The city of Brookhaven became the first city in the Deep South to memorialize the “comfort women” —  women and girls who were enslaved and sexually trafficked by the Japanese Army during World War II.

City Council members gather with dozens of members of the Atlanta Comfort Women Memorial Task Force. (City of Brookhaven)

The City Council at its May 23 meeting approved a resolution to accept the donation of a “comfort women” statue of a young girl seated in a chair next to an empty chair from the Atlanta Comfort Women Memorial Task Force. The statue, not presented at the meeting, will be located in a city park yet to be determined.

The Brookhaven council’s decision to accept the donation is in stark contrast to the renowned   Center for Civil and Human Rights in downtown Atlanta, which earlier this year agreed to install the statue on its grounds but then rejected the plan after receiving backlash from the Japanese consulate.

The “comfort women” memorial statue.

Kelly Ahn, a member of the Task Force, told the Brookhaven council the decision to honor “comfort women” was not about “country bashing” but about honoring the victims of World War II. The memorial is also meant to raise awareness of the sexual trafficking taking place in today’s society, he said,

“Where others in Atlanta have failed to meet the challenge of honoring the ‘comfort women’ and squandered an opportunity to fight against sex trafficking and violence against women, the Task Force hopes the city of Brookhaven will stand proudly for all the world to take notice, that on May 23, 2017 city of Brookhaven became the first American city in the Deep South to approve the installation of a comfort women memorial,” Ahn said.

Councilmember John Park, who is Korean, brought the issue to the council. He was not able to be at the May 23 meeting due to a prior commitment, according to Mayor John Ernst.

In a prepared statement, Park said, “The ‘comfort women’ tragedy is one the largest known cases of human and sexual trafficking in the 20th century. The city of Brookhaven is deeply honored to be the home for the ‘Young Girl’s Statue for Peace.’ As we remember the history of these victims of human trafficking and enslavement, we bear witness to their suffering so that these atrocities never happen again.”

Mayor Ernst noted the historic moment in the city history.

“By establishing this memorial, we are raising awareness of the ongoing problems of sexual and human trafficking taking place in metro Atlanta and the world today,” he said.

“Brookhaven is now the first city in the state of Georgia and the Deep South to publicly commit to the ‘comfort women’ memorial, and we encourage other cities to join us in a strong, public stand against human trafficking,” he added.

Kelly Ahn, right, of Sandy Springs, celebrates the Brookhaven City Council’s vote to approve installing a ‘comfort women’ statue in the city. (Dyana Bagby)

Councilmember Linley Jones said she was casting her vote in favor of the resolution to accept the statue in honor of the 38 surviving “comfort women” and also in honor of her two Korean-American nieces, who were watching the meeting online.

“Y’all have taken my breath away,” she said to the dozens of members of the task force gathered at the meeting — and who sat through two hours of the council debating a zoning issue before the council agreed to move their item up on the agenda.

“Thank you for giving Brookhaven the opportunity,” Jones said.

Councilmember Joe Gebbia agreed the memorial installation was not “country bashing” and compared the memorial to Auschwitz.

“That is not German bashing,” Gebbia said. “We have to look at what was done in the past and be reminded we cannot move forward with [trafficking] in the future. This is a moral issue and we are taking a moral stance. This is a statement about who we are as Brookhaven.”

Councilmember Bates Mattison praised the Task Force for its work and said he hopes installing “comfort women” statues will help bring peace.

“We must shine a light on that history … so we are aware of it and learn from it,” he said. “This is not about a nationality feeling they should be ashamed.”

The council received a standing ovation after the vote.

“We are grateful for the courage, passion and commitment of the city officials of Brookhaven,” said Baik Kyu Kim, chair of the Atlanta Comfort Women Memorial Task Force, in a statement. “It is our hope that this beautiful statue will bring much healing, peace and hope.”

Some 200,000 women and girls from several Asian-Pacific nations were trafficked and sexually enslaved during World War II by the Japanese Army. The majority of the women and girls were Korean. Cities in such states as California, New York and New Jersey currently have “comfort women” memorials.

The Center for Civil and Human Rights in downtown Atlanta initially agreed in February to install a “comfort women” memorial on its property. But in March, the center rescinded the agreement with the Atlanta Comfort Women Memorial Task Force, saying it did not have a policy in place dealing with public memorials at its site.

The Japanese Consulate in Atlanta told the Atlanta Business Chronicle in a March statement that there was concern about the statue leading to “discrimination, humiliation or bullying against members of the Japanese community in Atlanta who wish to live in peace.”

Helen Kim Ho, a consultant for the Task Force, also told the Atlanta Business Chronicle that the Task Force commissioned the ‘Young Girl’s Statue for Peace’ for $35,000 largely on the promise from the Center for Civil and Human Rights that it would install it on its property. The 42,000 square-foot civil rights museum was established in 2007 and is located on land donated by the Coca-Cola Company adjacent to the World of Coca-Cola and the Georgia Aquarium.

There are 52 cities around the world with comfort women memorials, and Atlanta would have been the ninth U.S. city, Ho said at the time.

“We will be the first major city that I know of that capitulated to this pressure, and that’s in the city that touts itself as the birthplace of civil rights. We know Japanese resistance is strong,” Ho told the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

The city was selected in part because of its immigrant population especially along Buford Highway. Of its approximately 50,000 residents,  25 percent are foreign born.

The city was also the first city to join “We’re Not Buying It,” a national initiative to create a forum for all 50 states to collaborate and develop strategies to end sex trafficking. In 2014, the city of Brookhaven became first city in Georgia to be train its top managers and all city employees on how to recognize signs of child sex trafficking.

A dedication ceremony for the memorial is expected to be held within the next 30 days.