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"Trafficking of Persons, Especially Women and Children: USA Routes." Created by The Protection Project.

"Trafficking of Persons, Especially Women and Children: USA Routes." Created by The Protection Project.


Human Trafficking: 'A Nightmare I Just Bumped Into...'

Sara Lerner

One East African woman explains how she found herself in a Seattle suburb working nearly 100 hours a week with little money, almost no English, and no friends. She explains how her employers enticed her with promises and tricked her into domestic servitude.

This morning we continue our series on human trafficking here in Washington State. The trafficking of persons is a crime often associated only with the sex industry. But as we heard yesterday from victim's advocate Kathleen Morris, labor trafficking might be even more common.

Morris: "You know we think of trafficking as this huge network of organized crime, which it can be, but it can also just be a couple that wanted a nanny but didn't want to pay for it."

Today, we turn our attention to someone who's experienced this type of abuse firsthand. We're calling her Mary. She's a Seattleite now. She knows the bus schedule inside out, where to get the cheapest groceries, and where to get spices from her native country. Mary works in health care. And, she's someone who isn't afraid to dish out a little teasing when appropriate. I've just arrived to her apartment.

Mary: "You didn't get lost?"

Lerner: "No, not at all this time!"

That's because I did have trouble the first time I tried to find her place.

It's Saturday. Mary's digging through her kitchen cupboards looking for something to feed her teenage daughters.

Mary: "What are you gonna eat for lunch? "

Then, she realizes she's gonna have to go to the grocery store again while she's out.

Mary: "We forgot tomato! I didn't make a list! Okay, one tomato."

Mary seems to be laughing all the time. She never explains to friends or coworkers, or anyone, what she went through. Why her daughters joined her in the U.S. just a few months ago or why she had to go several years without seeing them. But she's making one exception and telling her story now.

Mary: "Because I want other people who are going through this same situation that I had before to be careful about it and I would like those people to know what happened in my life not to happen in their life too."

Mary got sucked into being a human trafficking victim.

Mary: "It came to be like a nightmare that I just bump into."

And this nightmare is being played out for others all over Washington state. It's hard to say how many more victims there are because human trafficking is usually a hidden crime. It can happen right before our eyes and an abuse like domestic servitude often goes undetected.

Mary can't use her real name or even say which country she's from. And her voice has been altered for this radio piece. She's safe now, but if she reveals who her perpetrators are, she's afraid they'd hurt her or her family back in her home country.

That's where this chapter of Mary's life begins. She's back home in East Africa, working as a housekeeper for a wealthy woman. They get along great. The woman trusts Mary to take care of her house while she leaves for months at a time.

The woman, Mary's boss, has a daughter in the U.S. who's married and about to have her second child. The daughter and her husband are both from this same East African country and they want a housekeeper from there, as well. Mary's boss thinks she has the solution.

Mary: "And she ask me, do you think you can go? And I was kind of, oh no, you know, I have children, I'll miss my children."

Mary says no. But Mary's boss keeps nagging. She knows Mary, she trusts her, and that's why she's sure Mary will get along great with her daughter, son–in–law, and grandson in the U.S.

Again, Mary refuses. Then, they offer to put her daughters in boarding school. They say they'll fly her to visit them every year.

Mary: "Boarding school back home is very important, especially for girls. I say, that sounds good, putting my children in boarding school, and coming to visit them, oh that's good idea. So I was happy to agree, like oh, if she can promise me this. I said ok."

Mary lets the family organize her documents and buy her a plane ticket. They bring her all the way to Washington state, to a Seattle suburb. Finally, she meets the couple, the daughter and son–in–law of the woman she's worked for for years. For this story, we're calling them Jane and John. They greet her warmly and Jane gives her a hug. Mary thinks, great, she's gonna be sweet like her mom. But it doesn't turn out that way.

Mary moves in with them. Her duties far exceed those of her job back home working for their mom. Mary's in charge of their 2–year–old boy and a new baby, and all of the family's meals, dishes, laundry, ironing, cleaning, gardening.

Mary: "Yes I was responsible for everything, except only their bodies. They washed by themselves. But I was responsible for everything."

Her day starts at 6:00 a.m. and finishes at 9:30 p.m. She works almost 100 hours a week. Her pay is $70 a month. Meanwhile, the family tries to keep her secluded.

Mary: "And that time they have ask me don't talk to nobody. People here in the USA especially those who come from back in Africa don't ever talk to them they're gonna tell you lies about this country."

For awhile, she obeys. Then Mary realizes, she needs to talk to other people. So, if there's a guest over to the house, Mary finds quick moments when Jane or John step away. She talks to the visitors. Sometimes they have questions for her.

Mary: "Sometimes they'll ask me. how much do they pay you? So I said to them, oh, they pay me this amount. And they say wow! that's not right! So I started thinking oh, now, this is why they were telling me not to talk to them. "

And Mary says, that's when things start getting bad.

Mary: "I started opening my eyes and asking them, oh, why don't you increase my salary? And she goes like, we pay you a lot and you keep complaining!"

Mary's persistent. Bit by bit, she gets her salary up to $180 a month. And she's trying to learn English from the two–year–old boy. But Jane and John tell her she must speak Swahili only. And the worst of all, they don't put Mary's daughters in boarding school.

Mary: "Never. That was just a promise. To make me happy. To keep doing what they want me to do. It wasn't like they mean it. No."

Her frustration grows. She barely speaks English. She has no idea how to get back home, what status her documents are in, how much it would even cost. Jane and John had organized everything.

Jane and John act as though everything is perfectly fine, normal. Except when Mary complains. Then they yell. They tell her she's lucky. They pay her bills, give her food, a bed.

Mary: "They feel like they're not talking with a human being who has feelings, you know. So when they open their mouth it come there's like rotten something, you know."

Like something rotten. Now Mary really wants to leave. But she's scared. Mary arrived here through Jane's mother, the woman she had worked for back home. Mary sends a letter asking her for help. It's Mary's last hope. Weeks go by and she receives a response.

Mary: "The letter she wrote to me it make me feel like: don't complain, just be there and I read the letter, and I was like, oh my god, I don't have to complain to nobody, I just complain to my god and that's all!"

At this point, Mary realizes that, all along, this must have been the family's plan all along: to bring her here, to trap her.

Mary's determined to find help. She gets it in little spurts, always with the assistance of people she barely knows: friends or acquaintances of Jane and John who help her behind their back.

One man, also from her native country, leads Mary to a woman's resource center. The women there help her find a place to live and she leaves Jane and John's home. They also help her and her daughters get a T visa which is for proven victims of human trafficking. And they connect her with an immigration attorney.

Eventually, she's provided restitution. Mary recovers her wages from Jane and John. But still, she has to wait years for her daughters' documents to be processed back in her home country, in East Africa.

Finally, though, last summer, the girls arrived. So that's a lot of good news. Mary's glad she can stay and work here. But she still has many unanswered questions.

Mary: "Why did these people do this to me? And they're my own people from my country. If other people from their country they can do this to me I can understand, but my own people, that I used to take care of their mom and they do this to me. It really make me sad when I remember this story."

Human trafficking is a crime that rules every aspect of a victim's life: home, work, family, friends. It's so big. And coming forward, telling the story is hard. Not just for Mary but for anyone who's been through it. This is why service providers and law enforcement repeatedly say they just don't have accurate numbers of victims. That there are more out there who might not even know they have rights, and certainly don't want to tell the details of their story. Still Mary did escape.

I'm at her apartment later that same Saturday. She's making beef with ugali, a staple all over East Africa. She has a place to live and a solid job. She's with her daughters. And, Mary is finished with victimhood. She wants to be identified as: a Saturday shopper, or a nice woman on the bus, an African. She's a mom.

Mary: "Dinner is ready! Whosever feels hungry."

I'm Sara Lerner, KUOW News.

This is part two in a four–part series on "Human Trafficking in Washington State."