"Desi* survived sex trafficking, rape, refugee status and family violence in the United States and civil unrest in her home country.
At just 17 years old, and in the U.S. as a legal refugee from the sub-Saharan west coast of Africa, sex traffickers exploited Desi.
Her trafficker was an American citizen; an African-American adult male. He used his girlfriend to recruit young women he could sell. The woman found Desi at a local braiding salon and offered her a place to live.
The place happened to be an expensive high-rise condo in an affluent section of Atlanta.
Once there, things changed. Desi was told she owed them money. They physically abused her and threatened to kill her. The recruiter posted sex advertisements for Desi on the classifieds section of an adult website. For seven months, the physical beatings, verbal, mental and emotional abuse continued. The sex trafficker held a gun on Desi while he raped her.
Desi was living in a hell.
Eventually, she accidentally walked into a local law enforcement sting operation while on an outcall at an upscale hotel in Atlanta. They arrested her despite her juvenile status. One of the girls in jail knew Desi and notified a non-government organization that contacted U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations. We got her housing, social services and medical assistance.
Desi did a phenomenal job as a witness against her trafficker; he was put away and the recruiter was also charged.
Desi has thrived since coming out of trafficking. She is in college for nursing and has a full time job. Desi is one of the strongest young women I’ve met in the 12 years I’ve worked with trafficking survivors. She is now a trafficking advocate and speaks publicly about the issue.
She tells other people where to go for help.”
– Alia El-Sawi, victim assistance specialist, Homeland Security Investigations, Atlanta, Georgia
Listen to and watch Deanna “Dede” Wallace, victim assistance specialist, tell the story of Sarah:
“I have interviewed thousands of minor victims of sexual abuse and exploitation but an eight-year-old boy named Gabe comes to mind specifically.
I met Gabe at the Dayton, Ohio, Child Advocacy Center. At the Center, we have crayons but there are also out-of-sight closed circuit cameras and double sided mirrors so the interview can be recorded and observed. The environment is supposed to make children feel comfortable, a difficult task since this room is where they must discuss the details of their sexual abuse.
Gabe suffered physical abuse by his mother’s boyfriend and four years later was exploited online by a predator posing as a young teenage girl.
Gabe thought he was ‘talking’ to a teenage girl online; it was actually a 36-year-old man trying to solicit photographs of young boys. A forensic interview was needed for identification purposes.
Children such as Gabe, who have been sexually abused and have confusion about sexuality, are especially vulnerable to online predators.
During the interview, Gabe spoke about the online exploitation and disclosed needed information regarding the target, but when I asked about any prior sexual abuse he became visibly shaken and said he could 'not tell me anything' because he had never told anyone and planned to keep that secret 'forever.'
I built rapport with him and eventually he did tell me about sexual abuse by the same boyfriend his mother had when he was young, and had remained with, even during a custody battle while losing him and his younger brother to the father. In addition to the covert sexual abuse, the boyfriend threatened him and forced him to sexually abuse his younger brother with a belt around his neck.
Because of Gabe’s work in the interview, the prosecutor filed charges against the boyfriend.
The prosecution was very grateful to ICE Homeland Security Investigations for the coordinated effort and forensic interview that addressed Gabe’s online victimization and gave him the opportunity to talk about his sexual abuse. Gabe, and his brother, received counseling and follow-up services through the local child advocacy center where the interview took place."
– Amy S. Allen, forensic interview specialist, Homeland Security Investigations, Detroit, Michigan
Listen to Amy S. Allen, forensic interview specialist, tell the story of Gwen:
“Vickki grew up in a country club neighborhood with parents who taught her how to smoke marijuana.
A talented young artist who won a full scholarship to art school, she began to lose her way during her late teenage years. As her drug use progressed, she had relationships with abusive and possessive boys and became pregnant.
After her mother took custody of her son, she ceased caring about what happened to her.
She met a guy who became her sex trafficker. Her attitude was, ‘at least he will take care of me.’ He controlled her with drugs, torture and mind games. It led to an addiction to heroin and years spent in and out of jail.
Homeland Security Investigations heard about her from a connection on the street and she was subpoenaed for a case brought against her trafficker. I had heard of her reputation of being a very hardened person. We had little hope she would cooperate with our case. She was very scared of her trafficker and refused to go in front of the grand jury. She was arrested for failure to appear and assigned counsel.
It took a real team effort to arrange a meeting with her. Homeland Security Investigations, the U.S. Attorneys and local law enforcement worked together to get her to the interview.
My first impression was of a woman who was beaten down emotionally and physically. Her face was sallow. She had hit bottom.
Vickki was done.
At first she was really guarded. She told me everything I was offering seemed too good to be true. As I met with her and the defense attorney, she slowly began to trust us and open up about her life and what she wanted for her future.
In the beginning, she could not make the connection that she was being exploited.
Together, we found the best human-trafficking-specific recovery program for her needs. She told me she was ‘placing her recovery’ in my hands. Eventually, she graduated from an out-of-state program, began a full-time job and is working to regain custody of her son. The leap of faith she took with our team has been rewarded. Her bravery is an inspiration.
Vickki energized me to keep going and learn more about how to help others.”
– Deanna “Dede” Wallace, victim assistance specialist, Homeland Security Investigations, Washington, D.C.
“The Rwandan war criminal had one job; she decided who lived and who died.
Later, she found refuge in the United States – but not for long.
The Victim Assistance Program became involved when 26 witnesses from Rwanda came to the U.S. to testify against the war criminal. My job was to take care of this group of vulnerable people and prepare them to be strong witnesses in court.
The Rwandan witnesses arrived in New Hampshire in the middle of winter and were not prepared for the bitter cold of New England. Most of them had never seen snow and many arrived in flip-flops and shorts! After putting out a call for help on Facebook, I was able to gather winter gear for everyone and collected coats, hats, gloves, scarves, pants and boots.
Some of our visitors had health concerns that couldn’t wait until after trial. One witness had to be hospitalized with possible tuberculosis. In order to make sure the other witnesses were not infected, we worked closely with the Concord Hospital and the New Hampshire Department of Public Health. We also provided the witnesses with transportation to the courthouse to testify each day.
In the end, the war criminal was convicted of falsifying government paperwork for her citizenship here, was sentenced to prison time and ordered deported back to Rwanda, after her sentence was served, to face trial for war crimes in Rwanda.
The courage these people showed had a huge impact on me.
They came here with complete trust in us and with no objective but to tell the truth of the Rwandan genocide that they witnessed. By providing friendship, warm clothes and basic needs, we were able to build a trust that aided in convicting a war criminal.”
– Peter DiMarzio, victim assistance specialist, Homeland Security Investigations, Boston, Massachusetts
Listen to Peter DiMarzio, victim assistance specialist, tell the story of Millicent:
* In order to preserve anonymity, pseudonyms have been used in place of victims’ names.