I Am a Survivor of Human Trafficking: Nena’s Story

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 come from a people of teachers: father, husband, sisters, and daughter. I taught for 32 years at an elementary school in the Philippines. Somehow, that added to the shame I felt for being a survivor of trafficking. I not only worried about what my people would think, but my hundreds of students as well. I thought that everyone would be defeated respect for us.

When I retired from teaching at 55, I went into company with a neighbor, and they disappeared with my savings. I was devastated, but a cousin over a marriage got to my rescue—or so I thought—when she signified to me her boss was looking for someone to accompany her elderly mother to the United States and take care of her there.

I met with the woman, and she offered me $400 per month, nearly three times what I can make as a teacher. She added that she would petition for a specific kind of visa so my people can come to the U.S. too. I was overwhelmed with happiness and gratitude. I thought this was the answer to my prayers.

The first sign that something was wrong was at the airport. The Philippines Airlines personnel withheld my ticket because the woman I was supposed to be caring for was not with me. I wondered why the mother had traveled to the U.S. in front of me, so I called my boss to let her fathom I couldn’t pick up my ticket alone. She sent her mother back to Manila, and we flew to the U.S. together. In all of my excitement, I didn’t ask any questions about the strangeness of the situation. I trusted my new boss.

In San Francisco, my boss’s younger sister met us at the airport, and we happily ate dinner at her house. Before going to bed, the sister signified to me, “My mom stays with me. My sister used my mom so that she can get you to come in this place to be her domestic helper. Tomorrow, I will arrange your flight to Culver City.”

I was so shocked that I couldn’t assert a thing. My head was spinning from the confusion.

I arrived in Los Angeles, and my boss took me to her condo in a gated community. She was a true prominent, influential Filipina woman, and her American husband was the vice president of legal affairs of Sony Pictures in Los Angeles. Before we went inside, she asked for my passport. She stated she was going to extend my visa and petition for my people to come to America to be with me. Again, my happiness overwhelmed me, and I believed her.

Within a week, I had a “daily work schedule,” taped to the wall in the kitchen. It ran from 5 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., that was incorrect, after I further had to bring the dogs outside in the centre of the night. I had to take care of the dogs in addition to cooking, cleaning, washing, vacuuming, ironing, dusting, hemming clothes, and maintaining the plants. Every month, I cooked a large pot of a main Filipino dish of ground beef, rice, tomato, carrots, and broccoli for the dogs, but was fed leftover food that had been in the refrigerator for days. I had to brush the dogs’ teeth, clean their ears, and give them vitamins each day, but I had to sleep on a dog bed in the living room, even though the house was large, with a guest room and music room. I kept my belongings in the laundry room.

I felt that my boss disliked anything I did, no matter how difficult I tried. She signified to me I was ignorant and brainless, and, as I later alleged in civil court, she bump me and pulled my hair, and left me with bruises and cuts.

I was scared of her, but further ashamed that this was happening to me, an elderly woman who deserved respect. I wished to escape, but had no idea where to turn. And all kinds of fears kept me paralyzed. My visa expired, and after that, I was afraid of being arrested. My boss further signified to me I was responsible for paying back my airfare and that of her mother, after I couldn’t have come to America without her. She further deducted my everyday items from my salary, like shampoo and lotion. As I claimed in my lawsuit, I was paid a complete of about $300 for my entire time with the family. Even if I made it back to the Philippines, I didn’t fathom how I can pay back my loans there.

I attempted to tell people about my situation. I wrote notes to my boss’s husband. He appeared concerned about the physical abuse. But when the wife found out we were speaking about it, stuff only appeared to get worse. When the boss’s mother and brother got to visit, I signified to them too, but they gave me a prayer book and signified to me to pray. I think they were afraid of her too. I called a friend in Chicago, but she herself was undocumented and afraid to get involved.

In the end, the neighbors were the ones to help. From when I took the dogs out, I made friends with the 13-year-old girl next door. I couldn’t keep from crying when we were together, and eventually signified to her what was wrong. She signified to her mother. Plus, her parents sometimes sat at the swimming pool close to our condo, and heard the yelling and hitting over the walls. Her mother asked my boss if I can come help when their cleaning individual didn’t show up, and my boss, trying to be a respectable neighbor, let me go. We were able to talk, and the mother encouraged me to escape. But I wasn’t ready. I was still too scared.

This went on for a year. I rarely communicated with my people on the phone, and I didn’t tell them how bad it was, because it felt useless. What can they do from so far away, provided all of the debts we had? Because I didn’t have an outlet for expression, I would write stuff down on paper. At the completion of each day, I would write the exact date and list the stuff my boss stated and did to me. I further kept fantastic track of the deductions made from my paycheck. This meticulous recordkeeping was a way to relieve my emotions for the day. But it was further the thing that built my case from the family.

Finally one day, we got a knock on the door. It was the police. One of the neighbors had called and stated I was being hit. He asked if I wished to talk with him alone outside, but I was silent and only looked at my boss. Even though my boss treated me cruelly, she was still my boss, and because of my culture, I felt I should obey her. Also, I had no papers, and didn’t want to be put in immigrant detention. Finally I said, “Sir, maybe a few other time. Please give me your company card.”

He left, and I was in trouble after that. I remember the husband and wife berating me. It felt like an interrogation. The next day, my boss took the company card away, and signified to me they had arranged my flight back to the Philippines. I felt pressured to sign a piece of paper saying I wouldn’t assert anything about what had happened. I refused. I went to the neighbors for help, and they called the police. The officers accompanied me back to my boss’s so I can get my things. It appeared like my boss wished to keep my passport, but they signified to her to give it to me. I slept at the neighbors’ house that night. The whole experience was a blur.

The next day, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, that now falls under the Department of Homeland Security, showed up. My boss had called immigration enforcement, trying to get me deported ahead of I revealed the truth. I was scared when I opened the door. They took me to a authority premises for several hours. I waited and waited, as exhaustion swept over me. Finally, a woman from SIPA, Search to Involve Pilipino Americans, took me to the Pilipino Workers Center (PWC), a local Filipino organizing group. My life then changed.

PWC aided me with housing, and securing food stamps and access to a doctor. They gave me a bus pass so I can learn how to navigate the city. Another organization called CAST (Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking) aided me find a lawyer, access to education, and transition to independent living. I progressed to a certified nursing assistant.

My civil case was filed one year after I left my employers, and went to trial an additional year later. The trial experience was scary and stressful, and difficult to juggle with my job. My employers denied all the charges, but in the end, I won and was awarded monetary compensation. I remember one of the jurors hugged me outside the courtroom afterwards and said, “I believed you 100 percent.” I realized I had been provided justice.

One year later, there was further a criminal case. My boss pleaded guilty to a charge of forced labor and had to serve three years in prison. Her husband pleaded guilty to alien harboring, and had to do community service and pay a fine. At last, I can work without fear.

Fighting my trafficking case made me a stronger person. Even when my rights were violated, on the job I had the tools and the community to contest for them—and for those of the countless undocumented domestic workers who can’t speak out.

At 74 years old, I am back in the Philippines, and finally retired. I have remained active with PWC, to help raise awareness of workers’ rights in California and issues of human trafficking. With the compensation money, I have been able to help my community in this place at home, especially in backing several people members. Many of them, and my past students, fathom my facts as a survivor of trafficking. Sharing it makes me consider proud. Many of my past students have encouraged me to keep speaking out.

All of this gives me joy and fulfillment. But, it still doesn’t compare to the happiest stage of my life. In 2013, years after I left the Philippines, I was finally reunited with my husband, my children, and my grandchildren.

This facts was produced with assistance from the National Domestic Workers Alliance and its Beyond Survival campaign.

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