A Bittersweet Weave of Survival and Purpose: An Interview with Dr. Indhushree Rajan about Project Satori and Healing from Human Trafficking

Dr. Rajan is a graduate of Pacifica’s M.A./Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology with Emphasis in Depth Psychology as well as an adjunct Professor at Pacifica. Her work focuses on mental health care to survivors of human trafficking, and she is an advocate and educator on the global human trafficking crisis. This topic may be a trigger for some readers, so please consider that before reading.

Angela: To begin, let me say how much I admire and respect the work you do, and thank you for speaking with me. Before we go further, the nature of this topic will be distressing to most people, so I wanted ask you, how do we hold or discuss this work in a way that does not traumatize or re-traumatize the listener?

Indhushree: When I do a presentation that I know will be graphic, I have everyone do breathing exercises and a moment of meditation to ground us in the room as a container for these people’s stories. Because we’re going to be talking about real people who have gone through this. We as a group hold their stories. A lot of time with this topic, people with good intentions can still objectify the people they’re talking about. This trauma is about people being used and manipulated as objects. So I invite people in the room to honor these people and their stories. The other thing I do is ask people to pay attention to their bodies and thoughts and breathing throughout the talk, so if they are triggered, they are welcome to leave.

Angela: For those reading this interview, let’s do the same. We will not be discussing individual stories or graphic details, but we’ll hold the story of this crisis collectively and with respect for the people who have experienced it. If anyone feels like they need to stop reading, please do.

Indhushree, I was not particularly well informed about the scope or nature of human trafficking before speaking with you. For others who may not be aware, can you share the basics of what human trafficking is and the scope of the crisis we’re facing?

Indhushree: The thing that is truly scary about human trafficking is that it’s a global pandemic. Everyone is affected by and vulnerable to this. There is not a country where this doesn’t happen, whether they are an origin country, a portal country, or the destination country. Women and children are taken from their country of origin, trafficked through other countries, and then in the destination country they are forced to work in brothels. That was heartbreaking to find out, that every single country is involved. And we’re talking about both labor and sex trafficking. Millions of women and children are being forced to work in brothels or are sold and resold between traffickers, gangs, or escort services, depending on the structure of the particular place. It leeches off of the poorest and most vulnerable of people.

People in this position are told that they’ll be free once they pay back the money they “owe” their captors.  But that money they “owe” is for their food and other essential things, so there really is no end to it unless they break free from it. There are lots of organizations that do that rescue work, but we’re talking about actual slavery. Children as young as 6 up to their early twenties must  work for 6 to 8 hours a day as sex workers for basic elements of survivals. Animals in our country are better taken care of than these people who are enslaved. To make people comply, they’re psychologically and physically broken. Severe mental illness, personality disorders, all result.

Angela: I can imagine that thinking about this topic, working with survivors, and educating about it on a daily basis might be a heavy thing to carry, more so than what many people in the field of counseling may be used to. How do you keep yourself balanced and prevent being overwhelmed?

Indhushree: It’s a difficult field of work and topic for most people to hold or even conceive of the fact that it’s happening. Self-care is important in this field. I have boundaries in what I watch or read. People often give recommendations for anti-trafficking material. But I don’t allow those things inside unless they’re healing. I don’t live in that world aside from when I’m working in that world. Being in my own therapy, having hobbies and being able to take care of myself ensures that I’m balanced enough to do this work. We all try to engage in self-care, for me it includes how much I’m exposing myself to this topic. Otherwise, it would be too dark and heart-breaking.

People who do this work tend to have gone through serious trauma themselves or have been around it enough to recognize it and have a relationship with it. I’m one of those people. I’ve been through a lot of trauma in my life of various kinds. It’s not something you’d want to befriend, but when you know it, you tend to see it around you. It ends up being that bittersweet weave of survival and purpose. I think that’s how we make meaning out of things. In the healing we find the meaning, and then we can help others find meaning in their healing too.

Angela: You founded Project Satori, which helps “to fund and do psychological research and therapy work with sex trafficking survivors in Kolkatta, India, helps psycho-educationally train trafficking rescue shelter staff in India, do therapy work with sex trafficking survivors in Los Angeles, promote and participate in worldwide advocacy work for the mental health care of sex trafficking survivors and survivors of severe trauma.” This is more than an ambitious task you’ve set yourself. How did you become involved with the survivors in Kolkatta, India, in particular, and drew you to this work in general?

Indhushree: It’s complicated. I’m a trauma survivor myself. I’ve worked in the nonprofit sector for most of my life with the homeless, survivors of sexual trauma, and people impacted by gang violence. So I’ve worked with a lot of different kinds of trauma. When I was a student at Pacifica, the work was calling me toward working with traumatized women and children. As I started to do some soul searching, the process at Pacifica broke me open and put me on my path to working with trafficking survivors. Spirit or the universe, those larger hands that hold us, made it clear to me that this is the work I’m meant to do. I was terrified, I ran from it. But every time I ran, a door would open. As soon as I started walking through those doors, I realized this was going to be my doctoral research. That was the beginning of going to Kolkatta to work with trafficking survivors. It led me to consider the different things they felt they needed to heal and the lives they hoped to live. Those voices weren’t represented in research on trafficking at the time. So I thought we needed to connect with their stories. I established a lot of connections and I’m getting ready to embark on a second tier of treatment research. I’ll be returning to Kolkatta, going to Thailand and possibly Africa.

That’s how I was drawn into the work. As is often the case, when we find our calling, it’s something so much bigger than we are. I’ve grown from feeling dwarfed by this path to feeling comforted by the fact that I’m small and I’m walking on this path as me and I’m trusting that however long it takes, it will get done. I just need to put one foot in front of the other. After I stopped running of course.

Angela: At what stage of development is Project Satori in?

Indhushree: It’s a start and stop process. The formation happened quickly but it’s been a slow build. I started it while I was doing my doctorate. I spent 12 years getting clinical experience working with survivors of trafficking. I’ve had to take my time from a treatment perspective to see what works. I’ve been slowly building a team and pieces of the vision are coming together. We’ve raised money to make sure that people in California who are in need of treatment get it. The next tier of research I hope will be utilized globally. My passion is to do everything I can with what I have to end this slavery. And if I can help one person, it’s for the good. Anything worthwhile doesn’t get done overnight. I want to be aligned with divine timing to bring about the biggest healing. It’s my life’s work.

Angela: Have you had the experience of seeing victims of trafficking truly recover and heal? What is that like ?

Indhushree: It’s a humbling process. I think that being a psychologist is humbling as a profession because if we’re doing our work and are in touch with our own wounding, we realize we are wounded healers. So it’s truly humbling to hold space for the resilience of people who have gone through such horrific violence. I learn from my clients. My faith is strengthened because I’m in the presence of healing and mighty souls who are now shifting from surviving to thriving. I’m grateful for the opportunity to do the work. It’s really difficult to heal from that kind of shattering on all levels, to move through that kind of dark night of the soul, release the pain, and come out to the other side. I’ve done work with remarkable women and children who have gone on to do anti-trafficking work themselves, or follow their career dreams, or get married and have the ability to have relationship after being so shattered.

It’s very intense work and if I’m being honest, I wouldn’t have chosen it. But I feel like it chose me.  If I can live the magical life, where I connect intuitively and have a knowingness that’s deeper than what my mind can fathom, there’s no fear, because it’s not about me and it never was.

Angela: How does your Ph.D. in Integrative Studies at Pacifica fit with your work with trafficking survivors? Is there a way that depth psychology offers something needed in the therapeutic setting for this work?

Indhushree: Depth psychology provides a wonderful lens for this work because we rely on collective energy and what I said about myself is true of every single survivor out there, which is that all of us have a unique soul and have a path we’re meant to be on. Depth psychology honors all that we are and learns from our wounding so we can move forward from the space of soul. That’s to me the depth of healing that is required here. Conventional therapies aren’t going to come close to bringing back together those shattered pieces.

Angela: Can you recommend some resources for those who would like to have more awareness of this problem and how to help?

Indhushree: There’s an organization called CAST Collaboration to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking And the Polaris Project is a national organization that provides information and statistics. My website, although under construction, also has resources.

Angela: Thank you so much for speaking with me and for the valuable work you do.

Dr. Indhushree Rajan has been doing research and clinical work with sex trafficking survivors in California and India. In 2008 Dr Rajan founded Project Satori and has since been working to realize its mission to provide comprehensive mental health care to survivors of human trafficking and their families, in and around Los Angeles; to promote education and advocacy around the global human trafficking crisis, both domestically and abroad; and to offer psychoeducational training services about human trafficking prevention and treatment in California, and through global partner programs worldwide.


Angela Borda is a writer for Pacifica Graduate Institute, as well as the editor of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal. Her work has been published in Food & Home, Peregrine, Hurricanes & Swan Songs, Delirium Corridor, Still Arts Quarterly, Danse Macabre, and is forthcoming in The Tertiary Lodger and Running Wild Anthology of Stories, Vol. 5.