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Trafficking victim speaks out

Claire Reising | Tuesday, November 6, 2007

When she traveled from Ukraine to the U.S. three years ago, the woman known for her safety as “Katya” planned to study and work. Instead, she was forced into bonded labor at a strip club for six days a week and 12 hours per day. She had no contact with the outside world for months.

“We didn’t have any rights,” she said.

Katya told her story yesterday at “Bought and Sold: Human Trafficking and Bonded Labor in the U.S.,” a Center for Social Concerns symposium held in the Notre Dame Law School courtroom.

The symposium also featured Notre Dame law professor Bridgette Carr, Angus Lowe, senior special agent of U.S. Immigration and Customs, and junior Katherine Dunn, who has encountered human trafficking victims during service-learning internships.

Katya’s testimony recounted how a Ukrainian acquaintance tricked her into leaving Virginia Beach, where she was working, and going with him to Detroit, where two men enslaved her. She said the men took away her legal documents and passport and claimed she owed them thousands of dollars for travel. At age 19, her life consisted of working at Cheetah’s strip club and enduring abuse from her captors.

“Many times they screamed at us. They beat us,” Katya said. “It was really scary. I never saw my mom for three years. For me, it was really hard because at that point, I was only 19.”

Months later, Katya and another victim she lived with managed to escape when a patron of the strip club contacted Lowe and helped the women escape to a hotel

“The first hours when I ran away were the scariest hours of my life,” Katya said.

Carr explained that the fear human trafficking victims experience also inhibits them from trying to escape.

The speakers told the story of a woman who escaped from Katya’s captors. The men reacted by having an accomplice attempt to firebomb her car.

“They thought thoroughly through how they would psychologically terrorize these women so they would never think of escaping,” Carr said.

Lowe, who helped prosecute Katya’s case, explained that the father of one of the criminals managed Eastern European women at a club in Athens, and his son, “Alex,” started a similar system in the U.S. Alex used several of his father’s techniques, such as sexual assault, arbitrary debt and brandishing of weapons.

“He liked to point guns at women,” Lowe said.

Lowe said Alex was sentenced to 14 years in prison, and his partner, “Mike,” will serve seven and a half years. Alex’s father is still at large in the Ukraine.

Katya said she will fear these men after they leave prison, especially since her mother is still living in the Ukraine.

“I’m scared that when he gets out, he’ll try to do something,” she said.

Katya continues to fight human trafficking and has testified before a House Judiciary Committee that is working to reauthorize the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000. Carr said some Congress members have not supported a provision of the bill that would allow family members of victims to come to the U.S. They believe it would give people an incentive to allow themselves to be trafficked, she said.

“I don’t buy [the opposition],” Carr said. “I think that it’s quite a stretch to say that you will be a slave, hope that you can escape, hope that you will run into a law enforcement person like Angus, hope that you can escape before you’re killed and hope that you can bring your family in.”

Although women are often used for prostitution or sexual tourism, Rachel Tomas Morgan, director of international service learning and justice education at the Center for Social Concerns, said human trafficking is not just a women’s issue.

“It is a violation of human rights,” Morgan said.

Ordinary citizens can help solve human trafficking cases by learning how to recognize these situations and reporting them to officials, Carr said.

In Katya’s case, Lowe explained that most workers and patrons at the strip club ignored that she was working six days a week for 12 hours a day, until the patron who rescued her contacted officials.

“[Ordinary] people call the right law enforcement officers, who can help people like Katya,” Carr said.

Dunn has encountered human trafficking victims through summer service learning programs in Memphis and Bangkok. While serving in a homeless shelter in Tennessee, she befriended a human trafficking victim from Africa, whose father and uncle took her identification and subjected her to forced labor.

“She was abused in every way possible,” Dunn said.

Dunn also emphasized communities’ responsibility to stop human trafficking because communities, particularly those in developing countries, profit from victims.

“The whole community is in on it,” she said after the panel. “The whole town makes money off of it because if you have sex tourism, more people will stay at hotels.”

Morgan said Notre Dame will continue to raise awareness of human trafficking.

The Family Justice Center and Bridgette Carr plan to continue conversations with medical workers and legal professionals to consider training people to identify victims of human trafficking in the community, Morgan said.

CSC Executive Director Father William Lies introduced the panel, part of the CSC’s 25th anniversary theme of solidarity.

“We believe this event captures the kind of collaboration that is needed to effectively do justice,” he said.