By Shandra Woworuntu
March 30, 2016
I arrived in the United States in the first week of June, 2001. To me, America was a place of promise and opportunity. As I moved through immigration I felt excited to be in a new country, albeit one that felt strangely familiar from movies and TV.
After graduating with a degree in finance, I had worked for an international bank in Indonesia as an analyst and trader. But in 1998, Indonesia was hit by the Asian financial crisis, and the following year the country was thrown into political turmoil. I lost my job.
So to support my three-year-old daughter I started to look for work overseas. That was when I saw an ad in a newspaper for work in the hospitality industry in big hotels in the US, Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore. I picked the US, and applied.
I arrived at JFK with four other women and a man, and we were divided into two groups. Johnny took all my documents, including my passport, and led me to his car with two of the other women.
And just a few hours after my arrival in the US, I was forced to have sex.
The traffickers were Indonesian, Taiwanese, Malaysian Chinese and American. Only two of them spoke English – mostly, they would just use body language, shoves, and crude words. One thing that especially confused and terrified me that night, and that continued to weigh on me in the weeks that followed, was that one of the men had a police badge. To this day I don’t know if he was a real policeman.
They told me I owed them $30, 000 and I would pay off the debt $100 at a time by serving men. Over the following weeks and months, I was taken up and down Interstate 95, to different brothels, apartment buildings, hotels and casinos on the East Coast. I was rarely two days in the same place, and I never knew where I was or where I was going.
These brothels were like normal houses on the outside and discos on the inside, with flashing lights and loud music. Cocaine, crystal meth and weed were laid out on the tables. The traffickers made me take drugs at gunpoint, and maybe it helped make it all bearable. Day and night, I just drank beer and whisky because that’s all that was on offer. I had no idea that you could drink the tap water in America.
Twenty-four hours a day, we girls would sit around, completely naked, waiting for customers to come in. If no-one came then we might sleep a little, though never in a bed. But the quiet times were also when the traffickers themselves would rape us. So we had to stay alert. Nothing was predictable.
Then, one day, I was taken to the brothel in Brooklyn where I had arrived on my first day in the US. I was with a 15-year-old Indonesian girl I’ll call Nina, who had become a friend. She was a sweet, beautiful girl. And she was spirited – on one occasion she refused to do as she was told, and a trafficker roughly twisted her hand, causing her to scream.
Not long afterwards, I went to the bathroom and saw a small window. It was screwed shut, but Nina and I turned all the taps on loud, and, my hands shaking, I used a spoon to unscrew the bracket as quickly as I could. Then we climbed through the window and jumped down on the other side.
One day, in Grand Ferry Park in Williamsburg, a man called Eddy bought me some food. He was from Ohio, a sailor on holiday. “Come back tomorrow at noon, ” he said, after I had gone through my tale.
When he finally came, he told me he had made some calls on my behalf. He had spoken to the FBI, and the FBI had phoned the police precinct. We were to go that minute to the station, where the officers would try to help me.
I can enjoy it now, but at the time I was very tense, and worried that the police would enter the building and find that nothing was happening there that night. Would they think I was lying? Would I go to jail, instead of my persecutors?
A police officer dressed as a customer pressed the buzzer to the brothel. I saw Johnny appear in the doorway, and, after a brief discussion, swing open the metal grille. He was instantly forced back into the blackness. Within seconds, the whole team of police had swept up the steps and into the building. Not a single shot was fired.
Johnny was charged and eventually convicted, as were two other men who were caught in the following days. I still needed support, though, and an opportunity to heal.
The FBI connected me with Safe Horizon, an organization in New York that helps victims of crime and abuse, including survivors of human trafficking. They helped me to stay in the United States legally, provided me with shelter and connected me with resources to get a job.
In Indonesia, the traffickers came looking for me at my mother’s house, and she and my daughter had to go into hiding. Those men were looking for me for a long time. So great was the danger to my daughter that eventually the US government and Safe Horizon made it possible for her to join me in America. We were finally reunited in 2004.
I am still close friends with Nina, who recently turned 30. And for years, I had a phone number for Eddy, the man who spoke to the FBI on my behalf, when I was desperate.
In 2014, around Christmas, I dialled the number. I was going to tell him about everything that had happened to me, but he cut me off, saying, “I know it all. I followed the news. I am so glad for you, that you have made a life for yourself.”
Then he said, “Don’t even think about saying thank you to me – you have done it all yourself.”
But I would like to thank you, Eddy, for listening to my story that day in the park, and helping me start my life again.