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Sporting for Freedom: UN.GIFT Interview with Julia Immonen

In 2011 Julia Immonen and four of her friends rowed 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean - setting off from the Canary Islands and finishing their journey on the shores of Barbados. This year she will cycle from Sofia, Bulgaria into central London - a 27-day trek across 1,800 miles of European terrain. Her objective in both of these gruelling challenges: to raise awareness about human trafficking, and funds for efforts to combat the $32 billion-dollar-a-year trade in human beings. UN.GIFT sat down with Julia to discuss why she considers sport such a powerful tool in combating trafficking, the goals of her upcoming challenge, and her future plans.



UN.GIFT: Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration behind Sport for Freedom?


J.I.: My jaw literally dropped when I first heard about human trafficking four years ago. I wondered how I, as an ordinary educated woman, knew nothing about the fastest and largest growing global crime. The statistics just hit me - I knew I had to do something! After feeling overwhelmed and frustrated as to how I could make a difference, I started to use sport to raise funds and awareness which then led to founding Sport for Freedom.



UN.GIFT: What sporting challenges have you already undertaken and what did you achieve?


J.I.: An initial half marathon turned into rowing the Atlantic….with quite a story in between! Row For Freedom was the first Sport For Freedom adventure. We were five ordinary girls undertaking an extraordinary challenge united for this injustice of human trafficking. We rowed 3,000 miles from La Gomera, Canaries, to Port St Charles, Barbados. It was particularly poignant to be crossing the very waters which slaves were transported across on the trans-Atlantic slave route. It took us 45 days and we got two world records! We wanted to use our adventure as a platform to tell the world about trafficking and inspire others to use positive ways to make a difference.



UN.GIFT: What will the next challenge be?


J.I.: We're swapping the boat for bikes! Row For Freedom was symbolic of slavery past, Cycle For Freedom is significant of modern day slavery and we're following prolific trafficking routes. We're cycling 2,700km in 27 days for the 27 million trapped in modern-day slavery. We're setting off from Sofia, Bulgaria on September 15 th 2013 and cycling through 11 European countries to arrive into London for Anti-Slavery day, on October 18 th.



UN.GIFT: What do you hope to achieve?


J.I.: We are proudly partnering with The A21 Campaign, another charity doing incredible work. Unity is more powerful than going it alone so we are hoping to fundraise to support three A21 projects in Bulgaria and in Greece. We aim to raise enough funds to open a cafe in Bulgaria to give victims of trafficking the opportunity to have secure employment which also lessens the risk re-trafficking. We also want to support the ongoing operations of their crisis sanctuary and transition programmes in Greece which ensure they can continue to be rescue and restore and ultimately rebuild their lives of victims through their aftercare programs.


Sport is such a positive way to raise awareness and funds for such a horrific injustice, we want to mobilise people to do something and ask what can you do FOR FREEDOM? For us so far, it's been rowing and cycling, but the sky is the limit! We are inundated with stories of people using their gifts and talents for freedom. There have even been groups who have trampoline-d for 24 hours! We hope that Cycle for Freedom will inspire others to make a difference.


UN.GIFT: What got you interested in mobilizing against human trafficking?


J.I.: I was just so horrified that I knew nothing about this injustice. I was heartbroken hearing the stories of girls being sold into the sex industry, and being lured into a world no one should ever be forced into, and I felt such an urgency to tell others about it. I'm also passionate that it shouldn't be seen as a women's issue because men are exploited as well. I am passionate about people using what's in their hand to bring about freedom, and for me that's sport and playing our part through Sport for Freedom.


UN.GIFT: How would you describe the public's response to your organization?


J.I.: You only have to look at the Olympics to see how passionate the world is about sport and how it unites. It has been amazing to see people catching the vision, and getting involved and sport is such a practical way to engage. With the success of the cycling team at London 2012, and the recent increase in interest in cycling, Cycle For Freedom seems to be perfectly timed which is exciting.


UN.GIFT: What is your background? And who are some of the main players in your organization?


J.I.: I work part time for Sky Sports News television, and have always been a sports fanatic. I spent the first few years of my life in Finland, and literally learnt to ski as soon as I was walking. The outdoors has always been a massive part of my life, and I love an active lifestyle. We have an incredible Sport For Freedom team who are so passionate about the cause, and dedicated to doing all they can to make Sport For Freedom as big as possible. On our Cycle For Freedom tour, we have a musician, a tennis coach, and a chef amongst other amazing people! We had incredible high profile celebrity, political and sporting support for the row which we're building on with the cycle and hope to be announcing some exciting Sport for Freedom ambassadors soon.


UN.GIFT: What is the greatest challenge you see in fighting against human trafficking and modern-day slavery?


J.I.: The statistics are overwhelming, and it's easy to wonder if we really can make a difference. Together we truly can bring about change. I always say it's going to take an army of Wilberforce's to abolish modern day slavery. It needs huge collaboration and partnership.


UN.GIFT: What have been some of the greatest challenges you've encountered as an activist and athlete, and how have you dealt with them?

J.I.: When I first heard about human trafficking it was very unheard and unspoken of. It is great to see a lot more media coverage but the cause still needs more publicity and profile to get much needed political support for lasting change and intolerance to modern day slavery. Through our flagship campaigns we have gained incredible media publicity, which raises awareness and reaches the masses. We hope to build on that and keep the momentum going so this becomes an issue that isn't forgotten.


On a personal note - Row For Freedom was a challenge of epic proportions. We trained to prepare physically by rowing on the water twice a week, doing strength and conditioning twice a week, and rowing on the much-dreaded rowing machine 2-3 times per week. We'd also train in the middle of the night - setting the alarm at 2am to spend two hours on the ergo which was good for building mental strength and tenacity. The mental challenge was harder than the physical; I found it overwhelming thinking of the 3,000 miles ahead of us. So I learnt to break it down to watch-by-watch, 2-hours-on-2-hours-off. When you're stripped of everything, you definitely learn what really matters to you. My perspective, and patience levels, have totally changed. When you can go to the toilet on a bucket in 50ft waves, you feel like nothing will be hard!


The row has been a great foundation to believing that anything is possible. The cycle will be tough mentally and physically too. The row was a battle against the elements but the cycle is a race against the clock - we have daily deadlines to arrive at schools, corporates and events to raise awareness for the cause and do as much media as possible.


Wilberforce is my inspiration to keep persevering when it's tough. He endured a lifetime of failure until 3 days before his death when his campaign successfully led to the Slavery Abolition Act.



UN.GIFT: Can you name a few other anti-trafficking organizations that you partner with or admire?


J.I.: We work closely with The A21 Campaign. Cycle For Freedom is proudly supporting The A21 Campaign, and so all money raised will go towards supporting them. We believe in partnership and that we are stronger and more influential together. This way we can achieve so much more. We also work closely with Sophie Hayes Foundation, Unseen UK, Stop The Traffik and International Justice Mission.


UN.GIFT: What are some of your plans for the future?

J.I.: We won't stop until we see an end to human trafficking! We'll be planning more adventures as a platform to tell the world, and continue to inspire others to plan their own adventures 'for freedom'. We are already planning the next big challenge…watch this space!


UN.GIFT: How can our readers get involved?


J.I.: Our website is launching in April 2013 so you can find all the different ways to get involved at You'll be able to sign up for the finale stage of Cycle for Freedom too. What can you do FOR FREEDOM?