AEHT Support Human Trafficking Survivors
The survivors of trafficking supported by AEHT members come from diverse backgrounds and myriad forms of trafficking. Here is just a sample of some of those stories.
Sophia: Mail Order Bride
Sophia (not real name or image) is 33 years old and originally from an Eastern European country. She has one sister and one brother. They were a poor but happy family.
She was lucky to be able to study and spent one year in Russia studying fashion design, when she met a man on social media who was also from an Eastern European country, but had lived with his parents in the U.S. for some years. He was already a citizen there and spoke very good English. He impressed Sophia and got her interested in wanting to know more about him and his life abroad. She was partly struck with how free he felt, since her family did not feel so free in Eastern Europe. They corresponded over the internet and he visited her in Russia. It was an exciting time and she could see he was someone who had goals to get ahead in life.
Eventually he proposed to Sophia and she accepted the chance to marry him and move with him to a west coast state. Her parents worried that she would be so far from home, but she was sure she could always visit them and keep contact. Sophia flew to the U.S. alone and met her fiancée in Nevada. He told her that was a popular place to be married. Their ceremony was quite short, but he had invited several friends to attend and afterward they toured around the large city and enjoyed eating and drinking in many different kinds of restaurants and bars. She had never felt so free and happy before.
After several weeks of their honeymoon they went to the west coast where Sophia met her mother-in-law, with whom her husband lived. The apartment was small and in a very noisy area of the city. It was not what she had expected, but he told her they would not live there forever. She got a job at a small grocery store in the neighborhood that was operated by a man from Russia. Since she spoke Russian this was a good fit and it gave her time to practice English with the customers. Her husband collected the salary from her job.
As the weeks turned into months things began to change however. The mother-in-law became a very angry person toward Sophia. As she thought, she wondered if it was because her husband was spending more time with her and neglecting his mother. But the mother-in-law would yell at Sophia for every little thing that she did not like. Then Sophia’s husband too began to change. He told Sophia he was the boss and she was only able to live in the U.S. because of him. She had no rights without a legal relationship with him. Therefore, she was to obey him completely.
This demand was expected also in their sexual life. What began as love-making turned into pain and fear. He would hurt her and even choke her while they made love at night. She began to be very afraid. She tried to talk with her mother-in-law, but she yelled at her too.
Sophia realized slowly that this was not a real marriage but a way to use her to get money, to have a house maid to do housework, and to have a body to use for releasing aggression and anger.
After six more months of fear-filled nights and fear-filled days, Sophia was exhausted, alone and unable to see a way out. Her husband had forbidden her to see any of the friends they had made in the early part of their marriage. She was now also afraid she would get pregnant and have a child to care for in this oppressive home.
Sophia went to work one morning, but actually ran away. She looked up a social agency on the internet at the store where she worked and made a call to them. They said they would come to get her and they did. They explained that she had a right to file for divorce and claim to be a victim of a forced marriage, depending on what had been the actual circumstances under which she lived. She was placed in a home overseen by two women, who said they were Catholic Sisters.
While she lived with them she had a physical exam in which it showed that she had been sexually harmed. All the details are too personal and too difficult to recall. She wrote her story in detail for the lawyers. They eventually confirmed that what she had suffered was what is called ‘mail order bride’ enslavement. She had never heard such a term before, but knew it described the situation that had evolved for her.
Sophia felt very safe in the home with the Sisters, who also took in other women with other stories of abuse. Their lives together were happy ones.
Each had a turn to cook a meal that they ate together in the evenings. Cooking food from her own country helped Sophia to heal. The women were able to attend school. Some of the other women had to study English, as she did. Her English was poor and she was motivated because she wanted to be able to take regular college classes and study art.
Back home she rode a bicycle everywhere, which is typical of her country. So the Sisters got Sophia a bicycle, which she could ride to the bus stop, put on the bus, and take with her to school. This freedom felt exhilarating. Slowly she began to heal physically and emotionally.
After a year Sophia had made friends and was able to move in with one of them. She liked to be more on her own again, although her time in the home with the Sisters had been a healing time. She eventually enrolled in actual college classes and there, on campus, met up with another man, who seemed very kind. He was Hispanic and a U.S. citizen. He had a large family and was studying engineering. They dated for a while and then married, because by then Sophia’s former husband had also filed for divorce. She discovered that he had already been meeting other Eastern European women online. He did not hide his communications online and she realized that she too had been tricked by his original kindnesses.
Sophia and her new husband moved into an apartment and had a good and open relationship. She shared with him what had happened to her. Today they have three children – two girls and a boy. Her children can speak Russian and Spanish and learned English as they attend primary school.
Sophia’s father died while she lived with the Sisters, which was a sad day for her. Her mother lives alone now, but she has been able to visit Sophia and her new family in the U.S. several times already and Sophia has taken her husband and children to see her family home back in Europe.
As she looked back at her life, Sophia felt so grateful for having been released from a very frightful situation and finding a new happy life. She keeps contact with the Sisters who helped her heal and shares important moments with them by photos and email. Now she is a stay-at-home mom, married to a loving husband, and raising a happy family. She became a U.S. citizen two years ago.
Aisha: Domestic Worker
Aisha (not real name or image) is 40 years old and from a rural area of northern Africa. She is the oldest in her immediate family, with one sister and two brothers. They were farmers and once she finished fifth grade she began to help her father on the farm. It was very hard work for all of them. They are devout Muslims, but they also have very good friends among Christians. Their families often celebrated each other’s feasts. Aisha was married to a local man and soon bore a daughter. But her husband was not a good man. He divorced her and married another woman.
One of her relatives went to work in the Middle East and began to send home money to her family. This possibility interested Aisha because she wanted a better life for her parents, for her family. She decided to also go to the Middle East to work as a maid. She was afraid to reveal the actual country because she did not want harm to come to her relative. Her daughter was three years old at the time she left home, but knew her daughter would be well taken care of by her parents.
Aisha was hired by a very wealthy man through an agency that came to help her find work. He owned a large company and had four wives and many children. The families all lived on the same large tract of land where they had a school, a sports field, a small airport for their private planes and many other things to make their lives enjoyable. She began her work for his fourth and youngest wife, who by then had eight children. There were various maids, cooks, drivers, etc. to manage the man’s households and properties.
Aisha worked long hours every day cooking, cleaning, caring for children. It was especially hard in the beginning because she did not speak Arabic. She gradually learned the words she needed by listening to and getting help from the smaller children. When the family traveled Aisha accompanied them to continue doing the various duties assigned to her. The wife would fly to England to shop. The husband would fly to Germany for dental treatments. Several of the workers would accompany on these trips to do whatever was needed: carry suitcases, clean clothes, put order in the hotel suite, etc.
Aisha was often scolded for doing things wrong or not quickly enough. Some of the children were very mean and would purposely do things that made work for her, like spilling things onto the tablecloth or breaking dishes in fits of anger. The parents would side with their children, so Aisha was always at fault. She rarely saw any men, which was good because it meant there was no accusations of infidelity. She often had to get up in the night to shoo the birds away from the swimming pool so it would be clean when the children wanted to swim. The washing and ironing never seemed to be finished, nor did the demand for meals, which the children often ate whenever they felt like it. Sometimes she had to prepare four or five types of meals at one sitting to please everyone around the table.
Her greatest worry was, for all the long hours she put in, she was not getting paid. When she complained to the wife, the wife would assure Aisha that she would get paid when her husband had time. But months and then years went by without much pay.
Once in a while they would give her money to send home, but it was rare and little. It was more of a ‘thank you’ treat than a salary. This began to worry Aisha because she was very tired and realized that she would never be able to help her family to the extent they needed. When her boss’s family flew in their private jet to Los Angeles for vacation, Aisha accompanied them. They occupied a suite of rooms in an expensive hotel and would go out each day to shop and enjoy the sights. The vacation lasted for a month. Aisha began to realize this may be a place where she could get away and find a job at someone else’s home where she would be paid a real salary.
On the day before they were to fly back to their home and while the family was out shopping, Aisha ran into the street and hailed a taxi as they had. She only knew to say, “Police, police!” The driver saw that she was afraid and he drove her to the police station. There the police got someone who spoke her language and she could explain her problem. They asked to see her documents, but she had none since her madam kept these for her. The police went to the hotel to get the documents. This made Aisha more afraid since she did not want to make trouble for her employer. Her madam said she had no documents and the police could do nothing. They took Aisha to an agency that helps people like her. She was there for a year while they worked on her legal case. Meanwhile she studied English at a school. Another lady at the house where she was staying was very mean to her because Aisha was a Muslim, so the agency had her move to another place.
The new house was run by two ladies who said they were ‘Sisters.’ Aisha figured out later that meant they were working to help people through the church group they belong to. The residents always called them “Sister”. Aisha quickly felt at home in this house because the women did everything together and shared their foods together. Even when it was Ramadan they changed the time of the dinner hour so everyone could all break the fast together.
The house had a big garden and the residents processed the fruits and vegetables from the garden. This too made Aisha feel very much at home. While she stayed at this house she was able to improve her English, learn to drive and most importantly, get a job that paid regular money. She began as a dishwasher at a nursing home for old people. When the hours of her job were cut she complained because she wanted to earn as much money as she could to make up for the six years when she did not get paid much. The place she worked let her train to work the night shift with the people that had bad memories and other frailties. She passed the training and has a regular, good-paying job.
It is hard work, but Aisha likes it. She gets health care and retirement benefits and has gotten several raises. In addition, she found people who hired her to clean their houses during the day, as well as a lady who has her sew jewelry bags for her to sell. All this helped Aisha earn money so that she could buy her own car and send money to her family.
After eight years away from home, Aisha had a green card and was legally able to bring her daughter to the U.S. She had not seen her daughter for eight years! She was tall and 11 years old when they hugged one another at the airport. It is a day she will never forget. Now her daughter is already a senior in high school and doing very well. Soon she will turn 18 and begin college. Aisha is very proud of her.
Aisha passed her citizenship test to become a U.S. citizen. It is hard to make ends meet but so far she has been able to meet all her expenses for her apartment, her living, and her daughter’s education. Her only wish is to have one of her brothers join her here so they would not feel so alone. She has met other Muslim friends at the mosque where they pray and she has some Christian people who are very good to her. She will always remember the Sisters who gave her a home and the confidence to start a new life in the U.S. She calls on them when she needs advice or help. But it is never like having one’s family nearby. Last summer she and her daughter visited Aisha’s family in northern Africa. It had been 14 years since she was home. All she could say was, “Allah has been my help at every step of the way.”
Jaimee: Sexual Exploitation on the Streets
Jaimee Johnson of San Diego (not real image) is mom of three children – ages 14, 11 and 5. She is taking Business Communications at San Diego Continuing Educations ECC Campus, connected with SanDiego City College. She hopes to earn a B.A. and possibly an M.A. someday and expand her public advocacy and speaking skills. The Soroptimist “Live Your Dream” award was presented to Jaimee in 2020 in order to help her improve her professional knowledge, skills and career marketability.
Jaimee’s story: As a child of a divorced alcoholic mother and stepfather, Jaimee witnessed domestic violence up close and experienced neglect and sexual abuse from an early age. This impacted her teen and young adult years and by the time she was 19 she was married and had two children.
Adrift after finding out her husband was gay, she went to a bar one night and was lured into the world of sex trafficking as a way to make money and support herself.
Over the next seven years, “Abuse, jail, addiction, suicide, losing my kids, losing family, hating myself, rape, robbery, mental illness, medical issues, all became normal for me,”she said.
She spent time in a house operated by a AEHT member congregation, but left before she had completely freed herself from the lure of being on the streets. She tried many times to stop, but it was only when she got pregnant with her youngest son in 2014 that she found the will to get herself sober, get a job, and stop selling her body.
“I found God,” she said. “God continued to bless me with opportunity, and one was my first speaking engagement with the Vista, CA Soroptimists. That was the first time I ever shared any of my story out loud.”
She has since become a tireless activist in the fight against human trafficking and an advocate for victims and survivors of sex trafficking through her own non-profit, ‘Sisters of the Street’.
Currently she is on the staff of that same house where she first sought to become free of being trafficked.
References submitted on behalf of her award included letters of support from San Diego County agencies and non-profits like California Against Slavery, as well as San Diego’s Channel 7 reporter Monica Dean, who said, “I am grateful Jaimee Johnson has chosen to use her painful past to powerfully impact the future. I know she has a bright future.” Excerpted from SOROPTILINE March 2020 Vol. 10, Issue #3 www.soroptimistvista.org