Right now, "G" is probably somewhere smiling. She does so every day now. As G describes it, it's the best medication there is. But it was not so long ago that she had no reason to smile. For nearly five years she endured abuse and betrayal by those she trusted. She was a victim of human trafficking.
G (a pseudonym) is a 26-year-old Michigan resident who was forced into a horrendous situation that left her physically wounded and – five years later – still leaves her hesitant to fully open up and trust anyone – even those closest to her.
G's story began when she was a college student in Togo, West Africa. During this time, her father was in involved in an accident that resulted in him having to go through several procedures at various hospitals and left their family financially ruined. In the midst of their financial crisis, her father received a call from a cousin living in the United States extending the invitation for G to come live with him. The cousin, "Joe," (a pseudonym) assured G and her father that she would be able to continue school once she arrived.
"I thought was as long as I could finish school, I would be fine," G said.
With January being set aside for National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, ICE is serious about taking the necessary steps to end the crime. ICE relies on tips from the public to dismantle these individuals and organizations who exploit their victims and encourages education and awareness as part of the process to bring an end to this modern-day form of slavery.
Unlike many victims of human trafficking who are recruited for their services through force, fraud or coercion, G willingly immigrated to the United States with a Togolese passport under a different name and false documents with someone whom she believed to be a trusted family member. There was no indication that he had ulterior motives. What initially appeared to be a kind gesture to help her family out in their time of need turned into a living nightmare for G.
Just six months after arriving in Michigan, things begin to change as Joe became increasingly more aggressive and abusive. According to G, three other children were brought into the home, along with a "girlfriend" to form the appearance to the outside world of a functional, everyday family. But they were not allowed to tell anyone about their real living situation at home. What went on in the home was nothing short of terrifying. Joe gave them all passports with false names and dates of birth that showed they were his biological children.
"He pretty much put us through hell," G said. "There were days where we didn't even get to eat and were given tasks that were impossible to do."
Joe tasked G with housecleaning and cooking. She would wake up at 4:30 a.m. to start the household chores such as dusting before going to school. When she would get home from school, she would have to start cooking. Not only did she have to do chores for Joe, but his friends as well.
"On the weekends, we would have to take Joe and his girlfriend's cars apart and power wash the seats, both inside and the out, until they were spotless," G recalls.
In another case, one time she left the TV on while she was in the kitchen cooking and this small act of forgetfulness angered Joe so much he beat G with an ice scraper. That was G's reality for five years.
The isolation, heavy workload, abuse and sexual advances from Joe that forced her to wear layers of clothes as a defense mechanism to cover her body became a norm that she thought she would never escape. But she did.
"One day he came home really drunk and started asking me about my school work and I refused to answer," G said. "When I refused to answer him, he started to slap me with his bare hands and kicked me out that night."
As fate would have it, after her escape, the family who took G in knew about her. Joe had spoken to the family about G, but had only heard the false stories about why she had come to the United States.
"Joe told the family I'm now staying with that he needed their help to bring his wife and four children to the United States because of genocide in Togo," G said. "He told them I was part of his family that was in great danger. They actually gave him money for my plane ticket."
Joe was arrested in 2011 ICE agents raided his home and charged with enslaving four children in his home. In 2013, he was convicted and sentenced to 11 ¼ years in federal prison. G had to testify at the trial.
"It was really terrifying. I never thought I'd see him again," G said. "It was the worst thing someone could have to go through. To have to live that pain again was a struggle."
The transition back to normalcy for G was a long process and in many ways, that process continues today.
To the public, victims of human trafficking like G often go unnoticed as they are voiceless and scared because, in a blink of an eye, they are without the control of their possessions, money and have found themselves in an unfamiliar culture without identification documents and are afraid for their safety and the lives of their families.
According to Sharon Peyus, ICE Homeland Security Investigations' (HSI) Victim Assistance Program and Management Oversight Unit Chief, everyone has a role to play in combatting human trafficking, including school teachers, neighbors or local business owners. Knowing the red flags is a key step in identifying victims and helping them find the assistance they need.
For those who have experienced human trafficking, G has advice from someone who's lived it.
"Be careful with whom to trust and who you call your family," G recommends.
G makes a point of doing her best to look forward and not to look back. However, nearly four years later, there's not a day that goes by that G doesn't think about her five-year nightmare. Only now, instead of living in fear and wondering how she's going to make it from one day to the next, she's living her life free. And she is walking around with a smile on her face.