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Unraveling human trafficking

Unraveling Human Trafficking

For years, Anna braided hair by day and scrubbed dishes by night. Her workday began at 9 a.m. and concluded sometime after 2 o’clock the next morning. The grueling hours would have been difficult for any adult to maintain.

But Anna was just a child.

She remembers, “A lady brought me (to the United States in 1995) when I was 11. I was living with her from when I was 11 until I was maybe 18. She was a family friend; back home she lived next door to me.”

The neighbor convinced Anna’s parents to allow Anna to travel with her from their native country of Senegal, in West Africa to Baltimore, Md., where Anna, she promised, would receive an education. Upon arrival in Baltimore, Anna was thousands of miles from home, but anxious to begin school. 

“I was excited,” Anna says. “Usually people are happy coming (to the United States). When I was telling my uncle I was coming here, my uncle was so happy. He was saying ‘The United States is so good. You can just go to a machine and get a sandwich.’ I was happy.”

The happiness was short-lived. 

Just one month after Anna arrived in Baltimore, the friendly neighbor who lured her from West Africa was revealed to be a “different person.” Anna was never taken to school, not even for a day, and the reason she was brought to the United States became clear. 

“(The lady) had a house and a baby boy. At first, like the first week, I was just taking care of the boy. Like a month later we started doing hair, going to the shop, doing hair and stuff,” Anna remembers.

Day after day, hour after hour, Anna sat in place and was forced to braid hair. The small girl was never questioned by clients about why she was working all day, rather than attending school with other children her age. She was a prisoner within plain view; she had no time for school, sports, friends or fun. Her life was braiding hair, and there did not appear to be a way out. Her little hands were busy all day, completing at least two micro braids and a cornrow in nine hours. She was told she was good at braiding and earned up to $500 a day. The money she made was never hers, though. About one year after Anna began braiding hair in the shop, the lady bought a restaurant and Anna’s days grew longer. 

After the restaurant opened, Anna was forced to travel there each night when the hair shop closed. Her hungry stomach growled and the smell of hot food all around made her mouth water, but the child was not allowed to eat, sometimes going two or three days without food. Again, her plight remained invisible. 

“I was very, very scared of (the lady). When I (saw) her, I have the chills in my body. That is how scared I was. And, sometimes, I (was) very, very hungry (and) I am thinking like, ‘Maybe if I eat she will know.’ She would punish people, so we would not eat.” 

Anna says there was one occasion when she was hit and several times when she was threatened with voodoo. But most often she was punished by having to live and sleep in the empty apartment that the lady rented. Inside the apartment, the air and water temperatures were turned down as low as possible; there was no food, no furniture, no bed or blankets. 

While the exhaustive work load and punishments were difficult to bear, what was almost as hard was enduring it alone. Anna was occasionally allowed to speak with her parents over the phone, but they did not believe her. 

Anna continued to bear the burden of her life alone; and when she was 18, she ran away. She had no money, no family and no place to go, but for Anna, life on the street was a better life than the one she was living. On the street, she was free. She was alone, but unafraid. 

Anna found work braiding hair, and in 2007, at age 22, she moved to Michigan for another braiding job. In a new city and state, and without someone to trust or a safe place to live, she acted on a tip and reached out for help. Through a contact at the Catholic Church, she met Pat Hathaway.

Pat, who worked at a local aid center and thrift store, still remembers the day Anna walked through the doors.

“When I saw her standing there, I thought ‘I wonder what she would want help with?’ She had on this real beautiful scarf and these beautiful sunglasses, and she just looked like a model standing there.”

Behind the confident outward appearance, however, Pat found a young woman who was abused, cheated out of her adolescence and desperate to be believed. 

After a lengthy conversation,  Anna told her about the woman who brought her to the United States from Senegal when she was 11, about the jobs she was forced to work for seven long years and the cruel punishments she endured. 

Pat had a hard time believing what she was hearing.

“I thought, ‘This doesn’t happen here. It’s not happening in my back yard.’” 

What happened next left an enormous impression on Pat.

“l told her, ‘I (am) so sorry that happened to you, Anna.’ And, tears started coming down her face. Anna said not to feel sorry for her, she was crying because I was the first person to believe her story. That just touched my heart so much. She had been through so much,” Pat says.

Overwhelmed by Anna’s story and moved with compassion to help, Pat connected with Bridgette Carr, an assistant clinical professor at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. Bridgette heard Anna’s story and took her case pro bono. 

“Sadly, Anna’s story is not unique,” Bridgette says. “I’ve done about 10 to 15 hair braiding cases. It is a story we know well, a child brought from West Africa to the United States to braid hair.”

Perhaps equally distressing is that the child was able to work from the morning until the middle of the night and no one seemed to pay attention or take action.  

“She was touching people every day; she was not shouting for help behind a door. She was physically seen by people every day,” Bridgette says. 

According to Bridgette, the same is true for most trafficking victims. They are living in big and small communities around the world, in the United States and here in Michigan. They are within plain view, and most often go unnoticed. 

“There are tons of Annas encountered all over the state and very few people will do what Pat did ... ask the extra questions, have the knowledge and make a call,” Bridgette says. 

Bridgette asked Anna whether she wanted to return home or remain in the United States. Anna said she would like to live in the United States, in large part due to the power of the trafficker who had returned to her home country (and to date has never been charged or prosecuted). 

Bridgette began working with Anna right away, making calls and connecting with authorities who could help.

“Our Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent was fantastic,” Bridgette says. “He believed Anna and worked on her case, while we worked on her immigration application.”

Similar to what is provided to refugees, some cash and medical assistance is available to victims of human trafficking for a short period of time while they pick up the pieces of their lives. Thankfully for Anna, she also had a full-time advocate in Pat, who helped her avoid becoming a victim again. 

“(Pat) wanted to help me very bad,” Anna said. “She was making all of the phone calls and driving me everywhere. There is no description for her. She is just the nicest, nicest, nicest….she is like a mom to me. Meeting her changed my life.”

And, meeting Anna changed Pat’s life, too.

“Our family has been so blessed by Anna. She was here for many Christmases and the kids all love her.”

“She is like a daughter,” Pat says.

Today, Pat has great joy in knowing that Anna, who became a permanent resident of the United States in 2013 and lives in New York City, New York with her husband and daughter, overcame tremendous adversity with both grace and courage. As Pat compassionately reached out to help Anna, Anna hopes to one day be a nurse, reaching out and helping others who are in need.