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.