Aaliyah Cosico, center, an eighth-grade student at Epiphany School, is flanked by California Superior Court Judge Hon. Susan Breall, to her left as she received a second-place award for her poem on human trafficking at Koret Auditorium, San Francisco Public Library. (Photo courtesy of Maria Sagan)

Young Catholic Abolitionist

Epiphany School student recognized for poignant poem on the “silent struggle” of human trafficking victims

By Christina Gray

In 20 spare and carefully-metered lines, Aaliyah Cosico depicts the quiet suffering of men, women and children entrapped by human traffickers. The poem, “Silent Struggle”, calls upon people of mercy and goodwill to help fight the victims of a “heartless trade”. Its final stanza reads:

Let empathy unveil the unseen,

For in each shadow, a human being.

Their stories etched, though untold,

Invisible, but not forgotten, as compassion unfolds.

Cosico, an eighth-grader at Epiphany School in San Francisco, took second-place in the writing category for her elegy in an annual Bay Area-wide student arts contest sponsored by the San Francisco Collaborative Against Human Trafficking (SFCAHT) earlier this year. The contest, which was promoted to public, private and home-schooled middle school and high school students throughout the Bay Area, was designed to educate young people about a large and largely invisible problem.

The organization defines human trafficking as forcing, coercing, or entrapping a person to work or sell themselves by either physical or psychological force, fraud or trickery, or through threats of harm. There are several forms of human trafficking, including sex trafficking, labor trafficking, and debt trafficking.

San Francisco is considered a human trafficking hot spot by the FBI due to its ports, airports, industry, and rising immigrant populations.

This spring, Cosico was recognized along with the winners from the contest’s art and music categories at a public presentation at the Korea Auditorium in the San Francisco Main Library. She received a certificate and a $250 prize from the SFCAHT.

Her family had raised her to be aware of the reality of human trafficking. Cosisco said that her understanding matured when her English Language Arts teacher, Stacey Siri, brought Presentation Sister Rita Jovick in to speak to students on the subject and promote the contest. It was the second year Epiphany School students participated, according to Ms. Siri.

“What Sister Jovick taught us is that there is not any one face of human trafficking,” said Cosico. “Not all victims are woman, and not all perpetrators are men.”

Reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, and “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck, with its tale of the treatment of migrant farm workers during the Great Depression, lead into conversations about human trafficking, according to Ms. Siri.

“I felt it was important,” she said.

The poor and vulnerable are common prey

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, human trafficking is a predatory, opportunistic practice. Anyone can become a trafficking victim, but poor, hungry, homeless, marginalized, and abused children and adults are the most common sex and labor trafficking victims. Traffickers frequently prey upon the desperation of individuals whose vulnerabilities including poverty, limited English proficiency, immigration status, unstable housing, and limited economic and educational opportunities. Tragically, many become victims after fleeing an abusive spouse or parent.

Victims are often deceived by false promises of love, a good job, or a stable life and are lured or forced into situations where they are made to work under deplorable conditions with little or no pay.  

Though human trafficking is often called “modern day slavery,” victims are as often in plain view as they are hidden behind doors in domestic servitude. They can be found in illegal, as well as legal industries, including childcare, elder care, massage parlors, hair and nail salons, restaurants, hotels, factories, and farms. Their traffickers also vary from strangers to family members and acquaintances. Traffickers can act alone or be part of an organized criminal enterprise; they can be foreign nationals or U.S. citizens, strangers or family members, partners or business owners, gang members or diplomats.

Aaliyah Cosico, and her English Language Arts teacher, Ms. Stacey Siri, outside Epiphany School. Cosico wrote her winning poem about human trafficking after students were invited to enter the annual contest sponsored by the San Francisco Collaborative Against Human Trafficking. (Photo by Christina Gray/Catholic San Francisco)

Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking

“To be very honest with you, this is what God has called me to do,” Sister Jovick, 87, told Catholic San Francisco. Catholic sisters have been the standard bearers in terms of awareness and prevention campaigns within the Catholic Church, she said. As they age and their numbers dwindle, they are reaching out to younger generations and teaming with other faith organizations to accomplish their goals now and into the future.

She and Mercy Sister Therese Randolph have visited Catholic schools and parishes to educate on the various forms of human trafficking, how to recognize them, and what one should do (and should not do).

“Aaliyah’s poem was enormously insightful,” said Sister Jovick, who served Epiphany School as a teacher and administrator for more than a decade. “It made me wonder whether she had known someone that had experienced it; the language was so real.”

So moved was she by the poem that she began to open her presentations with it as an invocational prayer.

Both sisters are part of Stop Slavery, a Northern California Coalition of Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking started in 2006 at the urging of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR).  It is part of the Alliance to End Human Trafficking alliancetoendhumantrafficking.org, a faith-based organization founded and supported by a broad membership of Catholic sisters nationwide.

Sister Jovick and Sister Randolph are slated to speak to religious educators in the Archdiocese of San Francisco at the Faith Formation Conference at St. Matthew Parish in San Mateo on Oct. 6. Their presentation is “Human Trafficking is in Your Zip Code.”

“We ourselves have learned not to use that world “slavery” because people immediately think about people in bondage,” said Sister Jovick. “Trafficked people, in fact many of them, are just walking around what looks like, freely.” Many are simply family members.

“What people really don’t like to talk about is familial trafficking,” she said. “Family members who may pass their spouse or children out for pay.”

Bay Area Human Trafficking Hotline: 415-907-9911

Sister Jovick said that the Alliance to End Human Trafficking believes education and awareness is central to its mission. Sisters and other members are working to inform the public about the root causes of human trafficking, how to recognize it, and how to report it if it is suspected.

“One thing we say to people is to never, ever try to rescue a trafficked person,” she said. “Traffickers are not nice people.”

She urges people who “see something to say something”, but only through the San Francisco Bay Area Human Trafficking Hotline: 415-907-9911.

Sister Jovick said students can be shocked when she holds up her phone during a presentation to show one of the growing “tools of the trade” for human traffickers.

“Back in my day, we were warned about staying away from ‘the scary men in the scary car,’” she said. “Today, this can be the scary man in the scary car.”

Many ordinary people have been entrapped by internet traffickers for pictures or words they impetuously shared online but now regret. They may enter into a number of arrangements with a trafficker to prevent something from being seen publicly.

“There have been suicides over that kind of thing,” she said.

The young poet said her faith and family taught her that “each life has dignity,” and that trafficked people need justice and mercy.

“The Catholic Church has so much influence, and it’s a great thing [that members of the Church] are among those who are taking action,” she said.

A Silent Struggle

In the clandestine folds where shadows breed,

Invisible their cries, an urgent need.

A tale untold, a silent plea,

Yet not forgotten, we yearn to set them free.

Beneath the cloak of a heartless trade,

Innocence shrouded, in darkness laid.

Their voices stifled, yet echoes persist,

Invisible threads of pain, persist.

In crowded streets and city lights,

They vanish into the endless nights.

Yet not forgotten, our hearts entwined,

With the hope that one day, freedom they’ll find.

Invisible chains may bind them tight,

But not forgotten, their fight ignites.

A spark within the collective soul,

To break the silence, to make them whole.

Let empathy unveil the unseen,

For in each shadow, a human being.

Their stories etched, though untold,

Invisible, but not forgotten, as compassion unfolds.

Aaliyah Cosico

Epiphany School
Second-Place Writing Award
2024 Teen Power Against Human Trafficking Contest