by Derek Hockenbrough

Two qualities immediately struck me about her the moment that I met Alezandra Russell: an immensely empathetic wisdom and an unstoppable determination. We met at a fund-raiser in Malibu consumed with the joyfully chattering voices of a crowd ranging from high-school volunteers to distinguished philanthropists. The story that she told to the crowd that night brought more tears and laughter than I had seen in many years. She is the founder of the program “Urban Light” which focuses on the impoverished outcast boys of the Chang Mai red-light district in Thailand. Her story is one of shock, terror, and love. Alezandra (Alex for short) began a job in the corporate world like many of our graduates today. But after being laid off during the recession, she decided to take her life in a completely different direction. She took a job at a youth center in Washington D.C. as an educator to teen mothers, teaching things like positive discipline and reproductive health. Lacking any training, she needed to be creative by teaching with popular media (Youtube, etc) in a fun creative way. This paved the pathway for how she would eventually teach the boys in Thailand.

Urban Light Founder, Alezandra Russell, Photo by Doanne Visitacion and John Briggs

The Ice Cracks:

She was teaching teen girls in D.C., but there was also an adult program. In this program, there was a mom who had just brought her daughter over from Honduras and was thrilled to have her back. With the emotional high of the mom having her daughter back, Alex and the mother formed a strong connection. One day the Mom came in looking nervous and stressed. She said her daughter was missing. “How does that happen? She just got here from Honduras,” Alex asked. The mom was not too worried and said it would all work out.  Alex’s intuition told her something was off.  She wanted to call the police but the Mother said she didn’t want to get them involved, as she was undocumented.  Alex decided there was no other choice.  The police, however, said there was nothing they could do and that the girl had probably just a run away with her boyfriend.  Alex knew this girl wouldn’t just run away, so she got pictures and put missing fliers all around D.C. However, the mother never seemed sincerely concerned.

A few days later the girl returned to her classroom a completely different person, gaunt and completely broken down. Alex slowly got the story from her: The mother, Alex’s adored student, was running a brothel in D.C. for Latino men. She would bring girls over from Honduras, El Salvador, and other Latin American countries to fill the brothels. The mother had a partner in North Carolina who she would trade girls with continuously to “keep the market fresh”, which is a normal practice in sex trafficking in the United States and all over the world. The partner had come up to exchange girls and picked out her daughter, who he convinced to go to North Carolina with him. She was locked in an apartment and forced to have sex with numerous Latino men for over the week she had been there. The partner assumed that she was an undocumented girl and would not be missed nor would the mother do anything because she was in the trade herself. Contrary to these assumptions, he heard that someone was looking for her in DC, and that there were pictures up all over the city. Fearful that his business would be revealed, he sent her back as a liability.  After hearing the girl’s story, Alex and the girl went to the police. The FBI got involved and were able to bust the Mother, her D.C. brothel and the North Carolina brothel.  They were able to rescue a handful of girls in the apartment in North Carolina, which was filled with nothing but mattresses and a shrine to the patron saint of traffickers.  The revelation about human trafficking was staggering to Alex. Here she was working with at-risk youths, and she had no concept of the term “human trafficking”.  Suddenly, the youth center was now aware of the trafficking market as well and the issue quickly became a center point for the organization. Unfortunately, the young girl from this story did not have the resources available to her to lead her on the right track and soon found herself on a downward spiral into gang life and crime. For as old as the issue of human trafficking is, we are incredibly behind in our awareness and social implements available to victims. As for Alex, she felt helpless and was consumed by questions.  How do we create awareness about this?  How do we let the hundreds of children that we work with know that they could become victims of human trafficking?  Alex goes on to explain that this issue in America isn’t simply centered on undocumented immigrants, but happens constantly by our own US citizens through men that act like boyfriends but are pimping their girlfriends out, or the trafficking of illegal immigrant workers.

Urban Light Founder, Alezandra Russell, Photo by Doanne Visitacion and John Briggs

The Ice Shatters:

It wasn’t until she travelled to Thailand and met the boys in the red-light district that she understood that human trafficking wears many faces, instead of the locked and chained face of the young girl in D.C. Alex kept in touch with one of the FBI agents from the case in D.C. who suggested that she join an organized trip to Thailand to see the aspects of human trafficking on a global scale. Thailand is known as the sex trafficking capitol of the world and Alex knew that she was meant to take the trip. Blessed with a supportive husband, Alex and he threw a fundraiser at her house for the trip and soon found herself in Thailand during the summer of 2009. The group of 11 passionate volunteers travelled through the Bangkok and Chang Mai red-light districts, reaching out to the girls at the bars and first handedly understanding the monstrous corrupt establishment of Thai human trafficking. The bars were constantly filled with drunken and rowdy western men, treating the women “like ragdolls”; a sight that Alex will never forget.

During one night of outreach at the bars in Chang Mai, Alex’s entire world flipped upside down. While walking through the red-light district with her fellow volunteers, they by chance passed one of the “boy bars” in an easily passable alley. The group walked under a series of dim red lights and young, gaunt boys huddled in the shadows.  Alex asked her guide what the place where they now found themselves was. He responded that this was where the boys went to sell themselves to Western men. Alex looked at the horror around her: teenage boys sitting on men’s laps, holding their hands, leaving with the boys in taxis. Alex was confounded, “I don’t understand. This is human trafficking, this is exploitation at it’s finest. These are child predators coming to this bar to buy these young boys. Why are we just learning about this now?”  She was enraged with her guide. How could someone who leads groups on the education of human trafficking care so little about these boys?  His response was that the majority of the boys would get HIV and die, so we don’t want to waste our resources on them. Alex could not believe the cruelty of the guide’s statement. Shock settled over the entire group as they went into the bars and distributed prophylactics to the boys.  Alex soon realized the notorious perception of the boys as thieves and addicts. As such, there were no resources available for the boys, unlike the many centers available for the women and girls. But she could not just walk on like everyone else.

Urban Light Founder, Alezandra Russell, Photo by Doanne Visitacion and John Briggs

Alex returned that night to find herself as the only female in a crowded bar of Western men and teenage boys.  She remembers sitting down at a table and quickly being approached by one of the boys who barraged her with broken English, “Who are you? Why are you here?  You can’t be here. Go, go, go!” Alex jokes that the Latina came out in her, she turned to the boy and brusquely told the boy that she wasn’t leaving.  The boy, whose name is OJ, followed her “like a puppy” and stood over her at the table.  The sixteen year-old boy demanded that Alex buy him a whisky. Alex refuted and the over-dramatic OJ threw a fit ending with the demand of a beer. Again, Alex told him no. Finally, OJ asks for a coke, which Alex happily buys him on the condition that he sit down with her.  What followed was an hour long joyful conversation of broken Thai and English.  Soon the table was crowded by OJ’s friends who came to check out the girl that had the guts to walk into their bar.  Alex falls in love with every one of the endearing boys over an all-night gaming session of Connect-Four and Jenga right in the bar. Through their conversations, she understood that every one of the boy’s parents had either died or abandoned them. Alex spent the rest of her trip at the same bars with the same boys, shouldering a growing painful empathy for the outcast boys and the heavy understanding that there was no one to care for them. Shattered by her experiences and showered with love by the boys, Alex returned home to the US. However, she knew she could never forget the faces of the boys and began to plan how to get back to Thailand. After numerous fund-raisers, she still found herself far underfunded. Her husband suggested that if she truly thought this was her mission in life, then she should sell her wedding ring and get herself back to help the boys. Five months after the trip that changed her life, she found herself on a plane back to Thailand with a few thousand dollars and the support of her family and friends.

Alex Begins to Swim:

She walked back into the Chang Mai red-light district and found herself confronted by an elated OJ who called over a friend that spoke better English.  She explained to OJ that she had fallen in love with the boys and wanted to do anything to help them.  OJ, who had endured many false promises of return in the past, was blown away that Alex had come back to them.  She was soon reunited with the rest of the boys who happily named her the Thai word for “Rose”.  It was another celebration night in the bar, and Alex remembers getting jealous looks from the Western men who had come for the boys’ attention. “Every moment that the boys aren’t with those men. Every moment that they are out of those bars is a victory for me,” she says.  Alex began teaching English to OJ from the Café next to her hotel with only a handful of ABC’s cards. Within a few days, the café was filled with boys all learning English and the owners regretfully had to ask Alex to take the teaching elsewhere. 

Every moment that the boys aren’t with those men… is a victory for me.

Alex began looking for property and found a small space a mere block away from the boy bars.  She brought OJ to the space and, with his approval, purchased the space for $300 and began her organization Urban Light. With the help of OJ, the group of Urban Light boys grew from five to ten to twenty. Alex explains that Urban Light would never have happened without the love and encouragement of OJ. Ninety-percent of the boys that come to Urban Light are “hill-tribe” boys, meaning they come from the impoverished villages in the hills surrounding Chang Mai. These villages consist mainly of dirt roads and thatched houses, but the occasional modern home with doors and cable dishes appeared between the huts. Alex soon understood that this contradiction of living standards was fueled by the sex trade. Boys like OJ grow up seeing houses like this and hearing the adoration of such things from their parents. They, not unlike Americans, learn at a very early age that money can bring you comfort and that desire is ruthlessly instilled.  So, parents will sell their children to get a modern house like their neighbors and the boys descend into the city in pursuit of the currency-gilded demon, mostly with their parent’s interest in mind. Alex knows that her competition is fierce. She battles the pension-carrying Western trash that shower the boys with money, trying to teach the boys that with effort they can make money and be successful without selling themselves.  She explains that it is not a question of “How many boys have you saved?”  She is fighting an entire system filled with culturally engrained problems and obstacles. It is not a one shot deal, but a long-term development of the boys’ understanding of their abilities in this world.  Her goal is to empower the boys into knowing that they have a decision with what to do with their lives and that they candevelop skills that will get them jobs outside the red-light district. Learning consistency becomes a huge factor for the boys, and once they learn that they can live their lives on a schedule, even if it is their own, the results come faster. Alex becomes exuberant when she talks about the boys that have found jobs outside the district making nearly one-tenth of what they could have made in the bars. These are her success stories; these are the boys that have learned to have dignity and pride in themselves. 

Oi, Photo by Doanne Visitacion and John Briggs

Alex’s experiences have taught her that she can’t force anyone to see a better path and that each boy has his own particular need. Sometimes it’s a hot meal and sometimes it’s just a little love or attention.  Sometimes it’s as simple as buying a school uniform for a penniless boy that wants to go back to school.  She has volunteers and staff that will teach English or mathematics.  This empowers the boys into thinking they can get a real job and live in society.  “So often they think that they can’t buy things like uniforms because the money has to be sent back home, but if Urban Light can get that work or school uniform for them, then we are doing what we came to do,” Alex beams, “When they finally say, ‘You know what. I’m sick of being an object.’ That is huge, because they finally see themselves as having something more than what the whole world has told them.”

Three years ago, these boys had nothing. Now, there is a 24-hour center, a full-time staff of five, and numerous Thai volunteers tending to the boys’ needs. Urban Light focuses primarily on boys ages 14-24, but will take in boys outside that range that are in need. Alex reminds us that these boys only know one life and have no idea how to manage themselves outside the red-light district environment. This past summer of 2012 was the biggest influx of boys they have had, with 10-30 boys in the center on any given day. With the help of the boys, Urban Light has started a preventative empowerment camp in the hill villages that educates the kids on the other options for their lives.  Working with the village leaders, the boys and Urban Light have made it a regular mission to visit the children in the villages to prevent them from falling into the same path they have or are breaking out of.

Reaching Land:

Urban Light is still a very young project but has made considerable progress in its short life. Alex is the one-woman show in the United States for awareness of her cause and every cent that is raised goes straight to the center in Thailand.  Alex does not have a salary, nor would she feel comfortable with one.  Her life is devoted to saving these boys and her successes can be seen in the dim red lights of Chang Mai.  She dreams of ending human trafficking all over the world, but is happy to recognize her naivety. She knows that this is a war and she is winning the battle along with some help from the boys of Urban Light.