Afong means strength

[Here is a sneak peek at the Preface to my book manuscript on trafficked children]

It was a crisp fall afternoon in 2013. I was waiting in front of the Silver Diner in suburban Maryland to meet Evelyn. Several years older than when I first interviewed her, Evelyn has not lost her exuberance. Pushing her 10-month old son in a stroller to the restaurant where we planned to have a late lunch, Evelyn smiled and waved as soon as she spotted me. With one hand holding onto the baby’s carriage, she used her other arm to envelop me in a warm hug.

Evelyn is a survivor of domestic servitude. For two years she lived in her trafficker’s house in Greenbelt, Maryland, completely isolated from outside contact: she was not permitted to speak with her family or even answer the door. She was not allowed to go to school. In 1995, Evelyn’s mother and uncle sold her to Theresa Mubang, an acquaintance of Evelyn’s maternal uncle, to settle an old land dispute in Cameroon. Mubang brought Evelyn to the United States when she was barely 10 years old. Mubang, a naturalized US citizen, traveled on an American passport, but Evelyn used fraudulent documents to cross international borders. Evelyn thought she was coming to the U.S. to fulfill her childhood dream of attending an American school, but the reality was different from the life she imagined watching The Cosby Show and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Instead of the idyllic life of hopping on a school bus every morning, learning English, and making new friends, Evelyn had been forced to care for Mubang’s young children around-the-clock and perform never-ending household chores. When she was allowed to rest, she slept on the floor. If her cleaning was not up to Mubang’s standards, Evelyn was beaten with an extension cord or locked up in a basement without food. Mubang’s son urinated on Evelyn regularly to humiliate her. When she tired of beating Evelyn, her captor scratched the girl. If ever there was a poster child for a trafficked minor, Evelyn is it.

Evelyn’s body testifies to the physical violence she had endured: she has scars and burns to remind her of the ordeal. A decade after she escaped, Evelyn still gets emotional recounting not just the scars on her body, but also the verbal abuse Mubang wielded as skillfully as the rod used to discipline Evelyn. However, the insults, the cruelty, and the violence did not squash Evelyn’s spirit. Throughout her ordeal Evelyn refused to give up. She persisted, day by day, with a defiantly hopeful outlook and a head held high.

When the opportunity arose, Evelyn escaped. She found help, first from a distant relative and then from the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LIRS). In 2003, when Evelyn was nearing her 13th birthday, the U.S. federal government officially recognized Evelyn as a trafficked child. She was now eligible for federally funded assistance to victims of child trafficking—help was on its way. Evelyn is grateful to LIRS, to her foster “auntie”, and first and foremost to her pro bono attorney, Melanie Orhant. With Orhant’s expert legal assistance, Evelyn received a special visa for victims of trafficking (T-Visa) allowing her to stay in the country, be placed in foster care, and attend school. Throughout this lengthy process, Evelyn observed Orhant, at the time a managing attorney for the Break the Chain Campaign, helping other victims rebuild their lives in America. Melanie’s passion and dedication inspired Evelyn. During our first interview in 2006, Evelyn told me she wanted to be like Melanie: advocate on behalf of trafficked victims, participate in anti-trafficking activities, and lead support groups for survivors. Truth be told, I was a bit skeptical about her ability to accomplish her goals. Evelyn has proven me wrong; she has achieved her dream of becoming a self-described “activist against modern day slavery.” Evelyn speaks at events for Break the Chains Campaign and collaborates with Survivors of Slavery, a non-profit organization, which, ”supports survivors of modern slavery who want to lend their voice to the 21st century abolitionist movement.” Recently, Evelyn went on a retreat with a group of young women who had been trafficked for sexual exploitation. She said that she drew strength from the retreat and hoped that sharing her story was helpful to the other women.

Evelyn’s strength manifests itself in many different ways. An excellent student in Cameroon with a strong yearning to learn new things, Evelyn was told over and over again that she was “dumb”, “dirty”, and “unworthy”, and that she would never amount to much. Though she struggled in high school in America, these insults did not prevent Evelyn from pursuing her dream of attending college. While her spoken English was passable, she was illiterate in English. Reading, writing, and solving math problems posed insurmountable challenges at times. Discouraged, she dropped out, but not for long. She enrolled in a GED program and after getting her diploma went on to earn an associate degree in social work from a local community college. With a new boost of confidence, she enrolled in an online BA program in homeland security at University of Maryland. She will graduate in May of 2015.

Strong and determined to succeed, Evelyn continues to show incredible resiliency in the face of adversity. Unfortunately, her life is not free of struggles. A few years ago a stranger in the street raped her at gunpoint. She thought that she would not be able to trust a man ever again. Yet a few years later she found a loving partner in Malcolm, the father of her son. Their son Molima, “My Heart”, as his father calls him, is the center of Evelyn and Malcolm’s lives. Evelyn and Malcolm are engaged to be married. They are hopeful for a good family life.

A few dark clouds still overshadow Evelyn’s happiness. For a long time, she could not understand why her mother sold her to a stranger. How could a mother give up her own flesh and blood? The inability to understand her mother’s actions weighted so heavily on Evelyn that she fell into depression. She thought that the only way she could shake off the feeling of despair would be to confront her mother. With the help of an older brother living in Europe, Evelyn saved money for an airline ticket and in 2012 went to Cameroon. Evelyn shared with me excerpts from the journal she kept while visiting her family in Cameroon.

She left her homeland a little girl of nine, taken across the ocean by a stranger, but returned on her own terms, a young woman of 27. Although bitter about her mother’s involvement in her trafficking, Evelyn was startled by her own joy and excitement at seeing her mom. Tears ran down both of their cheeks as they hugged for the first time in almost two decades. Evelyn’s mother would not let go of her daughter even when Evelyn’s siblings came to embrace her. Surrounded by family members, mother and daughter held each other for over an hour.

A few days after visiting her mom and then her dad, Evelyn finally met her maternal uncle, a man she used to call father. Burdened by the thought of being treated as chattel, Evelyn confronted her uncle. Looking him in the eye, Evelyn wanted to know what role he played in her trafficking. At first he said he merely arranged for Mubang to take Evelyn with her to the States, but later admitted that money changed hands. Fearing that other people in her hometown might treat their children like disposable goods, Evelyn spent a few days organizing meetings and speaking to parents, children, and civil society groups about child trafficking and its effects on young victims. Ever the activist, she hopes that these discussions will raise awareness about trafficking in children.

Today, Evelyn is not free of economic difficulties. Recently, she lost her job as a security guard. “It was one of those ‘he said, she said’ stories; my word against my co-worker’s word,” she told me. The company let her go. Unfortunately, Evelyn did not qualify for unemployment benefits. As a result her fiancé is now the sole breadwinner. An artist from Cameroon, Malcolm has to supplement rare artistic commissions with a job as a manual laborer. They try to economize as best as they can, but some days they go to bed hungry. Evelyn is ill-prepared to understand the intricacies of networking and job-hunting in America. She wishes that the programs providing assistance to survivors of trafficking focused less on mental health counseling and more on employment services.

As we finish up our lunch, Evelyn says she has faith that things will improve. I do not doubt that Evelyn will persevere. Afong is Evelyn’s middle name, given to her by her grandmother, and afong means strength in the language of Evelyn’s childhood.

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