Maria Suarez marks the turning-point in her decades-long journey from slavery to freedom as the moment when a bird knocked at her window. She had no idea she about to be freed, but when the bird came she knew that she “was going to have some good news.” She waited, and minutes later officials told her she was going to be free. At the age of 15, in 1976, Maria immigrated legally to the US from Michoacan, Mexico, with her father. She was soon approached on the street in Los Angeles by a woman offering work as a cleaner. But instead the woman sold her to 68-year-old Anselmo Covarrubias for $200, and Covarrubias made her his domestic slave. For five years he held her in bondage in his house in the Los Angeles suburb of Azusa, raped and beat her, and threatened her with black arts wizardry. Maria believed that he read her mind, possessed her soul, and would hurt her family if she told anyone about the abuse. In August 1981, Covarrubias was bludgeoned to death with a table leg by Pedro Soto, who was renting a converted garage on the property. Maria washed the weapon and hid it under the house, as directed by Soto. She was arrested, along with Soto and his wife. Soto was convicted of first-degree murder, and his wife was convicted of soliciting murder and being an accessory to a felony. Maria was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder, sentenced to 25 years to life, and incarcerated at the California Institution for Women in Corona. Officials eventually confirmed that she suffered from battered woman’s syndrome — allowed as a legal defense in California after in 1992 — and she was paroled in 2003, after five years in slavery, and 22.5 years in prison. But Maria still wasn’t free: according to federal law, non-citizens convicted of violent crimes must be deported upon their release, and she was taken directly to a federal detention facility. She spent more than five months fighting deportation, then was certified as a trafficking victim eligible for a T-visa—a new status for victims of slavery and trafficking in the US. She was freed in May 2004.
Christina Elangwe spent five years as a domestic slave in Washington DC, held by Cameroonians. Promised an American education and a babysitting job, she was tricked into leaving her family in Cameroon at the age of 17. Upon arrival in the US, she worked long hours for no money, was not sent to school, and were beaten and verbally abused.A man called Louis Etongwe helped Christina and two other women to escape, then took tapes of all three to Cameroon to show their parents and gather evidence against the traffickers. Christina’s captors received five years probation and were ordered to pay her $180,000 in back wages. So far she has received about $2000.
Though most of the slaves in the US have been trafficked from 35 or more countries, some are American citizens. Christine, of European and American Indian ancestry, was born and trafficked in Minnesota—which is currently a sex trafficking pipeline to larger cities, like Chicago. In fact, incidents of sex trafficking have been discovered in all 50 US states, involving victims born and raised in the US, as well as those trafficked from abroad. Girls as young as 12 years old are forced to have sex seven days a week, with 10-15 people a day, and meet a quota of $500-1000 a night. Most likely, almost half of people currently enslaved in the US are in the sex industry. As Christine notes, she was “one such girl”—trafficked by her family as a child. Her narrative lays out the gender dynamics of slavery, whereby traffickers and pimps attempt to divide and conquer women: “They rape us in front of our mothers and grandmothers; they rape our grandmothers and mothers in front of us…They want us to dislike and distrust other women and girls.” But Christine counters this attempt at division with her assertion of “a bond deeper than blood to the very women and girls they tried to make you hate,” and with her first-person plural voice: “we endure…we are women in search of freedom.”
Miguel’s narrative marks a clear turning-point when he knew he could remain in bondage no longer: “A week before Easter it happened.” He told other workers: “Now is our time to leave.” Miguel had arrived in the US from Mexico in 2001, and ended up as a slave in a labor camp run by the Ramos family in Lake Placid, Florida, after being recruited in Arizona. He and several others were transported to Florida and then told they owed $1000 each for transportation. The Ramoses also deducted from their weekly pay for food, rent for substandard camp housing, and work equipment. Miguel sometimes ended up with only $20 a day, and had no control over records of payment and credit. His employers were armed with guns, watched for workers trying to escape, and cut off access to the outside world. Relatives of the Ramoses owned the stores where workers were taken to shop.Miguel reached the turning-point from slavery to freedom in 2001 with the help of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a community-based worker organization of over 2000 members in Immokalee, Florida’s largest farmworker community. Between 1997 and 2000, CIW helped end three modern-day slavery operations, resulting in freedom for over 500 workers, and in 2001 it began investigating the Ramoses. In November 2002, three members of the Ramos family were convicted of conspiracy to hold 700 workers in involuntary servitude. In May 2004 they were sentenced to a total of 31 years and nine months in federal prison.
In 1999, Roseline Odine reached the turning-point where she could be a slave no longer: “That’s it. That’s it,” she said. Roseline’s narrative features a long escape sequence as she moved through the turning-point from slavery to freedom. Roseline spent two and a half years as a domestic slave in Washington DC. Promised an American education and a babysitting jobs, she was tricked into leaving her family in Cameroon at the ages of 14. Upon arrival in the US she worked long hours for no money, was not sent to school, and was beaten and verbally abused. Roseline was also sexually harassed. She recounts a process of indoctrination and mind-control that eventually meant she “didn’t want to talk to the cop because of what she [her enslaver] had told me in the house—that America’s no good.” After escaping, Roseline met Louis Etongwe, a cousin of the man who drove her to safety. She told him that there were two more Cameroonian slaves in the area. Louis helped them to escape, then took tapes of all three girls to Cameroon to show their parents and gather evidence against the traffickers. Roseline’s captors, Louisa and Kevin, were eventually convicted, sentenced to nine years in prison, and told to pay her $100,000 in restitution. Kevin was also convicted of attempted sexual assault.
In February 2016, at a hearing entitled Ending Modern Slavery: Now is the Time, "Leah" testified before the Senate Foreign Relates Committee. She was enslaved in forced prostitition for seven years, and trafficked across the United States, in South Carolina, Florida, Texas, California, Louisiana, Arizona, Illinois, Ohio and Colorado. "Leah" is now an advocate for A21, an organization working against modern slavery.
Evelyn Chumbow was taken from her family in Cameroon at age 10 by a man who convinced her parents that she would get a better education in the United States. Instead, she was forced to work as a slave in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, doing manual labor for her captor and being verbally and physically abused.In her narrative, which she delivered before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, she asked Congress to address labor trafficking as well as sex trafficking, and referenced a House bill that addresses only sex trafficking.
In 2001, Flor Molina was 28 years old and had just lost her youngest child. She was working two jobs in Puebla, Mexico, but not making enough money to feed and clothe her surviving children. At night, she took sewing classes. When her sewing teacher told her about a job in the United States, she accepted. But a woman confiscated her documents at the border. She was taken to Los Angeles, and immediately put to work in a sewing factory. There she worked 18-hour-days, was subjected to physical abuse, and wasn’t allowed to leave the building unattended. She escaped after 40 days and was helped by CAST, an LA-based NGO. She told her story in 2010, as part of the California legislature's hearings on the California’s Transparency in Supply Chains Act. The law requires companies doing business in California with more than $100 million in annual global profits to report their efforts to eliminate slavery from their supply chains. Flor is now a member of CAST’s Survivors Caucus, a group of women from numerous countries who escaped forced labor in the United States. Another narrative by Flor can be found in the archive.
Shandra Woworuntu graduated from college with a major in Finance and Bank Management in her native Indonesia. Looking for an opportunity to work in the US, she responded to an advertisement for a job that promised a six month position in the hotel industry in Chicago. But the agent who met her at New York City’s JFK airport drove her to the brothel and took control of her passport and identification. When she tried to protest, he put a gun to her head. She was forced to work for 24 hours a day at different brothels throughout New York and Connecticut and eventually escaped by jumping out of a bathroom window in Brooklyn. Her traffickers were prosecuted and Shandra now works with anti-human trafficking advocacy groups and is a legislative lobbyist in Washington DC.
In 2004, at age 16, Asia Graves was trafficked in Boston and spent two and half years trapped in sexual exploitation.
In 2009 she testified during a six-day trial that resulted in the conviction of two men at the centre of a major child-trafficking operation. They were both sentenced to 25 years in prison. Before testifying, she had moved to Tennessee, fearing for her safety, and returned to Boston only to speak at trial. In 2012 she moved to Washington DC and began work as the Maryland Program Coordinator and Survivor Advocate at FAIR Girls, a nonprofit group fighting sexual exploitation.
Withelma Ortiz Walker Pettigrew grew up in the U.S. foster care system. Between the ages of 10 to 17 she was subjected to commercial sexual exploitation in Oakland, California, on the streets and in strip clubs and massage parlours.
She now serves on the boards of the Human Rights Project for Girls (Rights4Girls), and the National Foster Care Youth and Alumni Policy Council, and is a consultant for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. She founded the Still Alive Initiative in 2009, which provides mentoring and counseling for survivors of commercial sexual exploitation, and consulting and training for government agencies, institutions, and nonprofits on youth policy and service provision.
Angela Guanzon was brought to the United States from Bacolod City, Philippines, in 2005, to work at an elderly care home in California. But upon arrival she was told she owed $12,000 in fees, to be deducted before wages. She worked 18 hours a day and slept on hallway floors for two and half years.
The FBI rescued Angela and several other workers in 2008. Angela testified against her trafficker in criminal court and the woman received a five-year prison sentence. Angela is now a survivor-organizer with the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST), a nonprofit organization that provided her with shelter and legal assistance.
Twenty-year-old 'Katya' was trafficked from the Ukraine to the United States in 2004, and enslaved in a strip club in Detroit. She escaped in February 2005. The escape led to the arrest and conviction of her traffickers. In 2007 she told her story to a U.S. House of Representatives committee, using as assumed name, Katya, for her own protection. Another narrative by Katya can be found in the archive.
Holly Austin Gibbs (formerly Smith) is a survivor of child sex trafficking and an advocate for survivors of all forms of human trafficking. In 2011, Holly submitted joint testimony to Congress with labour trafficking survivor, Ima Matul, in support of reauthorization of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. Holly also testified before the U.S. Congressional Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations on the connection between sporting events and sex trafficking. In 2015, Holly testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on behalf of two bills: Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act and Stop Exploitation Through Trafficking Act. Another narrative by Holly can be found in the archive.
Barbara Amaya is an award winning author, advocate and survivor. From the age of 12 she was trafficked in Washington DC and New York for over a decade. A sought-after speaker and advocate for trafficking victims and survivors of trauma everywhere, Barbara has shared her story on television and college campuses as well as with multiple civic, legal, faith and women’s organizations. Barbara is called upon by law makers and law enforcement to train others and to add her expert testimony to aid in the passing of human trafficking legislation in her home state of Virginia as well as other states. In 2014 Barbara was awarded the James B. Hunter Human Rights Award. She is the author of the book Nobody's Girl: A Memoir of Lost Innocence, Modern Day Slavery and Transformation (2015).