Woman escapes modern-day slavery in a home near the nation’s capital

Petula Dvorak
Columnist April 15, 2013

Esther is free now.

Free to go to church, have a picnic, drive a car, eat, sleep, shower, take out the trash, go outdoors and even free to get a haircut. These were all things she couldn’t do during that dark time when she was — essentially — a modern-day slave right here near the nation’s capital.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

A few years ago, a kind lady at church suggested she make a run for it. “Run, run,” she told her. “Don’t shower, don’t change your clothes, don’t take anything.” Just run into the dark of early morning, through the nice, American neighborhood, when all are still asleep. And the kind lady from church picked her up at the rendezvous point.

Esther will celebrate her emancipation day Tuesday. But to be honest, she celebrates it every day.

“Now, I have peace. Peace in my heart. It is happy. I am happy,” Esther told me, asking that I not reveal her full name or native country because she still fears her captors.

Esther is one of thousands of survivors of human trafficking in the United States.

The State Department estimates that more than 27 million people are trafficked around the world. And we look at the foreign cases in horror — boys beaten and burned while forced to work in factories in India, girls tattooed with bar codes and their debt while forced to work in brothels in Spain.

But in 2010, the State Department began detailing our own problem with modern-day slavery in its report. And the White House hosted its first-ever forum on combating human trafficking last week.

The numbers aren’t huge. The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated the United States had 2,500 cases from 2008 to 2010. But a group in Washington — the Polaris Project — reported nearly 20,000 calls for help nationally in 2012.

Many are forced into sex work, young girls brought across the border with the promise of a better life. Or runaways who are coerced into believing that they’ve found a new home.

The rest are laborers, many of them domestic workers, like Esther.

When someone in her home town in Africa offered her a job in America six years ago, she was anxious for the opportunity.

“I have no one there. No family,” said Esther. She was 30 and still living with the family who adopted her after her parents died.

Her captors were friends of her adoptive family who said they would pay her $500 a month to be their housekeeper. The American family shook hands with the African one, and they bought her a plane ticket.

The day she arrived in Washington, her host family took away her visa and her passport.

“They said I don’t need them,” Esther told me. And they told her to cook dinner that night.

The next morning, they gave her the crying baby and told her to do all the laundry and clean the floors and to cook for all the families who kept coming over. “They had many parties, many people.”

She tied the screaming infant to her back, “like we do in Africa,” and got to work, with the bellowing husband always behind her, threatening to hit her. She wasn’t allowed to eat until the entire family had eaten.

“I got thin, so thin, like this,” she says, holding up her pinky finger.

At that point in her story, I had to ask Esther why she didn’t just leave or ask for help.

“They tell me the police will get me. . . . Behead me,” she said, chopping the back of her neck with her hand. “That is what they do in my country. So I believe that is what happens here.”

And when she tells this part of the story, her face grows drawn, wrinkles slash her high forehead and her eyes narrow.

The husband works for one of the big nongovernmental organizations in town. And the wife?

“She not work. And when the husband tell me he is going to hit me, she just tell me: ‘Work! Work!’ ”

For Esther, this was a strange, new world. One much more complex than her home country — she recalled staring for an hour at the moving walkway in the airport before she found the courage to board it. And she knew no one except her employers. It became easy to see how she might have been too afraid to flee the small apartment where she was held captive.

And what her captors did — the seizing of the passport, the threats, the isolation — is textbook human trafficking, according to Carolina De Los Rios, the director of Client Services at the Polaris Project and an expert on America’s hidden slave trade.

On any day, there are about 60 Esthers who just escaped from their captors in the nation’s capital, people — usually women — who were trafficked as either labor or sex slaves.

Many escape and rebuild their lives through an underground railroad right in the heart of Washington, run by the Polaris Project.

There, the women find food and clothing. One day, I walked in on a financial class for three young women; computer training was happening on the other side of the room.

The usual tipster is a first responder — a police officer, firefighter, paramedic — who happens into a weird situation that has the signs of human trafficking.

The captors won’t let people speak for themselves and won’t let them outside or out of their sight. The victims have no papers, no identification, and the captor is stepping in between every interaction.

Esther begged for months to go to church. Finally, the family relented, but the husband waited at the door for her throughout the service. A woman at church noticed Esther was always crying when she prayed, so she sat next to her and asked. After a couple of weeks, Esther told her about her situation.

The kind woman who rescued Esther took her to an immigration lawyer, who immediately saw the situation as trafficking and called Polaris.

Polaris employees work in an undisclosed location, so vigilant are they about protecting the survivors they’ve helped liberate. I had to meet them outside a restaurant. I was then led to their offices and had to sign a statement promising I wouldn’t disclose their location.

In the secret location, Esther began to learn English, got her green card, enrolled in classes and opened a bank account. She now works as a home health aide and just got her driver’s license.

But she is always, always fearful that she’ll encounter the man and woman who held her captive.

“I feel like he is always behind me, looking for me,” she said.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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