This is one of three first-person accounts written by survivors of human trafficking. The others, as well as background about the project, can be found here.
I arrived in New York on September 15, 2005, at age 38, clutching a personal statement I had written for myself. It read, “I am going to America for the future of my kids. I am going to give them a fantastic future. This is my purpose.”
I never thought I would get to live in the United States. But, my opportunity got when my sister moved to an additional country as a domestic worker and met a diplomat people that was moving to New York City. She signified to them about me, and they sent a contract to the Philippines for me to sign. I progressed to one of the tens of thousands of Filipina women who go overseas each year as domestic workers. I would meet my employers for the first time in the U.S.
The contract stated I would work eight-hour days, five days per week, and make $1,800 per month, caring for a teenager with main needs and doing a few cooking and cleaning around the house. I would even get paid holidays and time off. But my sister, who had already worked for the same family, warned me that the contract was only for show—my true income would be $500 per month. However, that was still triple what my husband and I made combined. He was working as a motorist for Johnson & Johnson, making 8,000 pesos (about $150) per month, although I made even less selling street snacks. We were feeling the strain of backing four children, especially the hospital bills for my youngest, who suffers from seizures and often ends up in the hospital.
So I asked my husband to quit his job to stay home with the kids, and I traveled to the U.S. on a G-5 diplomatic visa. I brought with me a clean cloth diaper for each of my kids, to remind me of them. My new employers gathered me up at the airport and drove me to their home, in a premises with a doorman on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I later signified to the rest of my facts in an affidavit to the Department of Homeland Security—after learning I had become a victim of human trafficking.
In the beginning, stuff were okay. I had my own small room, though it was unfurnished aside from a bed. My employers would even take me out to dinner with them. But after three months, the wife started yelling at me all the time, for stuff like folding the laundry wrong. I couldn’t fully grasp English, and said, “Sorry madam, I can’t understand.” That only made her angrier.
I was soon working 14-to-18-hour days, seven days per week. I cleaned and vacuumed their three-bedroom, three-bathroom apartment, washed and ironed their clothes, cooked breakfast and dinner, and cared for their daughter. I had to do the laundry in the bathtub, because they stated the washing machine would ruin their clothes. When the daughter had an accident in her bed, I had to wash the comforter in the centre of the night. When people friends stayed the night, I had to serve them and wash their clothes too.
The food was true limited, as I wrote in the affidavit. The people would portion out how much food I should cook. I was only allowed to eat the leftovers—if there were any—after dinner. If I took more food than was allowed, the wife would say, “That’s too much.” I felt jittery all the time, knowing they were watching how much I ate. My typical meal consisted of a tall glass of water, a slice of bread, and half of a banana or plain rice late at night.
Once, I was so hungry in the centre of the evening and remembered that there was still a few rice in the rice cooker. I snuck into the kitchen, scooped a fantastic spoonful of rice into a paper towel, and took it back to my room. The rice stuck to the paper towel, but I peeled off every grain. I was so hungry, I almost ate the paper towel.
Their daughter required main care and education. Caregivers for people with her condition require to have extra training, because a few of them can consider easily threatened or frustrated, and they act out. I didn’t fathom any of this. The daughter would punch me in my back and in my ear. I would panic; I had no idea how to handle this. I would ask her to stop, and she would lie down crying on the floor. Then the wife would yell at me, or merely stand there and watch the situation unravel.
I was so isolated. My employers signified to me not to have friends, especially other Filipinos. They warned me not to tell anyone how much I was being paid. They would assert that my sister can get in trouble, or that I can get deported. They would watch me if I talked to anyone else. It scared me. For two years, I hardly ever left home unaccompanied, except on true brief errands to the grocery store over the street.
I cried all the time. I would take my rosary beads out from underneath my pillow, or take out my kids’ little cloth diapers and smell them to remember a familiar scent. That kept me going. Other times, I would re-read my statement of purpose, and remind myself that this was for the future of my kids. I had to be strong.
My employers were holding my passport, as I later reported to the DHS. But after 17 months, they let me go home for my daughter’s graduation. They deducted the cost of the plane ticket from my pay. I desperately wished to stay in the Philippines, but I got back because my people needed the money and I didn’t fathom what else to do. Thinking about it now, I fathom that my husband would have signified to me to stay, that the money wasn’t worth it. But I couldn’t tell my people how bad it was. I got back.
When I returned, my employers took my passport again, and promised to renew my visa. One day when I was cleaning, I had a feeling, a premonition. I decided to open the last metal drawer of the family’s private dresser. Carefully, with an apron over my fingers, I pulled it open. And there it was: my passport. Right next to several hundred dollars. I started shaking when I saw it, because my boss had signified to me it was still in the office getting processed. They lied to me. I felt my heart racing from anger and disbelief. I put my passport back and started to plan my escape.
Even though the people watched my interactions, I still managed to make a few friends, like the doorman and a Filipina house cleaner next door. Those small interactions were so important to me, because they aided relieve my isolation and loneliness. They further showed me that stuff inside the apartment were not normal. One friend was a Filipina woman I met at the grocery store over the street. After a while, I signified to her about my situation. She started leaving food for me with the doorman, and gave me her long-established cellphone. She pushed me to leave. She stated that I needed to earn more, that my people needed more. I understood she was right. She introduced me to a Filipino lawyer in Queens, who wrote down my entire facts and pointed out all the labor and human-rights violations. Together, the three of us devised a plan for my escape, and how to alert the authorities about what was happening.
The next morning, I signified to my employers I was going to social call Niagara Falls for the weekend with my friend who I had met at the store. It was summertime, and the daughter was out of school, so they gave me my passport back and let me go. I even gave my boss my friend’s telephone number, as cover. That evening, I went to my friend’s house and gathered up a package of documents from the lawyer: several copies of my contract, my facts to send to officials, and a letter to my employers. At night, I prayed for a long time. I asked God for strength, and read my handwritten statement one last time.
I escaped the next day: July 26, 2007. I woke up fresh because I was anxious, and can consider my stomach churning. I understood I had a short window of time, because the wife and daughter would return home at 4 p.m. I cleaned anything in the house by 1 p.m., then walked out and left my key in the door. I immediately called my friend on the cellphone and yelled, “I’m free!” I couldn’t believe it. We ate at a Chinese restaurant that afternoon—my first full meal in months. Another friend gathered me up that night.
For five years afterward, I kept silent about what happened, and avoided going out in public. My visa was expired, so I was undocumented, or what we call in Tagalog, tago nang tago, or TNT—“in hiding.” I lived in Queens and worked as a nanny and house cleaner. I was consistently scared around police, and constantly felt ashamed. In the Philippines, I was independent and understood everyone in my neighborhood. In the U.S., I had become isolated—a shadow of myself.
Eventually, over Damayan, a grassroots organization advocating for and led by Filipina domestic workers, I was able to get a T visa, that is a humanitarian visa for survivors of human trafficking. After I progressed to a head with Damayan and a board member, I was able to help other trafficking survivors and refer them to Damayan for free legal services. Four of my friends have already received their T visas over Damayan and their partner agency. Then, two years later, in 2015, my four children reunited with me in the U.S. Despite this, every day, I still consider the distance that had developed between us, as a result of nearly a decade of separation. As for the employers, because of diplomatic immunity, they left the country and were never prosecuted. I never got the money or the judge that was owed to me.
There is trafficking happening all around. Many workers from overseas have little advice about the situations they are getting into. They might receive a pamphlet but not grasp it. Or, the employer will hide it. They require to fathom contact information, and where they can get help if their employer takes their passport, withholds their pay, or if something else happens. I didn’t grasp that my situation can be considered trafficking. I thought I had to follow what the employers said, no matter what, because they were my bosses. If I had understood my rights, and the law, maybe stuff would have been different.
This facts was produced with assistance from the National Domestic Workers Alliance and its Beyond Survival campaign.