Bringing freedom, through coffee
My life as a bodyguard
Bryn Frere-Smith explains his journey from bodyguard to protecting those who cannot afford to pay for it – and how the Blue Bear Coffee Company he founded is partnering with a growing number of churches concerned about human trafficking
You may have thought there were only so many times one could buy a 3ft Spongebob Squarepants, but you’d be wrong. In fact, it was the fourth time that week he’d found his way into our basket and many more of his cuddly colleagues from the Toy Kingdom on Harrods’ third floor.
It was nearly Christmas and the store brimmed with hyperactive children, dashing from one display to the next, pressing their parents into buying some last-minute stocking fillers. There were almost as many shop staff present as there were customers, all dressed in thematic attire, stacking shelves, manning checkouts and playing with the toys, or rather, ‘giving demonstrations.’
As usual, we had commandeered a number of ‘Santa’s little helpers’, to accompany us around the store, gathering up armfuls of goodies selected by the precocious Arabian prince I had the job of protecting.
“Essentially, anything the boy touches, bag it, tag it and send it to the Dorchester,” the head nanny explained to our elfish aids.
As we ziz-zagged our way from the stuffed animals to the Lego, I recognised a man in his mid-thirties, wearing an ill-fitting reindeer onesie and selling mini boomerangs. Yesterday he was juggling beanbags dressed as a snowman. He smiled at me, nodded and rolled his eyes.
I did the same in response. ‘Isn’t it strange what people choose to do for money’, I mused, before realising that, at the site of me, my mini master and the rest of our Christmas conga, he was probably thinking the very same!
Eventually, my 5-year-old protectee began to tire and I radioed our driver to prepare for a pick-up. We all loaded into the lift: elves, nannies, little Lord Fauntleroy, Spongebob and finally, me. Staring straight ahead, I was forced to face the absurdity of my current circumstance in the reflection of the polished bronze elevator doors. It was at this point that I noticed another character in the lift. Stood at my side, towering over me, his hand resting on my shoulder, The Ghost of Christmas Present was inviting me to answer the ultimate rhetorical question:
“What on earth are you doing here!?”
Volunteering with the biggest anti-human trafficking agency in the world
Twenty-five years ago, a young human rights lawyer called Gary Haugen asked himself the same question. At just 31, he was responsible for leading the UN investigation into the Rwandan genocide. As he went about re-framing the atrocity, body by body, he too wondered what he was doing there. How had humanity allowed this horrific event to occur?
His time in the role had shown him what the raw effects of unrestrained violence could do to a country. A seed was planted and, a few years later, that lawyer started an NGO in Washington DC, designed to combat this very issue. He called it International Justice Mission
(IJM), and today, 20 odd years on, that seed has grown to become the biggest anti-human trafficking agency in the world.
As the lift doors opened, releasing us into the wintery West London air, I realised that it was time for me to leave the world of bodyguarding behind and turn to protecting those who couldn’t afford to pay for it.
I decided to volunteer for International Justice Mission and was posted to the Dominican Republic to support their investigations into the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children.
IJM set up their DR operation in 2014, after the number of children in the Dominican sex industry had begun to garner the word’s attention. A prevalence study conducted by the NGO found that approximately 10 per cent of the island’s sex workers were under 18. That may not sound as dramatic as you think, but the extent of prostitution is at such a level that the representative number is shockingly high. And it’s easy to see why, when 1/3 of the population lives below the poverty line, and unemployment sits between 13-15 per cent.
As an ex Uk Police Officer, I was there to support the organisation’s investigators and help to add capacity to local law enforcement. It was, by far, the most emotionally challenging experience of my life, as I attempted to contribute whatever I could in those short twelve months, to move the needle in our collective fight against injustice.
From victim to rescuer
Six months into my time there, as I approached the Christmas break, we responded to a case in the North of the Island. A young girl had mentioned to a schoolteacher what was happening to her at home. Mum had been renting her out to the locals in exchange for drugs and the teen’s innocent body had become grubby with the guilty acts of older men.
After being loaded into our vehicle and driven away towards a new future, she was asked by one of our care workers if there was anything from home we could collect for her. After a couple of moments, the girl asked for her teddy bear. Blue, dirty, dog-eared and misshapen, I wondered what effect this stuffed toy could have, other than to transport her back to a place of pain and suffering.
But when I saw her in the back of our car and noticed the way she handled the bear, sitting him softly on her lap, facing forward, secured by her arm, held tight into her belly, it became clear that she hadn’t requested him for her comfort - she was in fact rescuing him. Rather than an item of clothing or a favourite book, she wanted to get her teddy bear out of that place to somewhere safe. In an act of replication, she had moved from victim to rescuer.
This moment in time was rarely away from my thoughts when I returned home and could not have presented more stark a contrast with my loving family Christmas or the gross opulence of the one before. I took the opportunity to raise some money for the children in our care and those we had yet to meet, to buy them a teddy bear, something fluffy, new and clean.
Something that came from a place of love.
A tokenistic response, but a response all the same. The initial fund raised over £2000, which was indeed spent on teddy bears and age-appropriate toys. It also went on to help fund many of the more complex needs of the children, and paid for school materials, medication, groceries and milk formula. I recognised that this giving wasn’t a sustainable way of doing charity, but it was meeting an immediate need and few things have ever brought me such joy.
A more sustainable response - setting up a social enterprise
Upon return from the Dominican Republic, in the summer of 2018, I set up Blue Bear Coffee Co.
, a social enterprise with the singular purpose of raising money and awareness for effective organisations fighting human trafficking and caring for survivors. So far, to date we have raised over £15,000 in support of our charity beneficiaries.
We have also partnered with a growing number of churches, who recognise their opportunity to fight the injustice of human trafficking, simply by swapping their coffee provider. All of our coffee is sourced through transparent supply chains, in what is referred to as a direct trade model, and last year we paid our farmers, on average, over 100 per cent more than the Fair-Trade cost of coffee. We believe that business done in this manner is no less effective in fighting modern slavery, as it reduces the vulnerability of coffee growing communities around the world.
It stuns me that in today’s world there is estimated to be over 40 million people still trapped in slavery. One in four of those are children.
If you are part of a church and you care about the injustice of human trafficking and modern slavery, I would love to invite you to get in touch, and we can look to bring freedom, through coffee, together.
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