My life isn’t what I’d imagined, but I’ve learned to smile again, says Shandra with Tania, 20, and Nick, 10.
By Brian Pacheco
June 11, 2018
For months, my friend Shandra Woworuntu was raped by traffickers and sex buyers.
One day, she saw a small window of hope in the bathroom of the Brooklyn brothel where she was being held. In secret, the Indonesia native quietly unscrewed the plywood from a window with a small spoon and jumped two stories to the ground. She imagined that when she told her story, she would be met with compassion, and would find help and support immediately. Instead, she says, one of the first times she sought help at a police station, she overheard an officer say, “I think she’s just a prostitute.”
Woworuntu says this disturbing stereotype of Asian women is pervasive.
“Many Americans think Asian women just come to the United States to work in a massage parlor and are prostitutes. They think we just come here for a green card, so they don’t help when we really need it,” she said.
Woworuntu eventually connected with Safe Horizon’s Anti-Trafficking Program and got help enrolling in ESL classes and securing refugee funds. She was able to reunite with her daughter.
This could have been the happy ending to her story, but Woworuntu faced many additional challenges as she tried to build a new life in the United States. In need of financial support after escaping human trafficking, she applied for food stamps. One of the workers said, in a patronizing tone, “Aw, you look so cute,” referring to her small stature. This presumably unwitting and unintentional condescension felt diminishing and dehumanizing, and Woworuntu responded, “Excuse me? I am not cute. I am not an animal. Cute is for animals.”
For Asian-Americans, this kind of treatment is all too common. The stereotype of Asians as harmless, obedient and submissive means they are often belittled or taken less seriously by those who are supposed to help them.
Then there is the model minority myth, a huge barrier for so many Asians who are victims of violence or abuse such as intimate partner violence. The model minority myth perpetuates the falsehood that all Asians are successful and well-off, and live perfect lives. Yet in New York City, Asian-Americans have the highest poverty rate of any ethnic group.
Asians ― particularly South Asians ― are often thought of as highly skilled immigrants. Doctors, dentists, and lawyers; individuals with means. This contributes to the stereotype that they can’t face violence at home, because the stereotype of abusive households doesn’t include well-off families. The assumption is that well-off women don’t “put up with” domestic abuse. Yet up to 55 percent of Asian women in the U.S. report experiencing intimate partner violence and/or sexual violence during their lifetime. Too often, we imagine intimate partner violence as a poor-people problem, but I have met CEOs, teachers, social workers and even an Olympic gold medalist who faced violence at the hands someone who was supposed to love them.
The model minority myth also drives a wedge between Asians and other communities of color, creating a false conflict that pits oppressed groups against each other. Racism affects all people of color, even though it affects groups differently. For example, stereotypes of Asians as defenseless or weak can make them targets for crime. Karlin Chan, a community activist in Manhattan’s Chinatown told NBC News last year that “perpetrators often stereotype Asians as immigrants who are unable to speak English. That makes them a target … as criminals assume they cannot communicate with law enforcement and thus won’t call police.”
In some cases, that may, unfortunately, be true. Immigration status can be a systemic barrier to safety. One out of every 7 Asians in America is undocumented. They are often living in the shadows and may be hesitant to report crimes to the police for fear of deportation.
Even those who are here legally feel the effects of social isolation. For example, many South Asian women who enter the U.S. on a dependent visa enter at the wish of their spouse, which means that their husbands control their ability to stay in the United States.
“Many of the women I’ve worked with are engineers in India, and can do better than their husband, but can’t work here legally in the U.S. and so rely financially on their husband,” says Manisha Shah, senior director for Safe Horizon and the NYPD’s Crime Victim Assistance Program. “I have worked with clients who were not sure of their immigration status and live in constant fear of the abuse.”
Language is another barrier that blocks Asian survivors of violence from the services that could help keep them safe. Because of the sheer diversity of Asian languages spoken in the United States ― Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Korean, Hindi, Bengali, Telugu, Panjabi, Gujarati and Urdu, to name just the most commonly spoken ones ― survivors can often struggle to find advocates who speak their language.
Woworuntu remembers her frustrating interaction with a translator who was supposed to be helping with her immigration case: “Even though I knew limited English, I knew he wasn’t translating correctly. He brushed me off as ‘not knowing English’ and didn’t listen to me.”
Language barriers can make it harder for survivors to get the services they need and deserve, like medical help, food stamps, shelter, and counseling. Sometimes, they give up altogether.
Eventually, despite the systemic barriers she faced, Woworuntu got the help she needed, but it took extraordinary strength and perseverance. Today, she’s the co-founder of an advocacy group for human trafficking survivors and a nonprofit organization that helps survivors find mentorship and job training to get back on their feet.
There is much to be learned from Woworuntu’s story. This includes the painful reality that survivors of violence who are Asian face unique barriers when they seek safety. To change that, individuals and institutions alike will need to shed their biases and stereotypes about Asians, and about domestic violence. That starts with making sure that all Asian survivors can make their voices heard ― and with listening.
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.”
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.
Shandra Woworuntu is a survivor of human trafficking who has translated her pain into powerful advocacy. She was originally a financial executive at an international bank in her native Indonesia. In 2001, political turbulence erupted, and she lost her job. Desperately needing income, Shandra responded to an advertisement for a job that promised a six month position in the hotel industry in Chicago, but when she arrived, she found out she had been lied to.
Shandra was sold and forced into an underworld of sex trafficking in New York and the surrounded areas. After many horrifying acts, she summoned the courage and escaped her traffickers by jumping out of a bathroom window in Brooklyn. After escaping, Shandra was homeless – she had no food, no money, little knowledge of English, and no way of finding support.
Shandra started to believe that she would never be able to find help until she met someone who took the time to connect her to law enforcement agents. They linked her to Safe Horizon’s Anti-Trafficking Program (ATP). The expert staff at ATP provided compassion and care to help her overcome the traumatic experience as well as guidance to rebuild her life.
Since then, Shandra helped create a survivor leadership program called “Voices of Hope” that is facilitated by Safe Horizon. She has raised global awareness of human trafficking by lobbying for policy changes and encouraging worldwide education. In 2014 she founded Mentari Human trafficking Survivor Empowerment Program Inc., a non-profit organization to help survivors reintegrate back into their communities.
In 2015 she helped Mentari establish a program in Indonesia that distributed five thousand copies of her educational book “Impian Dewi” (Dewi’s Dream) to educate children about human trafficking. Mentari Indonesia also partnered with local organizations to promote backyard farming to help eliminate poverty and prevent human trafficking.
President Barack Obama appointed Shandra to the United States Advisory Council on Human Trafficking. As a member of the Council, Shandra will play an integral role in providing recommendations to the U.S. Government to strengthen U.S. federal policy and programming efforts to help end human trafficking once and for all.