SLAVERY IS ALIVE AND WELL. With over 40 million enslaved today, the world is heavily afflicted with an age-old problem of perversion and helotry that robs the lives and identities of men, women and children. Every hour, 457 women are trafficked in the world, and 99 percent of them have no way of escape. Their families are threatened, their self-worth is stripped away, and hope is shadowed by a specter of fear. These are the victims of the second largest organized crime on Earth.

But hope remains for those hidden in the shadows.

Unseen is dedicated to thwarting human trafficking and impacts lives around the world by partnering with organizations that directly rescue victims from the clutches of forced services and despair.

A Light in the Darkness

For Kierthi, a young child in India, prostitution was the expected route her life would take. She often walked roads lined with brothels as she looked for her mother’s clients.

After being found by one of Unseen’s partner organizations, Kierthi, now 7 years old, has been saved from reliving her mother’s life of hopelessness. She has a future.

People like Kierthi inspired co-founders Than Baardson ’10 (film studies) and Tanya Martineau ’09 (art education) to create Unseen. Over the past six years, the organization has evolved and currently works with 24 rescue partners in 17 countries. In the last year alone, 118,190 people were served and rescued. Unseen transforms the world from Fargo, N.D., by providing the tools organizations need to efficiently fundraise and market through writing, photography, videography, web design, funding and more.

Jordan Maahs ’15 (communication studies), assistant program director at Unseen, works directly with rescue partners overseas.

“Some of the best minds and workers on human trafficking are coming to us and saying, ‘We know how to solve human trafficking, but we don’t know how to fundraise and we need help.’ That’s where our team comes in,” Maahs said. “We don’t know how to solve these challenges that are deeply local and complicated, but people know how to fix it and they’re already doing it. They just need the funds, and that’s something we can do right here.”

Transforming Lives

Last year, an estimated 40.3 million people were victims of modern slavery. One in four of them were children. According to humanrightsfirst.org, 19 percent of victims are trafficked for sex, but that by itself earns 66 percent of the global profits of human trafficking—$99 billion. Human trafficking is both a booming industry and a global crisis.

“Human trafficking is an issue everywhere. Thankfully there are these great organizations,” Maahs said. “We believe every life is important, and we can help the most people by supporting efforts that need help the most.”

Unseen’s rigorous vetting process is in place to ensure potential partners are trustworthy, keeping people safe, and demonstrating financial accountability practices. They then assess their needs and whether Unseen can provide resources they specifically need.

“We can just give out money, but we are more helpful teaching these organizations how to be effective fundraisers so they’re not limited by our funds and can grow on their own,” Maahs said. “Over the past year, we’ve delivered more than 70 projects to partners, ranging from total overhauls of their e-commerce technology to something as simple as a custom thank-you card.”

Through individualized direction and continued coaching, Unseen has extended the reach and success of organizations like Caring Hands and Children’s Garden. From helping women and children break free from temple prostitution to getting kids off the streets and providing mentorship, housing, education and love, the growth of Unseen has been transformational. 

Dragon Heart

While attending MSUM isn’t a prerequisite for being employed at Unseen, many Dragons have been a part of the burgeoning nonprofit’s history. For Maahs, his internship at Unseen would not have been possible without support from his MSUM professors.

“My professors gave me a lot of flexibility with my internship. As a result, I landed a job that I love,” Maahs said. “To be able to be doing that while being debt free because of scholarships and the low cost of MSUM has been awesome, and it allows me to work in a way that might not be possible if I had a lot of debt.”

  • 50 percent of Unseen staff are MSUM graduates.
  • Over the last five years, Unseen has had 11 Dragons on their team.
  • In addition to their staff members, Unseen regularly hires Dragon artists and creatives.

Growing the Mission

Paul Finstad ’78 (physical education), a 2017 distinguished alumnus, recently retired from serving at the YMCA for over 40 years, 25 of those years as Fargo’s CEO. The bliss of retirement was short-lived. Four months after retiring, Finstad felt called to serve again and became the full-time development director at Unseen.

“I heard about Unseen and was struck by the mission,” Finstad said. “I didn’t understand the scope of the issue. Forty million people are trafficked each year, and 10 million are kids. It seemed overwhelming to me that more isn’t being done to solve that issue. I had a chance to see what Unseen is doing to help organizations, and they’re doing great work.”

From 2011 to 2017, Unseen’s operating budget grew from $650 to $808,000. The extensive development is attributed to support from local churches, businesses and individuals, but it takes time, energy and strategy to ask for money and spread the mission.

“I hope I can expand Unseen’s resources to support causes like this across the world,” Finstad said. “You don’t realize the scope of this until you dig in a little bit, and that’s a lot of what got me started in this cause.”

One of the many testimonies that captured Finstad’s attention was that of Choi. Impoverished and tricked into forced, sexual labor, Choi was unaware of her age, where her family or home was. But Home of New Beginnings, an Unseen partner, found her, brought a new family into her life, and enabled her to dream again—of becoming a cardiologist, nonetheless.

“We saved her, but there are a lot more out there to save. It’s one example of how this has made a difference and saved somebody’s life,” Finstad said. “The more dollars we get, the more we can do for these groups and we can begin to get some of the 76 groups on the waiting list off and moving through our system.”

Rescue stories, such as Kierthi’s and Choi’s, are what continue to motivate Finstad, Maahs and their colleagues to press on in the global fight against modern slavery. As they help organizations save lives, the impact it has on their own is unforgettable.

“It’s really powerful to be at a place where I get to talk to people every day in Iraq, South Africa, Kenya, the Philippines and Thailand who are truly living heroes,” Maahs said. “I just spoke to an organization in Kenya who said, ‘You have no idea how your help has changed, not only our organization, but us as people and our families.’ You can’t trade that for anything.”


This story was first published in Moorhead Magazine, Spring 2018.

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