Written by Corinne Garcia Tuesday, May 01 2012
Snapshot: Julia Immonen, Director of Sport Against Trafficking
When Julia Immonen came up with the idea to row across the Atlantic, she had a few things going against her: She had to find a team of others who could train and spend 45 days at sea, she had a full-time job that left little time for training herself, and most importantly, she had never spent any time at sea — never sailed or rowed for that matter. But the one thing that kept her afloat was a passion for fighting the inhumane, growing underground world of human trafficking.
Not only did she raise money and awareness surrounding this issue, but she and five other women accomplished a mental and physical feat that seemed out of reach, while setting two world records as “The Fastest Crossing of The Atlantic Ocean by an All-Female Team,” and “The First 5-woman Team to Row Any Ocean.”
Julia Immonen: There’s a myth that slavery only exists in far away, poverty stricken countries, but in actuality it’s rife globally. When I found out that there are 300 brothels in my borough of Chelsea in London, I realized how hidden and unaware the average person is today.
The UK is a big destination country for trafficking, especially the big cities. However, there are more and more cases of trafficking emerging in leafy country suburbs. And after visiting a safe house in Cape Town before the World Cup, I realized how large sporting events increase the demand for trafficking. As millions of people descend upon London and the UK for the 2012 Olympics, it’s really frightening to think of how many girls can potentially be trafficked into service, the demand for sex and children trafficked for begging.
Womenetics: Why do these types of sporting events and trafficking go hand-in-hand?
Immonen: The same way hotel and restaurant demand rises, so does the demand for brothels. They are discreet residential working flats and houses, making it a hidden crime. For child trafficking, one child forced to beg can earn a trafficker £100k a year! So the demand on children being forced to beg around the time of the Olympics is expected to be huge.
There were 10,000 construction workers building the Olympic site in East London, which meant that the demand for sex doubled in the area over the past two years. I'm really passionate about the UK and raising awareness here. I was horrified that as an ordinary, educated woman, I knew nothing about trafficking just three years ago. Row For Freedom (RFF) has been such a positive way to raise awareness and tell the world about the second fastest growing crime in the world.
Womenetics: How did you come up with the idea and the initial motivation to start RFF and row the Atlantic?
Immonen: I heard about human trafficking for the first time through The A21 Campaign, now one of the RFF charities. I was so overwhelmed by it and immediately started thinking about how I could make a difference. I’ve always loved sports and decided to use this love to raise money and awareness for the cause. At first, I thought I’d do a half marathon, but it turned into rowing the Atlantic Ocean! I founded Sport Against Trafficking, which is a positive response to such an overwhelming injustice. Then I founded Row For Freedom.
The RFF campaign was designed to tell the world about human trafficking. Our media campaign was integral because it was so important to raise awareness. We had the privilege of having a private meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron in October 2011 as well as massive celebrity, sporting and corporate support.
Womenetics: How did you form the team and find likeminded women who, not only could take the time to do this, but also cared as much as you did about the cause?
Immonen: Forming the team was a really natural journey. I put down the deposit for the boat without having a single crewmember but never worried because I believed in this adventure and cause so much. The rest was fate.
I met Debbie Beadle who worked for another RFF charity we were fundraising for, called ECPAT UK. I set up a meeting to find out more about their work, and Debs emailed me straight after saying she'd love to get on board.
I was on holiday in Dubai and met Katie through a mutual friend. She had taken a year out of the corporate world to pursue a sporting challenge. I suggested rowing the Atlantic, and she was on!
Kate from Northern Ireland was our youngest crewmember. We met through a mutual church friend. She was both sporty and passionate about A21 and the cause, and when we met, we both knew she was on the team that instant.
Helen was the last member to get on board after a girl pulled out. She had the most sea experience and was the only one who had rowed before. She had always wanted to row the Atlantic but ended up becoming really passionate about the cause too.
We were a six female crew, but we lost our skipper two days before departure. She was an experienced rower and had years of sea experience, but the pressure got to her on land, and we made a group decision to go as a five. It was massively upsetting but definitely for the best.
So, there were already twists and turns before the adventure even started!
Womenetics: Can you describe a typical day like on the water?
Immonen: We rowed for two hours on, and then took two hours off continuously for 45 days. The boat did not stop unless we had problems to fix, which were many!
Womenetics: Do you have a positive memory that stands out the most?
Immonen: On day 33 we saw the first wildlife of the crossing - dolphins! They were so beautiful; we marveled at them in their raw habitat. Five dolphins swam by the boat and followed us for a while. It was elation and such excitement after being in such isolation in the vast ocean.
Womenetics: Explain the problems you encountered.
Immonen: The automatic steering broke on day six, which meant we had to foot steer the remainder of the journey. Another big issue was that our water maker blew up because the hatch it was in flooded on day 15. We had to hand-pump seawater through a handheld desalinator for the remaining 30 days. We had to pump water literally around the clock so we were always a rower down.
Womenetics: Were there times you were afraid?
Immonen: For two weeks, the waves were immense, and I was so scared of the 50-footers. None of the team had ever experienced such conditions, and most of us had never even sailed before. These waves actually help by pushing you along quicker, but they were so scary. I felt so insignificant in a 7-meter boat. Sometimes I thought they were going to swallow us up, and often they broke over the boat. At night, it was scary not being able to see them, having waves lashing at you from all angles unexpectedly.
Womenetics: What kept you going through the hardest of times?
Immonen: We were tested to our mental and physical limits in such extreme conditions. When we had lots of problems we just decided to laugh our way across. Sometimes we felt so low it was our only option. As a Christian, my faith was so important to me. I prayed literally 24-7 and sometimes just to stay awake at night! Surfing 50-foot waves while going to the toilet on a bucket, I feel like nothing will be hard in life now!
Womenetics: What kind of bond have you formed with these women after the trip?
Immonen: A lot of people don't talk to each other after this journey because you see the best and worst, but we are friends for life. Of course we got on each other’s nerves sometimes being in such a confined space, but you learn to let things go. We were united for this cause, and that always put everything into perspective.
Womenetics: How does it feel to set two world records?
Immonen: Amazing and quite surreal. The cause was my main objective, but getting the world records motivated us to have a focus and target. It also meant we got a lot more media coverage which helped our campaign.
Womenetics: Have you raised the awareness you were hoping for?
Immonen: RFF would have been a failure if we didn't raise awareness internationally. Every dime we raised was amazing, but all the more priceless is to inspire others to join in and play a part in being the change we want to see to this injustice. We have been inundated with people contacting us from all corners of the globe sending their congratulations, thanking us for letting them know about this cause and how they are now making a difference.
Womenetics: What tips would you offer to other women who are looking to raise awareness for an issue they are passionate about?
Immonen: It's incredibly exciting seeing ordinary people like us making a difference, whether it be by giving their time or money or through sport, fashion, music, even baking for freedom. Don't think that your small contribution doesn't make a difference. If lots of people play their small part, we can change the world. It is so rewarding seeing change happen. If you have a heart for this cause, even just telling others about this injustice of human trafficking makes a difference.
Womenetics: What tips would you offer other women who want to complete a feat like this that seems so out of reach?
Immonen: Nothing is impossible! I felt completely unequipped for this challenge, but it was passion that saw it through. I was not a professional fundraiser and hadn't even rowed a year before the challenge. If you are dedicated and committed enough, you can do anything. It was a massive sacrifice to make RFF happen. I had a full-time job, trained most days and project managed the campaign. There was another boat in the race called Dream It, Do it! That sums it up nicely.
Womenetics: What’s in store for the future?
Immonen: We were honored to have had the corporate sponsorship of our lead sponsor ManpowerGroup. I am delighted that they are supporting my next challenge, which will be hopefully next summer. I'm still dreaming it up but again will be symbolic of a trafficking route.
Womenetics: What do you enjoy doing now that you’re home?
Immonen: I was born in Finland and grew up in Lapland, so I feel at home on the slopes and love all things outdoors, like skiing and skating. I am learning to surf, and now I’m happiest on the ocean.
Want to learn more about human trafficking?
Stephanie Davis of Georgia Women for a Change gives a behind-the-scenes look at the state's latest legislation to provide holistic services for human trafficking victims.
Delta Air Lines proves its dedication to combating human trafficking by being one of the first airlines to sign the ECPAT International Code of Conduct for tourism.
After witnessing the murder of her best friend and escaping brutal rape and torture, Somaly Mam now devotes her life to empowering victims of sexual slavery.
Corinne Garcia is a freelance writer and editor living with her husband and two young boys in Bozeman, Mont. She has also written for Women’s Adventure, Christian Science Monitor, Northwest Travel, Pregnancy, Fit Pregnancy and Fit Parent.