Find out what the host of FUSION’s new docuseries has to say about trafficking, global politics, and Donald Trump.
By: Emma Sarran Webster
Nelufar Hedayat may only be 28 years old, but she’s seen and experienced more conflict and trauma than some people do in their entire lives. The British journalist fled war-torn Afghanistan and the Taliban with her mother when she was only 6 years old, after spending years traveling between Afghanistan and Pakistan via the dangerous Jalalabad crossing. And, as a journalist and TV host, she’s investigated and reported on everything from Malala Yousafzai’s inspiring story, to the plight of health workers risking their lives in the face of the Taliban to vaccinate children against polio.
And now, Hedayat is taking us all behind the curtain of the world’s most shocking and dangerous black markets, in Fusion’s new series, The Traffickers, which premieres this Sunday, November 13, at 10 p.m. EST. Hedayat (and one cameraperson) spent 14 months traveling to 22 countries, including Colombia, India, Greece, and Nigeria, following and embedding herself into the process of illicit trafficking. In each of the eight, one-hour episodes of The Traffickers Hedayat sheds light on the black market trade of guns, precious metals, babies, endangered species, human organs, and more. We caught up with Hedayat over the phone to hear more about her experiences, what we should know about black markets, and how we can fight injustice on an individual level.
Teen Vogue: Did your personal experience fleeing Afghanistan influence your decision to become a journalist?
Nelufar Hedayat: Absolutely. I think for people who have been through the tumultuous journey of [a] refugee, of an immigrant — which is what I am, and I’m proud to say that — it shapes your perspective of the world. You don’t see borders, and nationalities, and the tribalism that we have everywhere in the world today. In the same light, I’m much more tolerant of people who think differently to me, who are different to me. I’m more accepting the fact that the world is a complex place with lots of different people trying to get by. And I have a much higher risk threshold, I suppose. [These] are things that you really need to be a good…international journalist. So, I think you’ve absolutely hit it on the head that a lot of the characteristics of my personality because of my status as a refugee, and the traumatic past I’ve had has led me to do this job, and I hope I do it well.
TV: What led you to the investigation of black market trafficking around the world?
NH: I got an email from my agent — [who] never raises her voice, [and is a] very temperate person — with a bunch of exclamation marks as the subject and I thought, “This is very peculiar.” I opened it and it was…a small…[film] of what The Traffickers would be about. And I remember…calling her and saying, “Whatever happens, however this gets done, I have to be involved.” Because it tapped into a lot of the things that I think, as a journalist, fascinate me. The Traffickers is looking at the world in between worlds. We walk around the cities, towns, [and] villages that we live in, and we think we know everything [and] we see everything happening in daylight. But, what’s often the case is that there is an entire underworld living right on top of us that we don’t see; and they also operate in daylight. So, my fascination and my real drive to do The Traffickers was trying to understand how these two worlds are connected. How are we part of this dark underworld, if at all? […] And what learned was [if you] look around… right now [at] the buildings, the streets, the cars, [and] the people; some of them are involved in these illicit markets. And if you look at things like the illegal black market gold trade, the illegal black market in timber, [or] the same in cobalt, so much of our lives is affected by these dark markets. For example, when it came to the gold episode…I found out…that there is no way to guarantee that the gold in your rings…[on] your ears…[or] in your cell phone and laptop, hasn’t been contaminated by extortion, rape, [or] murder. Because gold melts down and, once it melts down, it’s in the system and that’s it. And that, for me as a human being, was a moment [when] I was just like, “Oh my God. How has this happened? Do people know this?” And I was compelled to keep going.
TV: What do you think is the most common misconception about trafficking?
NH: The most common misconception about trafficking and black markets is that bad people do it. It’s not true. Normal people do it. Traffickers aren’t all bad people, and all bad people aren’t traffickers. […] I remember…when we were in South Africa, we were…days and days [into] covering this trafficker, [a] young [rhinoceros] poacher. [He] came to talk to me, and we sat in a car and we did this interview in the middle of a field. I was talking to him…and the cameras were being reset or something and we just made eye contact, and I got to see a bit of him and he saw me; that I wasn’t here to do anything except understand his story. And he said to me, “Do you know what my dream is? My dream is to open up a car wash. I want to be able to raise enough money, poaching rhinos, murdering rhinos, for this horrible, horrible trade, because I want to open up a car wash. And I want to be able to support my…girlfriend, and my children, and my aging mother.” And then the cameras would turn on again, and there’s this bravado, there’s this macho man telling me about the risks he takes with his gang; and I thought, “God, you’re just a kid. You’re a 20-year-old kid. You’re just trying to survive out here.” The true culprits…that I’ve learned, after a year of this investigation, is that we never speak to the real traffickers, because they’re too rich and too powerful. I never got into a room with a person [who] makes this happen; [who]…finances it with thousands and thousands of dollars every time, whether it’s a pangolin trafficker, or a sex trafficker trafficking women into Europe’s dirty, dingy brothels. Because they’re too powerful; they’re too well-connected.
TV: When we watch these things and hear these stories, it can feel like the problem is so huge and overwhelming, to be able to help. Is there anything we can do on an individual level?
NH: I think that a lot of people I spoke to [who] are committing these crimes — whether it’s poaching rhinos or [being] forced to work with poisonous mercury in rivers in Colombia — don’t want to do this. Nobody wants to do this at the lower level, and those are the people we need to help. We in the first world, in the developed nations, are so lucky that we have the right to vote [and] to express ourselves. We can lobby our chairmans, we can go to congress, we can speak to charities and give them our support and volunteer our time. […] We have very powerful governments that can exercise a lot of…power, a lot of diplomacy. And once something becomes important to you, you can make it important to your community, your community can make it important to your government, [and] your government can put pressure on these other countries that allow these terrible trades to happen. […] Caring, and reaching out, and perhaps doing some volunteering — whether you’re at a center for people who have been sexually exploited or sexually abused, or had to work in the sex trade; or whether you’re sending money to a poor farmer in Colombia — we have that power. We are not powerless. I’m always really excited by that — if we want to make social change happen, we can do it. […] I think we can do a lot more — in fact, we should be doing a lot more — than we give ourselves the credit and time for.
TV: Another problem is that, unfortunately, a lot of people in America, or these very first world countries or regions, put this kind of stuff out of their minds and say, “It doesn’t affect me.” But is there any country or area that black market trafficking doesn’t touch?
NH: Absolutely not. The wealthier, the more involved. You and I might sit here and judge the Chinese, or the Vietnamese, or the Laotian for eating pangolin (which is the most trafficked mammal in the world), and we might judge them for grinding up rhino horn and drinking it because they think it’s an aphrodisiac. We might judge them for that, but then they judge us for our obsession with gold, [or] cheap timber, [or] cobalt that we need in our smartphones. Unless the nation has zero trade, zero import and export, you’re involved. So no, there is no easy and comfortable way for us to…shirk [the responsibility] off to other nations. We are responsible and involved. We live in a globalized world. If a market sneezes or shudders in Taiwan, we’ll feel it in England. That’s the kind of interconnected world we live in, and that’s a blessing and a curse. So, we just have to grab these situations by the handles. I’m not asking people to watch every single episode and go and think, “Right, I have to do something about the pangolins; I have to do something about the sex workers; I have to do something about the child trafficking.” No. You just have to do the thing that moves you, that speaks to you, and leave the rest of us to follow the other parts that we need to follow. But it would be really, really irresponsible just to watch this and go, “This is a third world problem and they need to deal with it.”
TV: Today in America, a lot of people are feeling a bit of despair after Donald Trump being elected president. You’ve seen and been through some really terrible things; do you have any words of advice or perspective that you can lend those of us feeling a little bit helpless?
NH: Having lived through the Brexit vote; I woke up [the next day] horrified in the country that I call home. And I understand a lot of people here are waking up thinking, “This isn’t the America I know; this isn’t the America I want to live in.” […] Whether it’s the Brexit vote or whether it’s Donald Trump’s presidency, we are in the situation now where the systems that govern us aren’t working for us. […] It’s all well and good today, waking up and going, “This isn’t the country that i want to live in.” [But] it’s up to you to shape that country, because you’re a citizen; because you’re part of it. I’m very active in that. I’ve exercised my right to vote since I was 18, and I think everyone should. What choice do we have but to stand up and fight for the things that we believe in? Do we let this man, or any authoritarian-leaning person, dictate to us what’s right and wrong? [British politician] Nigel Farage today…called Barack Obama a creature. A creature! And he maintains that [it] is not racist. That’s the world we’re living in today. And our job as citizens is to stand up and call it out whenever we can…and stay together.
The most destructive thing that could happen right now in America is if the Trump voters and the Trump non-voters decide that they’re gonna create this huge divide and not talk to one another. That’s destructive for America. [Trump] is the president-elect — perhaps not by the popular vote, but still the president-elect. I think we have to stand by him. Americans have to make sure they hold his feet to the fire…and make sure that whatever he does is scrutinized to the highest degree. But not accepting the results, or saying we want a recount isn’t democratic. This is democracy, like it or not. You have to make sure you’re holding your politicians’, your congresspersons’, your senate’s…feet to the fire. Because if you don’t, who will? And then you’ll just complain in four years time that things aren’t working out for you.
It’s fine to be angry, and get into bed and have a bit of cry today. And then tomorrow, wake up and try to change things in your local community. The biggest thing, I think, that stops us from trying to change [is] we think, “How on God’s green earth am I gonna challenge the President of the United States?” Don’t think like that. Start to think, “How on God’s green earth am I gonna change this particular issue, this particular law, that is going to affect people in an adverse way [in my neighborhood]?” That’s the way to go forward. As a refugee, as an Afghan, as a woman, it’s a frightening time to be around at the moment. […] It’s really distressing and disturbing, but I’m not afraid of the fight that we have on our hands.
Watch an exclusive clip from The Traffickers first episode, “Dark Side of Adoption,” below, and tune in to FUSION on Sunday, Nov. 13 at 10pm ET see the full episode followed immediately by the second episode, “Killed for a Horn.”
Source: Teen Vogue