Julia Immonen: Achieving the Impossible for a Cause That Matters

Filed under News Your World on Mar 19 12 by

Human trafficking statistics

Julia Immonen was your average girl. With a sunny personality and contagious smile, she had always seen the glass as being half-full. That is, until she was made aware of just how horrifying and prevalent human trafficking is today. And that was it. Julia’s world was turned upside down. Things were never again the same. She knew she had to make a difference. But how?

Julia Immonen

Julia Immonen

Julia took her love of sport and applied it to spreading awareness of human enslavement when she started the movement Sport Against Trafficking. As symbolic of Trans-Atlantic slavery, she gathered a team of women from around the world to form Row For Freedom and trek across this powerful ocean. The result? Two Guinness Book of World Records; a media campaign with the high-powered Dove; and a platform to get people talking about how to end human trafficking.

I was lucky enough to chat with the inspirational woman behind it all. Julia shared everything from her greatest obstacles, to lessons learned, to the impact she has made on those worldwide.

YOU ARE: What gave you the idea to do something so substantial for such a cause?

JULIA: “I had no knowledge of human trafficking prior to a women’s church conference two years ago. I was first made aware of this crime’s severity by a brief video shared by Christine Caine, the founder of nonprofit A21 that strives to abolish human injustice.

“My jaw was literally on the floor. It’s like life changed in a heartbeat. Despite being an educated person, I thought slavery was abolished in the 19th Century. This led to lots of Saturday nights being canceled, because I became really passionate for the cause and just wanted to research and learn more. I just thought about ‘What’s in my hands? What can I do to make a difference?’”

YOU ARE: Tell me about Sport Against Trafficking and Row For Freedom.

JULIA: “We’re simply raising awareness and money for the cause, but I anticipate doing so much more once Sport Against Trafficking is officially registered as a charity. The world needs to know about slavery.

“My objective has always been to use sport in a positive way in rehabilitating the victims of human trafficking on a grassroots level. I started by running a half marathon for A21. I worked to be my own media for the cause, posting info to Facebook and Twitter. I started selling wristbands, T-shirts and other items. One morning, I was running along the Thames with a friend who asked if I would be interested in rowing the Atlantic. I knew this was a no-brainer. Row For Freedom was more than just a row across the Atlantic… it was a row for this cause.”

YOU ARE: What were some of the biggest challenges throughout the trip?

JULIA: “We had to get used to the 12 hours of rowing per day. We never slept more than 90 minutes in one go. Some of the girls were on antibiotics within the first week. And as the oars were heavy, we found our wrists bruised and elbows sore. Some of us even developed tendonitis. And the last stretch was the most dangerous part. We were battling a current which capsized our boat by 90 degrees. What should have taken two hours took us four and a half.

“Everything that could go wrong did go wrong; everything that could break, broke. As the boat leaked, we had to chuck our much beloved M&M’s right on the first day. Our autohelm which automatically steered in the way of the GPS broke on the second day. Our water pump also broke so we had to hand pump water around the clock for 30 of the days – longer than any other crew has done before. If our pump broke, it would have been game over for our world record.”

YOU ARE: Did you ever think you may not make it? What kept you going?

JULIA: “It was really frightening with 25 to 30 mph winds lashing at us from all angles. We thought these swells were going to eat us up. We could have had to be rescued at any point. But I would not entertain the thought of failure. We were not going to give up without a fight. We became creative with fixing things and realized there was always a solution to a problem.”

YOU ARE: What major insights have you gleaned from the experience?

JULIA: “I learned so much about myself and what is important in my life. It’s nice to know you’re stronger – both physically and mentally – than you may have realized. The simple life gave me perspective and patience. It shows what character is all about. When you’re seemingly stripped of everything, you feel like you’ve got nothing but you actually have everything you need. We were fine as long as we had food and water and each other. The world was our oyster.”

Photos from Row For Freedom’s Trans-Atlantic trip

YOU ARE: What has been the public’s reaction to your efforts?

JULIA: “We’ve had the most incredible political, celebrity and sporting figures get on board. We met with Prime Minister David Cameron and Olympic Gold medal rower Matthew Pinsent. And people have been supporting this cause globally… tweets from Kenya, New Zealand, Switzerland… literally all over the world. And the inbox is full.

“It’s priceless to inspire people to make a difference. If five ordinary girls could do this extraordinary challenge then anyone can do anything. That’s a real message. But I would have done it for no recognition. I’ve never set out to get recognized for any of it. It wouldn’t have happened without this cause. That was the driving force behind it.”

YOU ARE: Any future plans as a follow-up to this success?

JULIA: “We were talking about the next trip before the race even started. I would do it again in a heartbeat for this cause. We want the next trip to follow the route of a trafficking victim throughout Europe and see how it would feel. It’s just an idea, but we could either cycle land and row water or maybe even run a bit.”

YOU ARE: What do you hope is ultimately achieved by Sport Against Trafficking?

JULIA: “This is going to be my life’s work. I’m not going to rest until slavery is abolished. It is not going to be one person, but an army of people, to stop slavery. I want to move forward with Sport Against Trafficking and have people around the world use sport to end slavery.”

YOU ARE: What is your motivation and inspiration?

JULIA: “This cause meant so much to me. I feel like I can do anything for it. I don’t think I would have rowed the ocean had it not been for this cause. You really have to have a cause higher than yourself… whether it be setting a world record or for charity.”

YOU ARE: Favorite quote?

JULIA: “Live in the now.”

To learn more about Row For Freedom, visit www.rowforfreedom.com.

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Soraya Eltomey
Soraya is a news contributor for The You Are Project, profiling fascinating young women such as the world-renowned rower Julia Immonen. Having previously served as Management Consultant at Consumer Reports and Co-Chairperson of Advertising Women of New York's Young Executives Committee, Soraya now spearheads PR initiatives for an award-winning digital marketing agency located in Tribeca.
  • Nancy Carvette

    Very inspiring article. Julia and her team are so courageous. It is heartwarming to hear about young adults with such passion for abolishing a terrible wrong. May you all be blessed abundantly.

  • https://twitter.com/#!/SorayaEltomey Soraya Eltomey

    Thanks so much for sharing this feedback Nancy. Julia is indeed a true inspiration.

    Stay tuned for next month’s profile with Girls Helping Girls’ Sejal Hathi!