In the Know: A Survivor's Perspective

Survivor empowerment is the new hope

by Shandra Woworuntu

My story is not the story of sex trafficking most people imagine. But, more importantly, my experience and that of most survivors of human trafficking is one of a struggle to survive. And to do that successfully, most of us depend on public benefits. Once survivors are free, we need to get stable and sustainable long-term support. 

My nightmare began when I lost my job as a financial analyst and a manager of the treasury department of an international bank because of political turbulence and religious persecution. After responding to an advertisement for a job in a Chicago hotel, I checked the legal documents, paid the $3,000 recruiter fee, accepted the position, got the visa and flew to New York City. I entered the United States lawfully on a non-immigrant visa arranged through the recruiting agency. I was picked up at the airport by man affiliated with the recruiter. My passport and return ticket were removed; they changed my name; my live was threatened; and the situation was clear: I was being trafficked into the underground sex trade in America. My traffickers demanded $30,000 to release me from being a sex slave.

After being violently raped, I eventually managed to escape by jumping out a second floor bathroom window. Without money, shelter, or knowledge of where to go, survival was difficult. Finally, I met someone who connected me with law enforcement, and I received a referral to Safe Horizon -- victim assistance in New York City. I participated in the prosecution of my traffickers, and they were arrested and convicted.

I believe very strongly that we need stronger regulation of inter-government relations in combating human trafficking and also that the regulation of foreign labor recruitment would have prevented my nightmare in the first place and would save thousands more from a similar fate, because recruiters and contractors are directly involved in the trafficking and exploitation of workers. They make false promises about American jobs and charge workers high administration or recruitment fees that force workers to stay in abusive or exploitative working conditions under debt bondage.

One nightmare certainly ended, but another nightmare began. I didn’t receive enough services, and I tried my best to survive from homelessness and hunger. I didn’t have the financial resources to go back to my previous life. The language barrier, immigration hurdles and work permit barriers made it very challenging — if not impossible — to earn a living in New York City.

I believe my survival experience is quite typical of other survivors, and we need to improve services for survivors. In the months after I escaped, I stayed at a shelter, had no resources, very little money and insufficient food and clothing. I lived in poverty, and I could not work because of my immigration status.

While there were many organizations focused on human trafficking victims and survivors in India, Ghana, Cambodia, Mexico and the Philippines, there was very little support in the United States. Those organizations helped survivors with training, job readiness and the job searches.

We need to improve funding and services specific for health, education, training and employment assistance for trafficking survivors in America, because there are people in the United States who need help, too.

As a survivor of human trafficking, I am committed to empower other survivors. That was the reason I established Mentari, a nonprofit organization based in New York that provides mentorship and job training to survivors. I achieved my goal of establishing a culinary arts training center, where they receive training to prepare for the job market, so they can live independently without depending on public benefits. Currently, 31 survivors have received this training, and 29 of them have received employment through our program.

I hope the United States government will recognize the need to provide stable and sustainable support for survivors, including long-term housing. We also need to improve job training and job creation, so it will help prevent survivors from being re-trafficked, as well as protect all men and women who are vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking. I believe the United States, again, can and should be a leader in demonstrating best practices to the world.

The Justice Victim Trafficking Act was passed in 2015. Part of its implementation is the Survivor Empowerment Act, which create a survivor-led U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking to review federal government policy and programs on human trafficking. It is so important that survivors play a role in finding the solutions to end human trafficking and in helping the government understand how to provide survivors with the support they need. This legislation is a great step forward in the movement.

President Barrack Obama appointed 11 survivors to be members of the U.S. Advisory council on human trafficking in December 2015 and as a member, I work specifically on the Department of Labor. My passion is to see changes in this system to provide more opportunity to survivors to access the services, sample training, resume writing, job readiness and employment opportunities without discrimination. In addition, there will be a specific program for survivors.

The United States government agencies need to partner and collaborate with non-government organizations to do a better job to support survivors here at home so they can thrive and, ultimately, have a chance to live the real American dream.

I also want to see the funding which is already approved for law enforcement training released, so law enforcement can do a better job to tackle human trafficking cases. So far I don’t see much of this implementation. 

Shandra Woworuntu is a founder of Mentari Human Trafficking Survivor Empowerment Program, a member of the first U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking and an advocate for stronger federal and state policies to address trafficking. www.mentariusa.org

Shandra Woworuntu is a founder of Mentari Human Trafficking Survivor Empowerment Program, a member of the first U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking and an advocate for stronger federal and state policies to address trafficking. www.mentariusa.org