Life After Human Trafficking: ‘No One Goes Back to the Way It Was Before’

After years of no pay and physical and mental exploitation, freedom comes at a price.

ex-slave in Brazil

Former slave Expedito Pereira eats milk with crackers in his bedroom at the construction site of the Arena Pantanal stadium in Cuiaba, Mato Grosso state, February 7, 2012. A total of 25 men are working at the site of one of Brazil’s new World Cup soccer stadiums whose previous jobs were classified as slave labor by the Brazilian government. (Photo: Nacho Doce/Reuters)

is a Los Angeles-based writer whose work has appeared Atlantic, Back Stage, The Christian Science Monitor and The Hill.

Sarah was 18 when she left Ethiopia for a job as a domestic servant in the Middle East. For a woman with few prospects, it sounded like a great opportunity. She had no idea it would turn into a grueling nightmare.

The family she worked for made her sleep on the floor in the living room. She was up until the last of them went to sleep at night and awake before any in the household stirred. She had no private space and was kept from leaving the house unsupervised or making friends, let alone attend church. Sarah was tasked with a list of chores that would make Cinderella cringe: keeping the house, caring for the family’s elderly relatives and traveling with them abroad.

The family had adult children in the United States and would bring Sarah along on their visits. A couple years ago, Sarah was out shopping for the family in Seattle. She saw someone from Ethiopia. Desperate to escape her bondage, she asked for the woman’s phone number, made contact and was eventually convinced to flee the family she’d served like a slave for 16 years.

MORE: 21 Million People Around the World Work in Forced Labor; One Day to Fix It Is Not Enough

Sarah, a name the International Rescue Committee (IRC) gave the woman to protect her privacy, connected with community organizations in Seattle, eventually making her way to the IRC, an aide group founded in 1933 at the request of Albert Einstein that assists refugees and victims of human trafficking.

The IRC’s Seattle office helped Sarah apply for a visa and work with law enforcement to prosecute her abusers. “She’s been amazingly brave,” Kathleen Morris, the IRC’s Anti-Trafficking program manager in Seattle, tells TakePart.

“Traffickers go out of their way to perpetuate people’s fear of law enforcement,” says Morris. “I’ve heard from immigrants that say I’m never going to voluntarily call the police. There is that fear in them. It’s definitely a big barrier for folks.”

The United States is one of the few countries in the world that offers visas to victims of human trafficking. Under the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (VTVPA), victims of human trafficking can apply for so-called “T” nonimmigrant status. It’s hard to get, but for victims and law enforcement alike, the visa is a boon. It helps counteract one of the tools traffickers use to keep their victims in line.

“Traffickers go out of their way to perpetuate people’s fear of law enforcement,” says Morris. “I’ve heard from immigrants that say I’m never going to voluntarily call the police. There is that fear in them. It’s definitely a big barrier for folks.”

The vast majority of the clients Morris works with have been trafficked for slave labor. “Ninety percent of our clients have been involved in non-sexual forms of labor,” she says. “The majority of our clients have been foreign nationals victimized in the U.S.”

The IRC’s Seattle office services some 30 clients a year, but Morris says that’s likely the tip of the iceberg in the area. “It’s increasing all the time,” she says.

Around the world, the U.N.’s International Labor Organization estimates there are 21 million people held in forced labor, including 1.5 million in North America and Europe.

For aid groups such as the IRC, the challenge isn't rescuing victims of human trafficking and forced labor—victims often escape on their own—it’s helping them rebuilding their lives.

“If you want to get out of forced labor, you need to have some options afterward to get into economically productive activity,” Aidan McQuade, director of Anti-Slavery International, a non-governmental agency that combats forced labor, told TakePart in a recent interview. “It can tie up with vocational education, primary education—can they read and write? You need to think about ensuring economic justice as well.”

Morris says the IRC helps its clients with education and job training, but the road back to a normal life is hard. “No one goes back to the way it was before, but they can rebuild their lives,” she says. “People who are willing to work really do find a way to make it happen.”

They do need help from the community, she adds. “We always need businesses to be aware of the challenges that these people face.”

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