Another 10 Brilliant Dallas Women: Josie Carignan Fights Against HumanTrafficking

Welcome to 10 Brilliant Dallas Women, a pop-up online series about 10 awesome women making Dallas a better place to live. 

Josie Carignan sits in her bare Rescue Her office in Grapevine. Her desk is seated next to her husband’s in New Life Family Church, where they both co-pastor.

Carignan pulls up a picture she took while in a Cambodia motel of a 14-year-old Asian girl with pigtails sitting in between two men in the Russian Mafia.

“She was terrified,” Carignan recalls. “The guys that were with me were just sitting there crying silently while we were watching. We had been told there was nothing we could do — that all we could do was kidnap her but then we couldn’t bring her home. ‘Just watch. This is the Russian Mafia. You can’t do anything.’ So she sat there on the couch. After a few minutes, they just took her up on the elevator.”

That’s just one of the sex trafficking instances Carignan has encountered. The first instance was while she was working in Israel in 2002. She met a young woman whose alcoholic father sold her to the Russian mob and then was smuggled into Egypt, used as a sex slave, taken in a tank across the Sinai Desert into Tel Aviv and forced to work in a club.

“So we’re sitting there listening to this story, like, ‘What? Hold on. What just happened to you? What are you talking about? This is ridiculous.’ I had never heard anything like that before,” she says. “It was before (trafficking) was kind of a buzzword. We’re talking to her and I was getting creeped out. I was like, ‘I don’t know how to help this person. This is severely traumatizing. What do I even say that isn’t foolish?’ But I was like, ‘Someone needs to help her. Just not me.’”

Throughout Carignan’s time in Israel, the United Kingdom, and then when she moved back to the States, she kept hearing stories about human trafficking, including when a church she was visiting showed a video about the issue.

She was confused. She went to church that day to be uplifted, she says, not depressed. She prayed and asked God what he wanted her to do.

“I felt inadequate and I felt angry about what was happening, but not like I could do anything about it,” she says. “But during that video, it was so clear that God was saying, ‘It’s not OK that this is happening.’”

“’I don’t think I can. 27 million,’” she recalls asking God. “And that’s when he narrowed it down and said, ‘Yeah, but would you go for one?’”

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 79 percent of human trafficking is sexual exploitation, and the victims are predominately women and girls.

To help fight against the issue, Carignan founded Rescue Her in 2009, a nonprofit aimed to fight sex trafficking among young girls ages 6 to 17. Carignan began the organization with $200 that she and her husband had set aside to donate to mission work.

Those first few years, the stay-at-home mom was working from her home. She was selling T-shirts and coffee and bracelets. “It wasn’t glamorous. I had thought when God had called me in that moment in church with the video — I’m picturing moving overseas, getting the heck out of America and doing something exciting like raiding brothels and undercover, and instead, we have $200.”

Today, Rescue Her has grown and the nonprofit is building a safe home in Chennai, India, partnering with SHE Rescue Home in Cambodia, hosting a prevention initiative called Glam Girls in the U.S., where they teach young girls about trafficking prevention, among other things.

And while Rescue Her aims to stop sex trafficking, Carignan also understands the importance of raising awareness. As she began the nonprofit, she realized many of her friends and colleagues were like her in the beginning — completely unaware that trafficking was happening.

As of the middle of 2015, 2,085 cases of sex trafficking were reported, according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center. Texas has the second highest number of cases behind California.

“There is a trafficking issue in Dallas,” Carignan says. “There’s a trafficking issue in almost every city in the United States and we kid ourselves if we think it’s only happening overseas. I think that was one of the biggest things coming to this city that if (Rescue Her) only helps over there and not here, it’s just not right. So we started doing what we can. We don’t have a safe home here, but there are some and we love and work and partner with them. We do a lot of education and awareness and prevention.”

According to National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, one in six endangered runaways reported to NCMEC were likely sex trafficking victims.

While speaking about trafficking in Utah, a young woman approached Carignan afterward to tell her that she was trafficked in Plano while she thought she was at a job interview.

“She escaped and she showed me the tattoo where they had branded her and everything. She was taken,” Carignan says. “She thought she was going to a job interview and she was on her own, her parents had kicked her out and she was stripping at the time, and she thought it was a job interview and that she could get out of what she was doing. And she went and they took her to a home, and she was just trapped and there was nothing she could do. She ended up escaping and her grandparents lived in Utah. But she said, ‘It happens in Dallas, you know that, right?’”

Throughout Carignan’s six years running and operating Rescue Her, she says there have been moments of confusion and hardships, including 2014 when funding significantly dipped.

“You can get bogged down and forget why you’re doing what you’re doing. So for me, it’s important to keep the mission ever in front of me, if you will. I’ll think about the girls that I’ve met and the safe homes that are open and flourishing and that will make me work all the more harder to get ours to that place,” she says. “When I have to go ask for money, which I used to hate doing, I think, who am I asking for. And on behalf of these girls, I will humble myself and I will do whatever because they’re worth it.”

10 Brilliant Dallas Women: 
Dr. Rose Brock, Educator and Literary Advocate
Anne Marie Weiss, International Community Builder
Kaleta Doolin Promotes Equality with Philanthropy and Art
Sergeant Amy Mills Is Testing All the Backlogged Rape Kits
Artist Haylee Ryan Doesn't Paint By Numbers
'Think' Host Krys Boyd Isn't Afraid to Say 'I Don't Know'
Lauren Woods Uses Art to Tell the People's History of Dallas
Olinka Green Is a Fierce Crusader for Justice
Rachel Michaud Helps Girls Learn to Rock
Justine Ludwig Brings an International Art Perspective to Curation

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Paige Skinner has written for the Dallas Observer since 2014.
Contact: Paige Skinner