Forced Labor

Michigan organizations join the battle against human trafficking.
Illustration by Joseph Daniel Fiedler

The recent kidnapping and threatened sale of Nigerian schoolgirls raised awareness of the market for buying and selling people. But here in Michigan, we don’t need to cross the globe to find human trafficking victims.

Adina (not her real name) is happily married and works as an office cleaner in Detroit. But the journey to Michigan was harrowing.
In 2007, Adina was 25 years old when she left her native Ethiopia for Lebanon, a common destination for those needing work. She signed with an agency to become a domestic worker for $150 a month. Her first placement didn’t work out; the woman would only pay $100, then returned her to the agency without paying her at all. Adina was locked in a dark room with a half-dozen others to await a new job.
“We don’t know each other; we don’t speak the same language,” she says. “There was no food, sometimes some water. You couldn’t see nobody.”
After a week, a family hired Adina to cook, clean, and take care of one of three children, a 17-year-old boy with developmental disabilities. “I did everything for him, like a nurse,” she says. “Sometimes I don’t sleep for two days because the boy’s crying all night. I give him a shower, change his diaper, everything.” At times the boy acted out violently.
Adina slept in a bathroom that was too small to even stretch her legs. “I cry a lot,” she says. “Because I don’t sleep, I have a headache every day.”
Adina had landed unwittingly in the web of human trafficking, where people are forced to work in brutal conditions for little or no pay. The family she worked for sent Adina’s payment directly to her mother, so she never had money of her own.
At the same time Adina was captive, a group of Michigan law enforcement officials met at the behest of Jane White, a criminal justice professor. “I had read an article in The New York Times about trafficking in the United States … I was totally shocked,” she says. “About 20 people came together (in 2008) and talked for three hours.
“Everyone had had very similar types of experiences but we didn’t recognize it as trafficking,” she says. A sheriff’s association member shared a story about a prostitute he arrested, who told him she was 19 and was bonded out by her pimp. He later learned that she was 15. Telling the story, he realized she was a trafficking victim and began to cry.
That meeting grew into the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force, a collaborative effort of 90 nonprofit, governmental, and law enforcement agencies, directed by White at Michigan State University. They work to raise awareness; support prosecution; and identify and help victims.
The University of Michigan Human Trafficking Clinic, founded in 2009, is also a member. Of its 70 cases, about half are children and about one-third are domestic victims; most have been trafficked for labor, but some have been trafficked for sex.
Attorney Bridgette Carr had been running a legal clinic for asylum-seekers when she was asked in 2007 to represent four women who’d been exploited at the Cheetah’s On The Strip club on Eight Mile Road in Detroit. It was the state’s first federal trafficking case.
“We need to change the conversation,” Carr says. “In a world where we talk about prostitution as subhuman, traffickers win. The commonality among all victims is a vulnerability that traffickers identify and know how to exploit,” she adds. “That’s often poverty, and limited access to education and better jobs.”
Carr notes that traffickers come in all shapes and sizes. Some may be members of organized crime networks. Others are pimps with a couple of girls. Some are wealthy individuals with a slave in their house.
Fighting human trafficking has to happen at the state level, because it regulates prostitution and the child welfare systems, Carr says. “We need changes that say if you encounter someone under 18 working as a prostitute, they must be treated as a victim. Put them on a path into the child welfare system.”
Washtenaw County has established a human trafficking court; everyone arrested for prostitution is screened as a potential victim.
Once identified, trafficking victims need an array of services. Organizations such as Jewish Family Service of Metropolitan Detroit help victims with counseling, transportation, and more.
Such organizations, and the bravery of regular people, ultimately helped Adina. After nearly two years in Lebanon, the family she worked for brought her with them on a visit to Dearborn. One day, her captor’s brother told her he had an Ethiopian friend and asked if she’d like to speak to him.
“When I get the phone, I don’t even say ‘Hi.’ I say, ‘Help me,’ ” she says. Speaking in their native Amharic, he gave her a phone number. The next time she was able to use a phone, she reached a local Ethiopian named Miriam (not her real name), who asked Adina when she could come get her.
Adina chose a day when she knew everyone but the 16-year-old daughter would be gone. She asked to have a phone left with her in case something should happen while she was alone with the girl. Shortly after departing, the wife called and told Adina to go to her sister’s house down the street.
“I told the girl, ‘I’m going to your auntie’s,’ ” Adina says. “Then I took the phone, I put it in my pocket, and I start running. Almost 20 minutes I ran, until I find Target. I hide … and call Miriam.”
With Miriam’s help, the Human Trafficking Clinic agreed to provide Adina with legal aid and referred her to Freedom House, a nonprofit in Detroit.
Today, Adina wants to make sure others like her aren’t neglected. “We are human beings,” she says. “We were working hard. People have to know.” “Because sometimes, we can get help.”

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