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Impossible is a Dare – by Elizabeth Neep

Five years is a long time. It was for William. That’s at least as long as he was locked into a cycle of exploitation, moved from city to city across the UK.

Every day, ordinary people passed by the house where he was painting and plastering for no pay, at the hands of violent traffickers. He looked like a legitimate labourer. But the reality could not be further from the truth. The conditions William was made to eat and sleep in were subhuman; there were rooms full of others who were being similarly exploited. Body after body forced to live, eat and sleep in cramped conditions. William was a strong man. He felt ashamed that he had allowed himself to end up in this situation, but he also felt trapped.

After a few years he met Samuel. Samuel seemed like a kindred spirit. They would talk occasionally, when they found a moment out of earshot of the traffickers. It was during one such discussion that they agreed that together they would try to survive. They went on the run. They were frightened; they were tired and unable to afford transport out of the area; they lived in constant fear of being found…

William and Samuel were constantly on edge. They could not relax. They could not sleep. But what kept them going was the knowledge of what they had escaped from. They ended up living on the streets. Even though their existence was hard, they knew they had done the right thing. Hope for Justice identified William and Samuel on the streets after a referral was made to their specialist team by an organization Hope for Justice had trained. The Hope for Justice team made sure the pair were put up in a safe house; they were given clothing, food, but most importantly, they were given hope. This intervention meant they no longer needed to live in fear of their traffickers.

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Ben Cooley was 26 years old when he first heard about human trafficking. Not knowing what to do but knowing that he had to do something, Ben proceeded to book Birmingham’s NEC arena to gather people together to talk and pray about the issue. He didn’t have the first idea about putting on a major event; he didn’t even have an organisation at the time. But God had given him a vision: to live in a world free from slavery.

Today, Hope for Justice – the global non-profit organisation co-founded and led by Ben – is working to end human trafficking and modern-day slavery across the globe. “I never thought we would end up where we are,” Ben admits when asked about the journey the organisation has been on since its inception in 2007. “When I first heard about the issue of modern-day slavery, I literally thought I would put on an awareness event and promote other organisations, never did I think that I would end up being a leader of an organisation that has offices all over the world and that rescues hundreds of people, trains thousands and works with governments and businesses to address this issue of modern-day slavery. I sit here in absolute humility in the fact that people have aligned themselves with us as an organisation, that they believe the same thing as we believe.”

The vision of Hope for Justice – to live in a world free from slavery – has certainly captured the hearts and minds of many who have lent their voices to the fight. High-profile individuals such as Stephen Fry, Bear Grylls, Rend Collective, Jesus Culture and Tim Hughes have all shown their support for the cause. Meanwhile, Hope for Justice has also received political acclaim, having recently been invited to the White House to brief Donald Trump on the issue of sex-trafficking and providing recommendations on the topic in Westminster. Theresa May – who at the time of writing is the Prime Minister of the UK – has also praised the “important work Hope for Justice is doing to tackle modern-day slavery”.

“I champion any government that wants to put this issue at the forefront,” Ben explains when asked about the Prime Minister’s support. “For me, it’s one of the most important issues of our generation. I am incredibly humbled by the support of Theresa May, but I am humbled by anyone’s support … it’s because of the support of so many people and other organisations that we are able to do the stuff that we do. I was with a seven-year-old girl a couple of weeks ago [who now has] her freedom and restoration because of the support of individuals. We’ve got incredible supporters that have great public platforms, whether that’s into the celebrity world, the political world or the business world. If we get all those worlds aligned – media, government – we’ve gone a long way to actually make the issue known and we’ve got influencers who can make things happen.”

Hope for Justice has seen the rapid growth and popularity that many non-profit organisations could only dream of. And yet, the journey so far has not been without its costs. In his debut book, Impossible is a Dare, published by SPCK in July 2017, Ben speaks with honesty and vulnerability about financial hardship and the loneliness of leadership he experienced during the early days of Hope for Justice. But had he known the cost, would he still have booked the NEC arena for the event that started it all?

“People say ignorance is bliss,” Ben laughs before resuming his usual impassioned tone. “Well, there is a lot to be said about that ignorance. Sometimes you can get so consumed by something that the cost doesn’t seem so great, but now that I look back I can see that the early days of Hope for Justice were actually a really dark moment in my life. But I think I kept going because I have such a strong affinity to my ‘why?’. ‘Why am I doing this?’ But would I do it again? Absolutely, of course I would, because freedom is worth the fight. At Hope for Justice we believe that recuing even one person is worth it. I’ve held a three-month-old baby we’ve been able to rescue; I’ve sat next to and cried with children [who are] seven years old who have been through sexual exploitation. I’ve met men, women, families that have been exploited now walking free because of Hope for Justice. So would I book that arena? Every, single, day; because this is an important issue that needs our generation, and the generations, to stand up and do something about it.”

Inspiring our generation to fight slavery is central to everything Hope for Justice do; this is not an organisation wanting to work against people but with people. In many ways it was this desire that led Ben to write his first book.

“I’ve tried my very hardest to go through this process with a sense of integrity,” Ben begins when explaining what led him to write Impossible is a Dare. “I asked myself repeatedly, ‘Why do I want to write a book? Is it because I have a story to tell? Or is it because I want to promote the organisation?’ And I think it’s a little bit of both. But in addition to that, it is to inspire people to take a chance on their dreams. I took up my ‘dare’ because someone believed in me. When I shared my vision of putting on a major event to talk about trafficking, I was fully anticipating someone [would] say, ‘Hey, don’t do that, you can’t do that, it’s impossible.’ But what the leaders in my life did … was say, ‘Go and believe in the dream, you can do this and I will help you.’ I suppose I have written a book to speak to a generation of people who might have their vision, their dreams, their aspirations, but who might not have someone saying, ‘Go and do it, it’s possible.’ Great things happen because normal people step out of the line of normality and speak for something that really matters. I’ve written a book to share my story and say, ‘Hey, look, I was an opera singer, dyslexic, 26 years old – there were a lot of things against me, but there was one thing for me, I had the passion and determination to make a difference.’ And if you have that, I believe you can change the world. I want to break that illusion of ‘impossibility’ and say to people, ‘No, you can do extraordinary things, step out of that line of normality and do something – impossible, is a dare.’”

Since daring to challenge the status quo, seemingly ‘impossible’ things have certainly come into being for Hope for Justice, who earlier this year were invited to brief President Trump in the White House. “We’ve had the enormous privilege of speaking to incredibly powerful people in politics and throughout the world,” explains Ben, when speaking of the invitation. “This was one of those occasions where we were invited with a small group of people to speak to President Trump about the issue of modern-day slavery. We raised the issue of addressing slavery in the supply chains … if governments can get this right we can empower businesses across the world to ethically look into their supply chains.

“I was recently speaking at a closed event for CEOs about one of the cases we worked on where we identified 33 people in the supply chains of one of the most well-respected brands in the UK,” Ben continues. “When the interviewer disclosed their name, over 100 CEOs gasped. The next statement lingered across the room: ‘If this brand, which is known for ethically sourcing, has slavery in its supply chain, God help us.’”

For Hope for Justice, an organisation proud and unapologetic about its Christian faith, this last comment no doubt rang true.

“My faith is very important to me, personally and corporately,” Ben explains. “I love the fact that the God I worship cares about the poor and the weak and the marginalised. But I also believe he has made me to care for the poor, the weak and the marginalised. I think he has made everyone to care about them, which is why I celebrate the fact that there is such a diverse group of people who support the fight against slavery, from different political and religious backgrounds. I believe we are all made to be compassionate to our fellow human beings. So I love the fact that as a Christian I get to stand with people of other faiths, political beliefs or cultural understandings and to have one heartbeat together, one thing to unite us; we believe slavery is wrong, and I’ll stand with anyone who says those words: that they want to live in a world free from slavery.

“There are so many priorities across different churches and not every church is going to be able to fight every issue,” Ben continues, “but I remember the words of Jesus, ‘whatever you did unto the least of these …’ [see Matthew 25:40] Is fighting injustice – of any kind – a priority in your church? If not, I’d question that because it’s a priority for the head of the church: Jesus.”

When it comes to sex-trafficking, the face of this injustice is usually that of a young girl. However, speaking to Sorted, Ben makes clear that there is a heart-breaking and unique issue when it comes to men.

“I think very little is being done about addressing male victims of modern-day slavery, whether from forced labour, sex-trafficking or domestic servitude. One thing that is common in male victims – regardless of the type of exploitation they’ve experienced – is the shame they feel. They feel like they should have been able to avoid this. A lot of them wanted to provide for their families. I remember one chap, 58 years old, who told me that he saw himself sold for less than £300. As a man, I am passionate about ending slavery for girls but I am also fighting for men. I’m saying, ‘Brother, I’ve got you. I know it’s hard, I know it’s difficult.’ One of the heart-breaking things about my role is people coming up to me and saying, ‘I only want to support young girls who have been sold; men should be able to support themselves.’ The things that those men have been through – I’m with them and I’m going to stand with them for their freedom until we end this.”

To find out more about how you can support Hope for Justice, visit hopeforjustice.org. Impossible is A Dare by Ben Cooley is available to purchase on Amazon, Eden and in your local Christian bookshop today.