Today is International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, designated by the United Nations as a day to focus on how to eradicate contemporary forms of slavery and “end this scourge.”
Here in Los Angeles, the leading organization committed to ending modern-day slavery is the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST), which aids women (and some men) who have been trafficked into slavery right here in our own city. The statistics CAST keeps are shocking—12.3 million people are enslaved around the world today, trafficking is a $9 billion dollar industry, and so on. But since for me the power of the book Half the Sky lies in the incredible stories (not just hard facts) that Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn tell, I thought it would be most impactful to invite members of CAST’s Survivor Advisory Caucus to share their real-life experiences right inside the galleries.
On Sunday, November 13, CAST members came to the galleries as our guests. I never thought I would meet a modern-day slave. About twenty-five of us listened to one survivor share her story before a live audience for the first time. A teacher in her native Philippines, Maria thought she was coming to America legally to work as a domestic helper and receive a salary of $300 a month. These wages were to help her pay off debts back home. Leaving behind her husband and kids at the age of fifty-seven in search of opportunity abroad, Maria was tricked into enslavement for almost two years in a Culver City home.
Once here, Maria’s new boss, the wife of an attorney, confiscated Maria’s passport and gave her a list of duties lasting from 5:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., seven days a week, with no pay. The employer treated the pet dog better than she treated Maria: Maria had to cook fresh food for the dog while she was only given stale leftovers. Most humiliating, when her day finally came to an end each night, she was forced to sleep in a dog bed in the laundry room—only to have to wake up again in the middle of the night to walk the dog.
Who knew that there were slaves in Los Angeles in the twenty-first century? And why do people like Maria stay in these horrible situations? I learned that many times they believe that they will be jailed and beaten if they go to the police. Many do not speak English and cannot communicate their dire situation to others. They are living in a strange land and have no awareness of their rights.
Like many trafficking survivors, Maria was saved by an observant bystander. In her case, it was a thirteen-year-old neighbor, who had casually begun to talk to Maria about the dog Maria cared for. The teen told her parents that something didn’t feel right next door. The authorities were called and, eventually, Maria was freed. The woman who directly “supervised” Maria served time in jail, and her lawyer husband was disbarred.
Because of the tragic circumstances of her stay in America, Maria has been allowed to remain here legally. Now a green card holder, she works a legitimate job and is reunited with her husband here in L.A.
As I sat and watched Maria recount her experience, I wondered: What was it like for her to speak of something so unspeakable before others? When she began, her voice was soft and trembling. She shook as she recalled with anger how she was cheated and mistreated. The audience responded with great emotion and compassion. At the end, Maria said she felt as if a weight had been lifted from her heart by telling her story to others. I feel privileged to have been present as she took the next step in her journey to heal from her experience.
Hear CAST members speak in the galleries again on Sunday, December 18. Click here to learn about this and additional weekly in-gallery presentations.