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Lake Oswego woman starts Oregon Chapter of Durga Tree



STAFF PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Susan Marek of Lake Oswego is bringing the state of Oregon into the fight against modern slavery by beginning a chapter of Durga Tree International.

As soon as Susan Marek heard about Durga Tree International, she said, “Count me in.”

The goal of the organization is monumental: ending modern slavery in the world. Everything Marek heard about Durga Tree hit close to home, especially ending sex trafficking. Lake Oswego may not seem to be a likely place to fight sex trafficking, but Marek realized that business was rolling on down Interstate 5, practically on her doorstep.

“Durga Tree is sorely needed in the Portland area,” Marek says. “It has a long history of trafficking. Just the faces have changed a little bit on the I-5 corridor. They’re products. They’re slaves. Kids keep on being resold and resold and resold. I had to do something.

“I have three children who are all teens. I heard stories about what happens to young people, and what they’re subjected to. I couldn’t believe that kids would be treated like commodities. I got my Mama Bear on.”

Mama Bear Marek is teaming up with a Tiger; Durga Tree founder Beth Tiger, who wants a lot more ferocious volunteers like Marek. The two women have been close friends ever since they first met at a writers’ retreat in the south of France four years ago.

“Both of us were working on books, and we hit it off immediately,” Tiger says. “Susan is a very special person, funny, giving, loyal, smart and compassionate. She is also a wonderful mom, something I admire deeply about her.”

As for Durga Tree, Tiger says, “I was blessed by Susan’s support since day one. When I told her why I wanted to form Durga and our idea of creating sustainable change for survivors, Susan was on board right away, and her involvement has grown.”

Marek immediately plunged into her new passion. She heard stories of victims, did “a ton” of research and watched movies. The thing that influenced her the most was viewing the photos of trafficking victims.

“I’m seeing pictures of faces,” Marek says. “They stay with me and keep me going in this.”

In fact, Marek’s role in Durga Tree has become so large that she will be honored as member of the year at the organization’s fall gala at its home base in New Jersey.

“I call myself their media maven,” Marek says. “I do various roles, like press releases and magazine articles.”

This has only been a warmup. Marek came back from Durga Tree galas so fired up that her Lake Oswego friends told her, “You need to start a chapter here.” And she has. The new group formed in May and already has 20 members, and Marek has mapped out their course of action.

“I want us to be a fundraising force,” she says. “I want to educate people about trafficking. I think a lot of them don’t know what it is or how pervasive it is or that it’s going on right on I-5. It’s hard to wrap your mind around the fact that another human being is being used by someone for labor or for sex.”

Besides gaining more members for her chapter, Marek is hoping to get some crucial ideas across to the general public.

“Sex trafficking is the most shocking aspect of slavery, but it’s not the biggest. The biggest is labor trafficking,” she says. “We can be forces for good just by choosing where to spend our money. Let us all be abolitionists.”

STAFF PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Aislinn Marek has joined her mothers cause of crusading against slavery. The 14-year-old plans to open a Durga Tree chapter at Lakeridge High School this fall.

Marek’s biggest ally is her 14-year-old daughter, Aislinn, a freshman-to-be at Lakeridge High School. She has the same burning enthusiasm for Durga Tree as her mother and is planning to start the first teenage chapter of Durga Tree on the West Coast.

“A lot of girls and boys are not having the same experience as me,” Aislinn says. “I was shocked when I found out what is happening, and I wanted to help. I would like us to do fundraising, collecting clothes and, hopefully, educate people that slavery is not just a problem in one part of the world.”

Some of Durga Tree’s achievements so far include building shelters for trafficking victims in India, raising funds for a school in Cameroon in West Africa and educating 1,000 American students about modern slavery. The group also launched its first economic and educational program in Kolkata, India, which is intended to be a model for implementing in the United States and abroad, wherever the need is highest. This is the type of sustainable, long-term programming that Tiger says is essential to Durga Tree’s success.

“How could selling and using humans be so profitable and prolific — and so little was being done?” Tiger says. “The fact that so many people do not have freedom and the right to choose how they live is not OK.”

The first question people have about Durga Tree is “What is a Durga Tree?”

Marek explains, “Durga is the Hindu goddess with many arms, all of them holding weapons to protect humanity.”

The tree is symbolic of a plant taking root and stretching out with its branches to provide freedom, protection and hope.

Think of Susan Marek as a Mama Bear. Think of her as a tree. Think of the old Young Rascals song that goes, “Listen, please listen, that’s the way it should be/Peace in the valley, people got to be free.”

“I’m making sure kids are not re-victimized,” Marek says. “I don’t want them to go through such a terrible experience again.”

For more about the Durga Tree International Oregon Chapter, go to facebook.com/DurgaTreeOregonChapter.

Contact Cliff Newell at 503-636-1281 ext. 109 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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