Stopping human trafficking: Haunted by her past, Jewish woman advocates for other victims

The flashbacks never stop for Sandra.

Any number of things — hurtful words, a misogynistic comment, news stories about rape being used as a weapon of war in Darfur — can trigger the horrific memories of being sold for sex by a male relative.

What began in her childhood as sexual abuse masked as playful, almost loving intentions gradually escalated into rape, as her abuser offered Sandra to his friends in exchange for money and power in a rough neighborhood where their household was the only Jewish one for miles.

“I strongly believe there’s a myth in the Jewish community that these things don’t happen,” Sandra said. “That in an intact Jewish family, trafficking is unheard of.”

“Sandra” is not her real name. It was inspired by an older woman who shared her story of being trafficked at last month’s kickoff event for the San Francisco Collaborative Against Human Trafficking, a coalition of nonprofits and government agencies committed to ending human trafficking through education, advocacy, outreach and support for survivors like Sandra.

To protect her safety, Sandra (a pseudonym) would not divulge her real name, age or where she lives.

She is one of an unknown number of Jewish women who are victims of human trafficking, defined as the practice of people being tricked, lured or coerced into working for no or low payment, or on terms that are highly exploitative.

Victims can be used in a variety of situations, including prostitution, forced labor and other forms of involuntary servitude.

The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that roughly 200,000 U.S. citizens — mainly women and children — face a high risk of being trafficked throughout the country for sexual purposes.

Next to drugs and arms dealing, human trafficking is the world’s most organized, lucrative crime, according to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime. Subsequently, many dealers have become involved in human trafficking.

“You can only sell drugs or a weapon once,” said Nancy Goldberg, co-chair of the S.F. Collaborative Against Human Trafficking and board vice president of the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services. “But you can sell a girl or boy 15 to 40 times a night.”

In the past 10 years, the S.F.-based JFCS has seen many cases involving sex trafficking and domestic servitude, mostly with female victims, according to JFCS Executive Director Anita Friedman.

Though she could not provide a figure for the number of clients, Friedman said her organization has seen examples of these cases in its domestic violence, legal and immigration work.

In Sandra’s case, the abuser started selling her to his friends when she was just 9 years old.

To mentally escape the pain she endured, Sandra disassociated from the abuse, allowing her mind to transport her to a world of fantasy.

“I pictured a different life,” Sandra said. “I was able to build a house in my mind and decorate it. Of course it always had animals in it. Then I would go into this fantasy of an orphanage where I would be this loving mother figure for all of these children who I saved.

“I did so much for others in this fantasy that I couldn’t do for myself.”

Because of the abuse, Sandra had no idea what a normal childhood was supposed be like. She had friends, but they lived in other neighborhoods and weren’t aware of what was going on. And she couldn’t confide in them about the trafficking — her abuser convinced her that no one would understand.

There were no extracurricular activities — “It was go to school, come home and help in the house. That was what females did,” Sandra said.

Although she couldn’t really articulate what was going on, Sandra did seek help from her family in stopping the abuse. But they ignored her. They had no idea about the trafficking.

“I have an aunt who laughed about one of the times my mother was going off to work and leaving me with the abuser. I said, ‘If you leave me I’m going to kill myself.’ I was about 10,” Sandra said.

“She thought that was so funny for a 10-year-old to say. That I was so dramatic. Obviously, I was feeling something before I felt comfortable to say anything.”

When Sandra was 11, she met the first Jew outside of her relatives. The young woman, a student teacher in Sandra’s classroom, would go on to rescue her from five years of sexual servitude.

Sandra said she knew “consciously and unconsciously” that she had to stop what was happening to her. So one day Sandra approached her student teacher after school, sat down and blurted out every horrific detail of being sold for sex.

Throughout the conversation, Sandra’s body was numb. She heard her own voice speaking, but it was as if it were coming from somewhere else.

“In my naïveté, I thought ‘oh she’s Jewish, I’m Jewish, and she can help me,’ ” Sandra recalled. “I’m sure I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe what was happening, but she got it. I remember the expression on her face. It was shock and horror.”

Sandra’s teacher came home with her that day. Sandra was scared and beginning to regret their conversation. She remembers nothing as her teacher knocked on the front door and proceeded to talk with her mother.

“It was as if I had no hearing whatsoever,” said Sandra, who today calls her teacher one of the bravest people she’s ever met. “It’s as if I went deaf, so I don’t remember what she said. But as [my teacher] got up and left, I remember the look on my mother’s face. It was more anger than anything.”

Following the confrontation, Sandra’s mother asked why she had taken the situation out of the family.

“Even though we were isolated, without a Jewish community, there was still that sense of shame,” Sandra said.

To this day, Sandra has no idea was what said between her mother and her abuser, but the sexual abuse stopped almost immediately. That’s when the verbal and physical abuse began.

When Sandra was 12, her family moved to a larger community, one with many Jewish families. Although the trafficking had stopped, the family member who had sold her continued to physically abuse her, mostly because he felt betrayed, she said.

He called her fat, ugly and stupid. And she believed him. As a teenager, Sandra’s mind occasionally turned to thoughts of suicide. Those thoughts still weave in and out of her mind today.

As she got older, Sandra said, it was “easy to just shut down and go on with life.”

She added, “I’m cheerful, outgoing and funny. I blended into society on a certain level. But there’s always a part of me that feels I don’t fit in. That stigma’s still there, like a scarlet letter.”

Her abuser was not punished and remains a revered member of the family. No one sought help for Sandra, and she never spoke of the trafficking to anyone until she was married and became a mother. When her children were young adults, she told them of the abuse.

Sandra’s husband provided emotional support, and she finally was able to receive therapy, though she found it extremely difficult to trust anyone.

After starting therapy, Sandra confronted her mother about why she hadn’t been as protective of Sandra as she should have been.

“She said, ‘Why are you bringing this up now? You’re married, aren’t you happy?’ I guess, as many women of that generation thought, marriage erases all.”

Today Sandra is an advocate and a voice for women who are victims of human trafficking. She has a good life, she said, in spite of a past that haunts her.

“My life will not be defined by what happened to me,” Sandra said. “I’m what I do with my life today.”

Related: Why is trafficking a Jewish issue?



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