KIND is excited to welcome Jeanne Celeste Lakin as the newest member of the Keeping Kids Safe Campaign Leadership Council. Jeanne is an award-winning author, an inspirational national and international speaker, and a leader in addressing and preventing human trafficking. We spoke with her to learn more about her remarkable story and work.
Q: Could you tell us about yourself and your background?
My life’s journey is a testament to human resilience, having survived the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsis as a child. Fleeing violent militias with my three-year-old twin sisters and forced to survive in the wilderness, I discovered a wellspring of strength within myself that guided me towards resilience, education, and advocacy.
At the age of 14, I was studying English in an American school, navigating the traumatic experiences from my past while striving to create a better future. I earned a bachelor’s degree in international affairs and a master’s degree in public administration and public policy. While pursuing my passion to support orphans, I became a counselor in international and domestic adoption.
Currently, I am honored to serve as the Chairwoman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (ODIHR) International Survivors of Trafficking Advisory Council (ISTAC), contributing as a formidable force against global human trafficking. My efforts advocating for justice have made an impact at high-level United Nations events.
I am passionate about helping disadvantaged children and founded a non-profit, One Million Orphans, which provides educational support to vulnerable children globally. I also manage disability services at a college, advocating for inclusivity and accessibility in higher education.
Through my book, A Voice in the Darkness: Memoir of a Rwandan Genocide, and public speaking engagements, I offer comfort, understanding, and direction to those searching for a way out of their struggles. My goal is to inspire individuals to take action and create a better life for themselves despite past experiences. While many public servants like me don’t expect recognition, it has been an honor to have been recognized by President Bush, who not only painted my portrait but also featured my lived experience in his book, Out of Many, One: Portraits of America’s Immigrants.
Q: Could you tell us more about your work with children and orphans and the organization that you founded?
My involvement with children and orphans began at an early stage in my life. Tragically, both my parents were killed in the genocide against the Tutsi people in 1994, but prior to their death, they were actively engaged in supporting orphans through financial and resource donations. Our family used to visit orphanages, providing essential items like food and clothing to the most vulnerable in our community. However, my perspective shifted dramatically when I found myself as an orphan and living on the streets.
In response to this personal journey, my husband Paul Lakin and I established One Million Orphans, an organization committed to securing funding and resources such as food, medical supplies, and clothing to fulfill the basic needs of children. Our collaborative efforts extend to various orphanages. Here in Texas, I have dedicated myself to supporting children in the foster care system. I helped charter an organization called Secure Adopted and Foster Education (S.A.F.E) to support students who have lived in the foster care system.
I have also actively engaged in advocacy work, particularly in safeguarding children from human trafficking. This is crucial, especially for children fleeing war or conflicts in their home countries. Recognizing the heightened vulnerability of women and children to trafficking, I have become an advocate to raise awareness about the need to protect them from sexual and labor exploitation. Presently, we witness alarming instances, such as children being taken from Ukraine and forcibly adopted in Russia. Here in Texas, numerous children cross the border without parental guidance, hoping for reunification or safety but ending up as victims of trafficking. In my role, I strive to spotlight areas where our government can enhance efforts to protect these vulnerable children.
One significant platform for raising awareness was the Congressional hearing in September 2023, Children are not for Sale – Global Efforts to Address Child Trafficking, where I had the privilege of speaking alongside Jennifer Podkul from KIND. Our focus was on the disturbing trend of children being sold into human trafficking. Sharing the human stories behind these experiences, such as that of my own, the hope was to emphasize the urgent need to support and protect every child.
Q: Could you tell us about your book, A Voice in the Darkness?
A Voice in the Darkness is my personal testimony, recounting the devastating events that unfolded during the 1994 Rwandan genocide against the Tutsis. In that fateful year, my country, my world, and my family were decimated by an organized massacre orchestrated by the Hutu extremist government. April 1994 marked the commencement of a chilling campaign that aimed to dehumanize the Tutsis. A propaganda machine was set into motion, militias were mobilized and trained, and 500,000 machetes were imported. All the elements were in place for the catastrophic explosion that led to the mass annihilation of one million human lives.
Even as years have passed since those dark days, the magnitude of the killing campaign continues to boggle my mind. The history, the signs, the mass graves, and the haunting screams still echoing in the archives of my memory compelled me to put pen to paper. Partly, it was an attempt to process the darkness I had witnessed; partly, it was a solemn duty to be a witness as a survivor.
In sharing my story, I aspire for my testimony to serve as a reminder and a warning to future generations. I delve into the damaging and potentially destructive effects of ethnic labeling and the harmful concepts associated with race. While acknowledging the role of historical, political, and economic factors in the genocide against the Tutsis, I emphasize that the most essential and sinister aspect was the systematic stripping of our humanity. One day, we were Tutsis—an ethnic group, a branch of the human family. The next day, we were reduced to being called “cockroaches,” “snakes,” and other degrading names—no longer considered human.
This book is about my loss of innocence, the genocide against the Tutsis, the dehumanization of humans—but mostly it’s about how I reconnected with the world after this immense trauma. I share my journey of resilience, remembrance, and the enduring pursuit of humanity in the face of unspeakable horrors. It is my hope that this narrative stands as a testament to the strength of the human spirit and serves as a call to remember the past to prevent its recurrence in the future.
Q: January is National Human Trafficking Prevention month. Could you share a bit about your experience with trafficking, both your personal experience as a survivor and your experience as an advocate in preventing and addressing child trafficking?
It’s crucial to recognize that children impacted by human trafficking often struggle to articulate their experiences, and even when they attempt to do so, a full understanding may only emerge later. This underscores the importance of addressing human trafficking issues and working tirelessly with survivors.
Having lived through the Rwandan genocide against Tutsis, I was traumatized. After witnessing the brutal murder of both my parents, I was abducted by a man who subjected me to unspeakable abuse. He took me to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where I became a pawn in negotiations over how much money I could be sold for. At the age of 10, the transition from being a human to a mere commodity was bewildering. For me, the prospect of being sold after surviving the genocide was inconceivable, and it was what prompted my escape back to Rwanda.
After walking from Congo to Rwanda, the orphanage homes where I sought refuge couldn’t accommodate me because there was an overflow of children. The director of the orphanage explained to me that he had already sent away children younger than me because there were no rooms. The facility was at its maximum capacity. As a10-ye-old, I couldn’t wrap my mind around how anyone would send a child out at such a young age to fend for themselves. Having grown up in a family where my family had everything a child could have dreamed of it was difficult to adjust. I found myself in the streets as a homeless kid, yearning for someone to offer shelter and safety. Somehow, I had faith that God would provide and take care of me. I eventually ended up with a family that needed a maid, plunging me into labor trafficking. The woman who took me in was abusive, promising to pay me $3 a month which she never paid.
I was then transitioned to a foster family. Initially they seemed like a normal family, but it turned into another nightmare of sexual abuse. Later, I migrated to the United States where the language barrier compounded my struggles. Many trafficked children face difficulties expressing their suffering due to linguistic challenges. The unfamiliar U.S. system and fear of potential repercussions stifled my ability to seek help. I did not know who to trust.
As a person who was trafficked for both sexual and labor exploitation, my role as the chair of ISTAC and as an advocate for orphans and human rights is about illuminating these dark corners of society, aiming to spare others from enduring similar traumas. I also like to remind people that survivors like me want to change the narrative of how the world views us: we are survivors not victims.
Blessed by the gift of forgiveness and guided by my faith, I overcame these traumatic experiences. Yet, I acknowledge that not everyone has access to the opportunities and resources that facilitated my healing. This fuels my advocacy for consistent attention to the mental health needs of survivors and victims of human trafficking and trauma-informed systems.
For me, every opportunity is a platform to advocate for a trauma-informed court system, healthcare, education, and immigration reform. The scars of abuse should not dictate a child’s future, and society must ensure children’s safety and their well-being. My journey is a testament to resilience and a commitment to ensuring that no person—and especially children—has to endure the darkness that once enveloped my life.
Q: Thank you for sharing. It’s beautiful how your personal healing aligns so much with your professional work. What motivated you to join the Keeping Kids Safe Leadership Council and is there an aspect of the campaign that you’re most excited to work on?
One thing that motivated me was the name of your organization, Kids in Need of Defense. As a parent and as someone who has lived experience needing somebody to protect me, I see that you come in and protect and fend for those who cannot fend for themselves. KIND is doing the right thing. When I learned of KIND I said, “I want to be part of this.” What am I excited about? To be a voice for these children. To use my expertise to help these kids. Anything I can do to support KIND and the Keeping Kids Safe campaign, to support these children, I am 100 percent all in.