My life isn’t what I’d imagined, but I’ve learned to smile again, says Shandra with Tania, 20, and Nick, 10.
My day-to-day schedule isn’t much different from that of most other mothers. Each morning, I wake up my 10-year-old son, Nicholas, cook him breakfast, and put him on the bus to school. Then I read the news online and check my email. I might get a text or phone call from my daughter, Tania, who is 20, or chat with my mother, Theresia, who sometimes stays with Nick and me.
These days, I’m surrounded by people who love and care for me. A far cry from what I experienced when I first moved to the United States 15 years ago. Back then, I rarely saw daylight, ate a warm meal, or kept the money I made. That’s because I’d been forced into a life as a sex worker.
I grew up in Indonesia, and by the time I was 20, I had a good job as a financial analyst, a loving husband, and a young daughter, Tania.
In 1998, the Indonesian economy collapsed and I lost my job. Fires burned in the streets. Food became expensive and scarce. My husband and I separated, and when I was 23, he died of lung cancer. I worried about Tania’s future. She was only 3 years old, but I feared I wouldn’t be able to send her to college when the time came. My savings were worthless, and the job market was dismal—I knew I’d have to leave the country to find work.
One day I saw an ad in a newspaper for a contract job waiting tables at a hotel in the U.S. that paid $5, 000 a month. With money like that, Tania’s education would be more than covered, so I paid a $3, 000 recruitment fee up front, and in June 2001, a week before my 25th birthday, I boarded a plane for America.
When I landed at an airport in New York City, a Malaysian man named Johnny was there to meet me. He had seen my picture with my application. Five other girls and one young man had also arrived from Indonesia at about the same time to meet Johnny. He divided us into two groups—I was with two girls who were 15 and 17—and drove to a hotel. When we got there, I saw someone hand cash to Johnny. He told the three of us to move to another van. That night money kept changing hands, and we kept changing cars.
Eventually we were dropped off at another man’s house, and he locked us in a room. Later, he stormed in, yelling, “Naked! Naked!” He wanted us to undress. The other girls cowered behind me. I had learned a little English in school, and said, “No! Why?” He pointed a gun at my head.
As if to punish me for questioning him, the man led me at gunpoint to the garage and pushed me into a car. We drove to another house. I was terrified. A woman answered the door and pulled me inside to where a group of men sat on dirty couches. In that moment it clicked—I’d been sold into a sex trafficking ring. I closed my eyes and imagined Tania. I realized that if I ever wanted to see her again, I had to do what I was told.
That night I was sold to my first sex buyer. When I objected to his advances, he pushed and hit me. The more I screamed, the more he tried to hurt me.
In the morning a man took me back to the townhouse where the two other girls were staying. Johnny came in and said, “I’m so sorry about what happened to you.” He was kind and warm, and rubbed my back. I trusted him. He told me to give him my passport and plane ticket home for safekeeping.
Then he said he would take me to the store to get a uniform for work, but when we got there he led me to the lingerie section. I was humiliated. As we walked out of the store, one of the men put a gun to my back. I knew that if I tried to run he would shoot me.
My real name, Shandra, was too hard for the traffickers to remember and not sexy enough. They called me Candy. Every night we were trafficked from one brothel to another. Our skin grew pale from always moving in the dark. Sometimes we drove north on the interstate, stopping at brothels and motels along the way. A lot of these places looked normal on the outside, but inside they were like discos with flashing lights, loud music, mirrored balls, and lots of drugs—pot, cocaine, crack. Our traffickers forced us at gunpoint to take drugs so that we’d be too high to escape or fight back.
Often the traffickers would sneak us into a popular casino through the laundry room door and have us dress up like royalty, with makeup and high heels. When we weren’t with a sex buyer we’d be at blackjack tables. I thought about escaping all the time, but someone with a weapon was always watching us.
Our meals usually consisted of soup and rice, and the traffickers forced us to drink alcohol instead of water. Everywhere we stayed we were locked in our rooms from the outside, and the windows were boarded up with plywood.
The traffickers charged each buyer between $120 and $350 for 45 minutes with me, and I never saw any of the money. Sometimes the men would get violent. Afterward, I was escorted by gunpoint or knife to a room where another sex buyer waited.
I was sad and angry, but I couldn’t cry. I was numb. Every day, I prayed for strength. Each morning, I told myself, I have to get through today so I can see my daughter again.
From left: Shandra’s diary and business cards from groups that helped her; Shandra’s 2001 application photo; Shandra with a man who trafficked her.
One night in a brothel in Brooklyn, NY, several months into my ordeal, I secretly unscrewed the plywood from a window with a spoon, and the 15-year-old girl and I jumped two stories to the ground. I used money I had hidden in the lining of my purse to pay for a taxi to Manhattan.
A woman who worked with the traffickers had given me the phone number of a man to call if I was able to escape. She said he’d help me get a real job.
That night, I called the number and a man came to meet us the next morning. He bought us clothes and paid to have our hair and nails done. He fed us good meals. He got us rooms at a small hotel downtown. And he said he’d send money home to my daughter. Finally, I thought, I am safe.
A few days later, the man unlocked the door to the room where I was sleeping; he tried to touch me and kiss me, and said he wanted to marry me. “No!” I yelled. He got mad and told me a customer was waiting downstairs. “I’m not working for you, ” I said. He called Johnny and told him to come pick me up. I had been set up by the woman who gave me the phone number. The guy was just another trafficker.
But while he was on the phone, I saw an opportunity to escape. I ran out the door as fast as I could. It was cold outside, and I was wearing only shorts and a T-shirt. I begged people on the street for help. I went to the police station, churches, and the Indonesian consulate, but no one would help.
I used the little money I had brought from home and hidden in my purse to survive. For a few weeks, I slept outside. One night I collapsed crying in a park. A man wearing a Navy uniform approached and asked what was wrong. After I told him my story, he bought me some food and told me he’d come back the next day. When he returned, he asked me to come with him to the police station.
Two detectives questioned me for hours. I showed them my diary and a collection of matchbooks from the casinos where I was trafficked. I gave them the copies of my passport I’d made in Indonesia. When they were satisfied that my story was real, they drove me to a nearby brothel to identify the traffickers. Within minutes they led some men in handcuffs out the door. “Which one is Johnny?” they asked, as I peeked through a hole in a piece of paper on the car window. “That one, ” I said, pointing at him. I was so relieved when the two girls who had been trafficked with me came out unharmed.
For the next couple of weeks, the police would occasionally help us find a place to stay, but mostly we were homeless, sleeping on various forms of public transportation. I met with the police several times to review the case against my traffickers, and eventually I testified against Johnny and two other traffickers and they went to jail.
I was happy about that, but I still didn’t have the job I was promised. And I didn’t have my immigration papers or enough money to go home and see my daughter. I emailed my mother using coupons I found on tables at an Internet café. Whenever I found a quarter I used it to call Indonesia for one minute, just to hear Tania’s voice.
Finally, someone from the immigration department took me to Safe Horizon, a nonprofit victim assistance organization that also provides shelter. Safe Horizon sent me to ESL classes to learn more English, and eventually helped me secure refugee funds so I could rent a small room.
Through another organization’s training program, I got a job working with disabled children, and by September 2004, I’d saved enough money to bring Tania and my mother to New York City. It had been three years since I’d seen them. I met them at the airport and hugged Tania so tightly.
Reminders from the days I was trafficked still upset me—the ring of a traditional phone or the faces of men who resemble my traffickers. It’s been 15 years, but I still see a psychiatrist once a week and take medication for anxiety.
On May 20, 2014, Shandra spoke in support of bipartisan legislation to curb human trafficking.
My life now isn’t the one I’d dreamed of. But I have learned to smile again. I had Nicholas (his father and I divorced), and both of my children are happy and healthy.
I’ve testified before the Senate Foreign Relations committee on Ending Slavery and served on the U.S. Advisory Council on human trafficking. I’ve helped change laws so that what happened to me doesn’t happen to other women.
In 2014, I founded Mentari, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing human trafficking survivors with mentorship and job training to get them back on their feet. I am so happy to spend time and energy on their behalf.
Just as I had dreamed, Tania goes to college. For a long time I didn’t tell her about my experiences in the sex trade. I didn’t want her to feel responsible for what I went through. But as I began to talk about it publicly, I had to tell her. When I did, she said the words I needed to hear: “I love you, Mom. I’m so proud of you.”