Lower Merion Township native will walk in Thailand to raise awareness of human trafficking

Ali Weiner giving a gift to a child on Children's Day, a national holiday in Thailand, in January 2012.
Ali Weiner giving a gift to a child on Children's Day, a national holiday in Thailand, in January 2012. (SANJU SACHAMUNEEWONGSE.)
Posted: August 10, 2012

When most people crave a good walk, they amble around the block or saunter through a park - maybe even hike a mountain. Not Lower Merion Township native Ali Weiner, a 23-year-old with an ambition that's anything but pedestrian.

She and a friend are planning a 180-mile walk in Thailand - from Bangkok to the Myanmar border - for themselves and 20 others to raise awareness of human trafficking and at least $100,000 for anti-trafficking groups.

The trek is scheduled for November, when the rainy season is over and temperatures are more moderate.

What started as a way to see her new home of Thailand on foot ended up connecting to her passion to fight human trafficking.

Her Freedom to Walk campaign is about trying to "start conversations that broaden people's understanding of trafficking," she says.

An estimated 21 million children, women and men are trafficked worldwide for commercial sex and other types of forced labor. Human trafficking is lucrative; a 2005 study calculated that global profits made through exploitation of trafficking victims are about $32 billion annually.

Women forced into the commercial sex trade around the world have garnered the most attention. Less is heard about girls kept in domestic and sexual servitude, boys recruited with the promise of a good job only to be beaten and locked up in factories, men and women who choose to migrate for jobs on fishing vessels, at farms, and in packaging plants, only to be trapped while they are made to pay off never-ending debts.

It occurs not only in poorer nations, but also in industrialized countries, including the United States.

Weiner first read about human trafficking while a student at Yale University, when a local newspaper wrote about a Korean brothel near the campus. Next, she wrote an article on sex trafficking for a magazine.

She could not shake the reality that people who fall into traffickers' hands have little or no control over their lives. What a difference that was from the household in which she grew up, with her parents encouraging their children to be independent.

"The absence of that was incredibly disturbing to me," Weiner says.

After graduating from Yale last year with an undergraduate degree in political science and history, she built on volunteer experiences she had before college, getting fellowships with an international focus. Eventually, she zoomed in on trafficking by working with the Bangkok-based Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, moving to Thailand at the end of last year.

Weiner has always liked to travel by foot wherever she was, wherever she traveled. (Her mother, Carol Malkin, says little Ali was an early walker.)

It wasn't long after being in Thailand that she mentioned her idea of a walk to friends, including Tanny Chiengtong, a Thai woman she met last year while raising money for Bangkok flood victims, and "the idea just started to snowball." Many of Thailand's trafficked workers come from the Thai-Myanmar border.

Most of the 11 people who have signed up so far are friends. One is former presidential candidate Howard Dean - a teacher she had at Yale - who will join the walk for one week. Weiner stood out as a student in his seminar, Understanding Politics and Politicians.

"She has a unique ability to take on injustice and a tremendous organizational ability to do something about it," Dean says.

Weiner is a blend of idealism and pragmatism. That might be why she hopes as many people as possible will join them for the first couple of days of the walk - but is limiting the number of participants for the full event to 20. She wants to make sure she and Chiengtong can tend to them along the route, which is on paved urban and rural roads in three provinces.

Although walkers must pay their way to and from Thailand, Weiner hopes to find corporate sponsors to cover the operational costs of the walk, including accommodations, food, clean water, and a support vehicle to follow them. She also hopes to have licensed medical personnel accompany them in case a participant gets sick or twists an ankle.

Her parents hope those are the worst troubles. They are proud and they are nervous.

"As a mom, it's a little unnerving to think she's making this massive trip out there," says Malkin, a retired corporate art consultant who lives in Bala Cynwyd.

"She's on the other side of the world in an area of the world where there has been a lot of political and other unrest. We think she'll be fine, but as parents, we'll be worried," says her father, Jack Weiner, a Philadelphia real estate lawyer.

Weiner and her father have laughed about his concerns. When she asked him what she should use as a web address for the walk, he suggested AreYouOutOfYourFriggingMind.org.

This is a walk-and-talk experience.

After covering 15 or 20 miles over five hours each day, participants will settle down at their accommodations to eat, rest and watch videos that Weiner is assembling in which experts will talk about human trafficking. When the walk is done, Weiner hopes the participants will pass on the lessons they learned to family, friends and neighbors back home. Participants also will raise $5,000 each to contribute to five anti-trafficking organizations Weiner chose.

Dean says he thinks Weiner is reflecting her generation's style of political activism.

"The interesting thing about this is that this generation doesn't have much faith in politicians," says the former governor of Vermont. "The thing is not to hope you can be a senator one day and hope you can get something done, it's to start doing it right now and make changes."

Information on the Freedom to Walk campaign can be found at freedomtowalk.org.

Contact Carolyn Davis at 215-854-4214, cdavis@phillynews.com, or @carolyntweets on Twitter.

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