafficking, put us in contact with IJM Philippines. We could see that IJM played a critical role in a survivor’s journey and it made sense to reach out and connect with both IJM Australia and the Philippines to feature their voice in the Wildflowers book.
Q: What was your inspiration for undertaking the Wildflowers project?
A: There were a few pivotal moments along this journey. Back in 2003, I visited the Philippines with a local church for about 2-3 weeks, which impacted me deeply. I later heard a powerful talk by Christine Caine, the head of A21, in which she quoted a trafficking survivor who said, “If you knew [about all of this trafficking], why didn’t you come sooner?” This really struck a chord within me.
In 2014, my husband and I were introduced to another organisation called Voice of the Free. They run a shelter for survivors, including several rescued by IJM. The survivors live there, safe from traffickers and from harm. After hearing their stories, it felt wrong to me that these stories weren’t being heard by more people. These women were so brave in sharing their experiences with us strangers. Perhaps if they wanted to have a voice or share their story – and some, though not all, did – it would be an honour to help them do just that. My husband then bought me a coffee table book featuring stories and photos of inspiring female entrepreneurs, so it naturally followedthat we could provide these trafficking survivors with a similar chance to share their stories with an audience. That’s where the idea of Wildflowers was birthed.
Q: Tell us about your process in putting this project together. How many survivors did you speak with?
A: We interviewed and photographed 14 survivors, keeping their names and faces anonymous, to maintain their dignity and protect their identities. These 14 young women had either been trafficked in one way or another, or were cases of prevention – of successful intervention. My husband Joel and I recorded the interviews and did the photoshoots over a couple of visits to Manila and Cebu in 2016.
My husband Joel is a Filipino-born Aussie so he served as my translator, bodyguard, comedian and co-photographer during the trip.
I then wrote the stories with the help of a couple of editors and the talented designers at Mezzanine Media, who brought it all together into the beautiful coffee table book we see today.
Q: Can you tell us about the IJM survivors you met? What did you learn about the restoration process through these conversations?
A: Maribel was the first person we interviewed. She had been rescued from cybersex trafficking by IJM in partnership with local police and went on to be cared for at Voice of the Free’s Center of Hope shelter. At the time, Miss Philippines had just won Miss Universe, so we would ask each survivor what they would say if they were Miss Philippines, on the world stage. Maribel’s answer was, “It’s free to dream.”
That answer says a lot about not only her, but about all the survivors we met. There was a weightlessness to them – there was no cynicism or bitterness when they looked to their future, they were free to dream again.
We also learned a lot from interviewing Lawrence from the IJM Manila legal team. He has so much wisdom, you just want to sponge it all up or download it! One thing he talks about, which reflects a mindset we brought into the interviews, was the idea of helping survivors continue to make progress in their aftercare. This means only crossing a bridge once. Don’t create triggers in what you’re asking them or talking about with them, do everything in your power to keep them from going backwards, help them instead to keep moving forwards.
An incredible example of successful aftercare emerged during our last interview. When we asked this survivor the question of “What’s something you want to share with the world?” she said, without a moment’s hesitation, “forgiveness”.
This survivor dreamt that as long as she didn’t forgive the woman who had trafficked her, she would still be tethered to her. Let me be clear, it’s not about traffickers getting off “scot-free” – the legal process is important, but for this survivor, being able to face her trafficker in court and forgive her was a crucial part of her aftercare journey and healing. It’s a lot more than many of us would be able to do.
Q: What do you hope to this book will achieve?
A: I would love for Wildflowers to become a catalyst for change – not just something that sits dead on a coffee table, but something that inspires. At the very least, every person who purchases a copy through my online store (belindaramirez.net/shop) will know that part of the proceeds go to IJM and other anti-trafficking organisations. That’s where the journey might end for some people.
But what I’d really love is for people to open the book up, read the stories, hear about organisations like IJM that support survivors and see that they – the reader – can make an impact. I’d love for them to be moved to give or host a fundraiser or start advocating for organisations like IJM.
On top of that, I’d love for the book to be a multiplier, a talking piece when visitors come and see it on the coffee table, so they too become interested in doing something about modern slavery.
Q: Why did you name it Wildflowers?
The name actually came to me while I was at home one day, feeling sick and sorry for myself (we don’t have to be in that perfect zone all the time for inspiration!). Picture it: in nature, wildflowers are found in such rough, unforgiving and harsh terrain but they still manage to burst forth and flourish. That was the idea behind the title, Wildflowers. “Harsh” is actually an understatement for the experiences these women have endured. They’ve been pitted against all odds and yet they’ve managed to survive and flourish. They are beautiful inside and out.
This post is based on Just Moments: Liv(e) with …, a series of Instagram Live conversations with experts, focusing on the role of aftercare for survivors of cybersex trafficking. Watch it here.
You can purchase Wildflowers here.
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