Moninda Marube was born into a life of poverty in Kenya and turned to running as his way out.

In 2010, Marube thought he’d gotten his big break when he was invited to compete in the United States, only to fall into the hands of an agent who exploited him. Now a professional runner and a student at the University of Maine in Farmington, Marube is committed to raising awareness about human trafficking.

In a gym on the Farmington campus where he is now a sophomore, Marube leans in and shouts split times for a batch of sprinters.

The 39-year-old professional runner also volunteers as a track and cross-country coach when he’s not studying for classes or training for marathons. But for Marube, running is more than just a sport.

“Running gets me into a zone whereby I get connected with myself,” he said, “and it’s key for me to be able to connect with myself, for me to be able to discharge whatever whatever inspiration I could to others.”

Marube was born in rural Kenya and raised by his grandmother. She died when he was 10 years old. With his education cut short, Marube turned to running as his way out of poverty. He would wake up at dawn and run for hours, often in bare feet and with little training structure.

Marube said he was determined to one day be crowned a champion, like the athletes he saw on TV.

“For me, I was running away — running away from illiteracy, running away from poverty, and running away from the political atmosphere that probably most we understand that is not so good, especially in a number of African countries.”

Marube thought he had been given a ticket to a new life when he left Kenya in 2010 for the United States. Little did he know he’d be exploited by his agent, who withheld his marathon prize money, limited his contact with other people and made him share a two-bedroom apartment with more than a dozen other runners.

“He’s stealing from us directly, thinking that we don’t know,” Marube says. “And because we don’t have that voice, we could not say anything because you do not know anybody. If he kicked you out, where will you go? And people had fears, those kind of fear.”

After nine months in Minnesota, under the close control of his agent, his visa expired. Marube said he escaped with the help of a truck driver, who hid him in the back of his truck and drove him to Texas.

Marube said he stayed with a friend there, continued to train, and managed to secure a spot at the 2011 Santa Barbara International Marathon. Marube, who was undocumented, won the race and broke the course record.

While at the event, he met Daniel Campbell of Auburn, Maine, a longtime coach at Edward Little High School. Campbell said he bought Marube a bus ticket to Maine and offered him a place to stay in Auburn.

But as Campbell recalls, it wasn’t an easy for Marube, who feared being discovered by immigration authorities.

“Moninda was afraid to come out,” he said. “Moninda spent a lot of [time] downstairs and not wanting to come out because he’s afraid to be caught. I mean, this is a white community.”

Eventually, Campbell said Marube began coming out of his shell. Campbell introduced Marube to people in the community, including Auburn police Chief Phillip Crowell, an advocate for victims of human trafficking. Marube himself became active in the cause, running 3,700 miles across the country in 2016 to raise awareness.

Marube has received support from many in Auburn, including Crowell, who has helped get him in the pipeline for a special visa granted for victims of crime.

But for many survivors of labor trafficking, advocates say help can be hard to find. Maine currently has no laws specific to labor trafficking.

Destie Hohman Sprague, a long time anti-trafficking advocate, said the focus is mostly on the crime of sex trafficking. “Labor exploitation, I think, can just be harder to see and identify. And the folks who experience labor trafficking are very marginalized in our communities.”

That’s something Marube is trying to change by bringing more attention to all aspects of human trafficking.

“We need to appreciate and accept that human trafficking exists,” he said. “It does not have to happen to me, to my close relative, to my friend for me to be able to rise up and take an action.”

Marube is organizing a two-day conference on human trafficking at the University of Maine in Farmington, in April. Until then, he will continue to do what he does best: running.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.

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