HCI Against Human Trafficking


I found my calling when I started incorporating my skillset in the humanitarian sector and exploring the role of HCI in combatting human trafficking, helping the victims to overcome the psychological effects, and providing them with the necessary assistance to successfully reintegrate into society. I have been inspired and encouraged by the possibilities UX professionals have to make a significant positive change in people’s lives and decided this is a cause I wanted to support. After listening to some stories that children I worked with at an orphanage in Kenya shared with me, it became impossible to go through my life without doing anything to fight this global issue that turned into a multi-billion dollar business. I was in Kenya, but when I saw the lack of response from parties that these children depend on, I realized the magnitude and complexity of the issue, not just in Kenya, but around the globe. As the founder of the Mekong Club Matt Friedman said, the trafficked kids are not mad at traffickers as much as those who stand by, doing nothing. I thought the reason is that one common tactic of traffickers to keep control of the victims is creating emotional dependency and connection. It is their way to recruit them as potential traffickers once they grow up without knowing anything better. Victims quickly realize the psychological challenges and uncontrollable sickness of the perpetrators, feeling of responsibility and shame, the power of the public to stop it, and blame their ambivalence. It creates their fear of stepping back into society, feeding the control of the traffickers. Their biggest question is “Where were you?”

I read somewhere that silent treatment and gaslighting while seeing someone suffer is one of the cruelest forms of psychological abuse, especially if it is someone who trusted you. Some have said that under extreme circumstances, it can be referred to as psychological murder. I cannot even fathom moving away from the effects of being sold into sex slavery by your own family under the silence of those who could do something to help escape, just to face society full of stigma around mental health. After learning about some of the tortures victims have to endure, I thought it would take me more than one lifetime to recover from extreme PTSD. Focusing her research on the psychological effects of victims, Katerina Calco describes it as “a comparative work that examines and compares the characteristics and effects of three other forms of trauma: torture, sexual assault, and the Holocaust.” Many victims shared stories such as being kidnapped, witnessing murders, being tortured if they tried to escape, and then being labeled as crazy when they try to speak up. Similar to victims of sexual abuse. Some of those who are unaware of the seriousness of the issue like to state that the victim is attention-seeking and jealous. One can’t help but begin questioning the moral code of these people and overall humanity. It’s easy to say “I can’t handle this, it’s too disturbing for me.” In fact, Matt Friedman could not publish an original script for a book due to sharing information from survivor stories that were deemed too disturbing. It is one thing to mentally take care of yourself because we could not help anyone if we were psychologically affected. Children need us to be mentally stable and ready to explore the world and inspire their imaginations of the possibilities to make the world a beautiful place. We are old enough to know that in reality, a safe and beautiful world is not always the case, in our history or in the present, but as one of the native American sayings states – we are borrowing the world from our children and need to return it in the best condition possible. There have never been as many slaves in the world as there are now and it’s another story to ignore the problem of child sex slavery altogether and put our own children at risk of being abused. Acceptance of something such as sexual harassment and abuse entertains the idea of child marriages and human trafficking. It is like running from a zombie and throwing a friend to them as bait so that you can buy yourself time to escape. Not much of a survival strategy in the long run.

I’ve seen a lot of scenarios around sexual abuse. I’ve known people who wanted to commit suicide or started shooting up because of past trauma, emotional or sexual. Most of the time it is because of stigma around mental health or victims of sexual abuse. I always wonder how many more children would be saved from being raped thousands of times if we skipped the pointless gossip about someone who spoke up about being sexually assaulted and instead tried to come up with solutions to avoid something like that from happening? This stupid gossip is the result of the #2 cause of suicides on college campuses. Some say the victims just want attention, why would anyone want this kind of attention? If they want attention, it’s probably because they are on the brink of losing their life and need help. I just think these sorts of silent and gossipy mindsets are sick and dangerous and it’s mind-boggling that people who look like the nicest people can turn out to be so destructive to their friends. When you witness something like this, it is hard to believe that they did not mean to be hurtful and really tried all they could to be there for that friend. I want to say if they had the time to gossip, then they did not try everything they could, but in my mind, they probably didn’t know any better and that is just another proof of the gravity of the problem.

Despite their experiences, the kids in the Riruta Satellite settlement in Nairobi were eager to learn to make a positive contribution to the world, and I believe that if they had the opportunity to do so, they could make a real difference. There was something about their spirit, almost as if they knew their mission in life as if they knew that this is happening all around the world and they have ideas on how to fight it. Their knack for self-awareness and their connection to their communities comes through their experiences to learn the ropes of survival at an early age. They are very good at figuring another person out and spotting signs of danger. It’s different and a lot more extreme for the children who are sold into sex slavery. There is no light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes they are sold by their parents or relatives or simply kidnapped. How does one find the end of the tunnel when this happens? Sharing their stories to raise awareness is a big part to make the eradication of modern-day slavery possible and sometimes they are afraid to share, conditioned not to trust anyone, including mental healthcare providers. They rejoin the world believing that everyone is out to get them, needing space and privacy and at the same time assistance. It’s tough for mental healthcare professionals to understand someone who has experienced something as tragic as they have. Personally, I was astonished by their attitude and bravery to restore their sense of self, from children who ran away to avoid being sold to a husband four times their age to children who have experienced burns as a result of domestic violence. The process of getting acquainted with society again can seem never-ending, and there were times I questioned the treatment they faced at the orphanage. Fighting the expanding network of traffickers is quite a labyrinth. It is mentally hard to swallow just the basic knowledge of what happens to the victims, but it is one of the most important problems for humanity to sort out. When I brought this up in a humanitarian hackathon in 2020, I realized that this problem exists not necessarily due to people’s ambivalence, but mostly because there is a lack of awareness. When we talked about how to spot potential human trafficking scenarios, some of us suddenly remembered instances in our lives, where we have possibly encountered one of these scenarios without knowing. When one learns these signs, one sees the world differently. They become more inquisitive and observant, which can save not only their lives but also the lives of others, including their loved ones.

I recognized how crucial HCI is in the fight against human traffickers. Helping victims requires not only user experience design expertise, but service design skillset in order to figure out how to build integrated experiences. More often than not, the victims do not have access to mobile or any digital device, and awareness of their ecosystem is pivotal to reaching out to them without putting them in danger. One example of that is “Truckers Against Trafficking”, which is a fantastic way to spot signs of human trafficking and report it. I used the idea of enabling volunteers who spend time abroad to network for information purposes and tips to observe these ecosystems as a way to get more familiar with the dangers that victims face and the possibilities to effectively reach out to them. This is just an example of many, ranging from digital tools to help with the psychological harms of past trauma to spotting traffickers.

Witch Burning


Growing up, the burning of witches was always one of my favorite traditions. I loved the gigantic bonfires with witch sculptures, gathering with people from the village to roast bread and bratwurst, singing and jamming with guitars, and adults finishing the fiesta with their homemade slivovitz.

The tradition takes place on the evening of April 30th, to burn the witch that kept winter around so long with the belief that the witch’s power weakens with warmer weather. The witch sculpture usually consists of a cross with attached straw that fills old pants and shirts, finished with a witch hat on top of the cross and an attached broomstick. Older children of the village are usually responsible for building the fire, gathering tree trunks in the woods around. Many children gather to dress up as witches themselves and everyone comes over to participate in a contest of which village has the largest bonfire. When the witch figure finally collapses and the bonfire gets small enough, women from the village jump over the fire dressed in traditional dresses and headbands made of flowers. This concludes the witch-burning ritual.

Below are some images from the burning witch holiday I spent with my family in Moravia. In Moravian villages, it is a custom for each home to make their own slivovitz and my uncle is very proud of his own brand and 10 or so versions of it. People of the Moravian countryside drink slivovitz like water, having their “mecheche” in the evening, sleeping like a bear, and wake up refreshed, no hangover, with a glass of slivovitz waiting along with coffee and kolacky for breakfast. I highly recommend visiting this part of Czechia.

The Land of Stories


The Magic of Attics


I can never forget the ambiance of the attics.
When the fall colors covered the hills,
surrounding our village in the Jizera mountains,
and hay harvest came to an end,
we ran into an apple orchard to climb the trees,
and pick the sweetest rubies,
finishing the evening under the roof,
jumping into haystacks,
telling tales while snacking on our potpourri,
and fresh milk from a local farm,
still hot in our flasks.
Then we built ourselves mini shelters,
using old wood logs and hay,
insisting to bring our blankets over,
for a sleepover with more friends from the village.

Our scouting winter lodge held many adventures.
The hike up the mountain would be vigorous.
Some of us carried backpacks twice our size,
with snow up to our knees,
falling on our backs at times,
to the friendly laughter of older boy scouts.
We were the “promising young sherpas”.
They each had their nicknames.
I was helped by “Quickfoot”,
from my favorite Foglar books and comics,
about the boy club named “Fast Arrows”.
Once we reached the lodge,
we opened our sleeping bags in the attic.
At night we told scary tales,
of sticky and devouring green blob of disease,
floating everywhere to catch its prey,
or bloody hand, and ghosts in the woods,
all huddled next to each other,
throwing our flashlights around,
to find our night snacks in our backpacks,
listening to the whistle of winter outside,
and the occasional case of the sound of wildlife on a hunt.
The next night we had to complete a walk of bravery,
by following a trail light with candles on the side,
and spooky sounds of our brothers,
pretending to be those ghosts,
I wished I didn’t listen to those tales from the attic.
At the end of the trial, we had to sign a paper to prove our presence,
and we got to uncover a secret message from our leaders.

In my grandma’s attic mind goes wild and fairies exist.
Across the top of a large elementary school,
with long stairs to the top,
hiding all sorts of artifacts.
It was the perfect place for enchanted wonder.
I spent hours there,
looking for a treasure of any kind:
old books, letters, b&w photographs,
dance outfits, colorful buttons, cuff links,
grandpa’s vintage watch and hats,
or mother’s school supplies.
When it rained my grandma climbed up there,
and looking for long-lost items full of memories,
to the sound of raindrops hitting the roof above.
I listened to her stories from her youth,
or made-up tales about fairies living inside large rocks,
rocks that opened full of bright light at night,
and the fairies came out to dance in the woods,
where soft small grasslands grew with wild blueberries,
and you could lay there without a sound,
except for pine trees squeaking as they moved with the wind,
mystical calls of the nocturnal owls,
or deer and rabbit steps wandering close by.
Then the fairies started to sing.
It reminded me of Rusalka by Dvorak.
She said my mother visited the fairies as a child,
riding a white horse,
wearing a purple dress with a light veil,
and a small pouch necklace made of gemstones
– a piece of treasure I just found in the attic.
Later I found out the outfit was from her dance ball,
and the pouch was a gift from her first love.
My grandma’s fairytale stories were always new,
Created on the spot,
Stories that have not been told before.
With raindrops hitting the roof and vintage treasures around,
They were always real to me.

Dried mushrooms and herbs –
another purpose of grandma’s attic.
I remember damp mornings of wandering around the woods,
picking up boletuses and marjoram for the best soups in town,
or lemon balm and valerian for teas.
I didn’t know much about coca-cola in the 80s and 90s,
But I knew tea recipes from great grandmother –
ones that were used to treat others in her small village,
much appreciated aid during both world wars.
Preferring sugar-less holistic remedy above pills any day,
as a child, I wanted to spit it out,
envious of kids glugging Fantas.
Now I am resuming her remedies,
and returning to herbal teas,
with herbs and spices from the attics of Nepal.

In the town of Hejnice, we had an attic full of mysterious energy.
I used to climb up there to hang up our laundry to dry,
looking through the pieces of clothes,
getting spooked that someone could be hiding in the dark corners,
watching me sing to myself,
or pretending to be some fictional character.
When done, I used it as my spot to read books,
engaging in a new adventure every time.
On other days I came up to play with my childhood love,
resulting in some of our first kisses,
and dreaming of our future together.
Some mornings I was looking for creatures I dreamt of the night before.
Somehow I thought they would be hiding in the attic.
The smell of the wood added to the scales of my imagination,
and I believed their memory could become a reality one day,
knowing that they will live forever in my mind,
a mind that hardly worried about the present or past,
yet always wondered what will come next,
what will come out of that spooky mysterious corner,
“What did I do? Is it me over there? What did I do?”
Some questions just remain unanswered.

Dare to Dance


It’s the early 90’s.
The orange rays of light are beaming,
making their way through the cracks of large windows,
as the evening practice started.
The gym is roaring with the beats of Smooth Criminal,
and a group of teenage girls is lined up,
following my mother’s choreography,
and getting ready for a dance competition.

It’s a typical evening for a kid of two professors,
hanging out with older kids from their classes,
dance teams, chess clubs, or sports teams.
If only I had their guts.
When asked to dance I turn into a stiff lobster face,
quickly resolving the situation,
by rushing to mingle with dad’s chess club.

It’s a choice between hobbies.
One could develop into a passion for a lifetime.
I only dance when I am in the woods alone,
preferably in the dark when the natural light dims out.
Watching my mom’s dance team always blows my mind,
but I only dare to compete by running or cross country skiing.

It’s the year 2002.
One of my childhood hobbies turned into a passion.
I’ve been inspired by the exercise to “maniac”
from the movie Flashdance.
Our lawn still has bold spots
from my steps through the years.
The grass took a serious beating.
It has become a quirky part of my training, as a runner.
I love waking up early to run at the crack of dawn
and arrive at the stadium for the afternoon practice.
The collegiate athlete’s routine is energizing.
This weekend we are traveling to Houston, Texas
for the Conference USA Championship.
I am nervous about the 3k race.
It is my first time competing in the event.

The Year of 2004.
The year of heartbreak.
I am no longer allowed to compete.
Seizures have grown to be too frequent,
bringing along the concussions from the fall.
Ambulance rides became as familiar as putting spikes on.
The last glimmer of hope – staying up the night before EEG.
The women’s team is up with me to keep me company.
The power of teamwork is overwhelming,
but health claimed the priority seat at the table,
and I have to kiss my spikes goodbye.
Being stripped of such a big part of my life is debilitating.

More than a decade later.
The rollercoaster seems only bigger.
failed relationships,
lost friendships,
more health concerns,
loss of interest in anything,
and feeling utterly lost.
Is it a quarter-life crisis?
After several more EEGs, it is clear.
No signs of epilepsy,
but suspicions of pseudoseizures.
I can’t risk driving
or standing by the train tracks.
These constraints are making me mad,
mad at others, mad at the world,
and most of all mad at myself.
Yes! This is the beginning of transformation,
and more environmentally friendly lifestyle,
no more cars, but a sailboat is a terrific replacement.

Streets are getting filled again,
and so are the dance floors.
It’s time for a new beginning.
It’s time to let go.
Let go of the desire for perfection,
whatever it may be…
Let go of expectations,
of the never-ending effort to be normal,
of past mistakes and failures,
of stigma,
of self image,
or my stiff lobster face.
It’s time for self expression,
to lose myself in the moment,
and begin moving to my own beat,
becoming the maniac on the rainy streets of my old tears,
making a space for the misty stream of colors.
Space for music.
Dance is turning into a restorative absolution,
for both my light and dark selves.
Why should the dance stop?
Getting to see the world upside down is part of it,
and there’s no need to stop dancing.

Book Reviews – Goodreads


Through COVID and restricted travel, I resumed another, more eco-friendly way of travel – reading and sailing. Those who look for seashells will find seashells; those who open them will find pearls, but snails will always want you to respect their privacy. 🙂

New book reviews can be viewed HERE.

Your Mind Matters #MayBreakTheStigma


I just read that Nellie Bly’s birthday is in May. I pondered if she was the inspiration for May to become the mental health awareness month, but it seems to just be an interesting coincidence. I always viewed her as a trooper and a big hero – such an important historical figure to remember. With mental health stigma and lack of awareness still being present in our society, her role and work became even more timeless and relevant.

Nellie Bly went undercover by pretending to be mentally ill and get admitted to a mental institution in an effort to report on the treatment of the patients within the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island. She became a pioneer in investigative journalism such as the Spotlight in Boston Globe. I believe that society’s view of and response to mental illnesses can hinder the success of the treatment and such investigations can help to avoid misunderstandings and achieve more effective learning environments.

The purpose of mental health awareness month is to break that stigma and build mental health literacy across our communities. Almost 20% of Americans are suffering from mental health illnesses such as depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. For college students, suicide is the second highest cause of death. Mental health is hard to talk about because of the stigma, resulting in sufferers becoming isolated and unable to receive the treatment they need.

I wanted to share a few ways that you can help someone you care about who is fighting mental illness. It is not easy to know their disturbance, especially if they find it hard to talk about it. Mental illnesses are complex and you may not have the expertise to help as much as a professional, but letting them know that you are there while they go through the process and truly be there helps them believe in themselves, can give courage that they need to discover who they are, what caused their disorder and how they can develop methods to help themselves to become independent and free from their internal struggle. This is important for them to progress and work on themselves.

  1. Listen Without Judgement

Giving advice on how to cope with depression or mood swings is helpful, but first reserve time to listen and avoid judgement. They could have done the research of what may be their condition or issue, and only need to be able to express themselves while someone they trusts lands their ear.

2. Let Your Friend Share What They Want To Share

If your friend opens up to you, it means they trust you. It takes a lot of courage to do so, so knowing how to respond is important. Keep your questions open ended. Pushing them to tell you more may feel like you are interrogating them, yet telling them that you don’t want to know can seem like you don’t care. It is understandable if you feel uncomfortable. In this case suggesting professional help is a nice way of showing you are there for them as much as you can, even if you’re unable to hear more.

3. Focus on Wellbeing and Motivating Activities to Restore It

People struggling with mental illness may have lost interest in their hobbies and passions, Helping them getting back into those hobbies, or find new ones, can be extremely helpful. Suggesting activities such as meditation and exercise can help to take their mind off of their struggle, and can feel especially good if you offer to accompany them.

If you are unsure how to react or worried that if you say something it may be hurtful, especially if they are sensitive and fragile, a simple check in can go a long way. Asking how they are or letting them know you care can mean more than you realize.

Scout’s Four Basic Knots


Ambulance knot.
Nazdar! Our teepees are up,
but we’ve yet to build our beds,
using ancient Native American techniques,
but first we need a fireplace for the beds to surround.
Fireplaces in the centers of our teepees are crucial.
They are our main source of heat.
The pipe of wisdom will light up a day behind.
What kind of a tribe are we?

Dragon knot.
It’s 7am and the sound of a trumpet is traveling across the camp.
I throw on my shirt with neckerchief tied by a leather slide,
time to raise our flag.
Today I started my beaver badge of silence.
I cannot utter a word for 24 hours.
I’m probably an introvert, because it will not be difficult at all.
I’m more worried about the badge of bravery,
when I stay alone in the woods for a whole night.
I plan on trying to decode fireflies’ light patterns into a morse code,
just to avoid imagining some creatures sniffing behind my back.
If anyone from the boys camp is doing bravery badge on the same night,
I could scare him to death by pretending to be one of those creatures!

Shortening knot.
The ax is stuck in the wood log.
If it gets stolen,
the camp has to come to an end.
Teams are selected to protect it through the night,
from sneaky boy scouts wandering outside their camp,
and snooping around ours!
Those nightly blood suckers! 😉

Eight knot.
The ax is guarding three weeks of adventure:
backpacking through Czech paradise,
with nothing but a small survival kit,
overnight hikes through the wilderness,
daily mingle with diverse species,
battles against the other scout camps,
running around with bows and arrows,
countless games and projects outdoors,
more tasks to learn our survival skills,
evening bonfires and singing with a guitar.
The best part?
Building an infinite instinct
to stay connected to nature!