Human trafficking is a crime that can be hard to understand. It is far more prevalent, far sneakier, and far more often overlooked than most imagine. In a tragic twist, perhaps the most pernicious quality of trafficking is how it hides in plain sight.
The majority of people trafficked into slavery today in the US are not in the sex trade, but rather forced into hard labor. Most are foreign born men forced to work in terrible conditions for virtually no pay. They are stripped of their independence, their agency, and their opportunities.
Nelson was one of those people.
A quick study, Nelson grew up learning multiple languages at a very young age. In his Southeast Asian country, children were introduced to English in grade school. Most were able to learn the basic structure and key phrases and left their studies at that.
But Nelson was different. He used more than just intellect to recognize patterns and spelling, he used his empathic abilities to understand the meaning behind the words – he learned how to communicate.
Nelson has a natural curiosity and flare for new experiences and adventure. It was this passion that led him to an online advertisement, claiming an opportunity for occupational and theological training in the US. Nelson grew up with a strong faith background, and was interested in both seeing the world and deepening his faith.
“I found this company online that was looking to train international people to work in the US. They offered free accommodations and a weekly salary, and it all sounded very tempting.”
This opportunity seemed like everything he had dreamed of, and the initial contact with his future traffickers gave him great hope. They presented themselves as a religious school, helping him to square away tickets, passports, and visas. Soon after, Nelson was on his way to the US, excited to begin his new journey.
“It seemed like a normal place, but it was only when we started to work that we realized–this wasn’t normal.”
Upon arrival, Nelson and the other “students” were forced into domestic work and landscaping. Nelson spent his time working outside, cutting grass, and maintaining lawns. They were paid anywhere between 25 and 50 dollars a week. Their “free lodging” was little more than storage facilities with no air conditioning or hot water. They were poorly fed, often served expired food. Still, Nelson and the others did not protest the conditions, as their opportunity to live and work in America was entirely too valuable to risk.
“The people we worked for made us feel like this was a good situation to be in, that this was all normal. They wanted us to feel that we should be grateful. They would hang the threat of pulling our visas over our heads. That’s how traffickers groom you. They make you think you’re the one who’s doing something wrong.”
In time, Nelson developed friendships with Americans who, upon learning of his situation, had a real concern over his well-being. Eventually, they learned enough to tell Nelson that the way he was living was not normal or safe.
“My friends told me that I had rights in this country, even though I wasn’t a US citizen. Here, we have rights as human beings – regardless of status.”
With the support of his friends, Nelson reached out to the authorities. ICE investigated and eventually shut down the trafficking ring, and Nelson volunteered to testify against the leaders of the organization. Despite being proven guilty and doing prison time, the self-proclaimed religious leader still claims no wrong doing.
As for Nelson, the authorities allowed him to stay in the US and use his visa to build a new life. He was put in touch with the Northern Tier Anti Trafficking Consortium – now known as Heartland Alliance’s Freedom from Trafficking program.
“I wanted a new life, new memories. I love travelling, and believed that Chicago would be a great next step in my journeys.”
Though starting over in Chicago was exciting, Nelson found himself in a new city without friends, family, and few people he could actually trust. His first point of contact was Darci Flynn, who at the time was providing case management services for the NTAC program.
“Darci was so understanding and empathizing. She was always smiling and willing to help with whatever situation, and really made me feel like I was home – and did the same when my family came to the US.”
She helped Nelson find an affordable apartment. She provided CTA passes and helped Nelson learn how to navigate Chicago’s expansive train and bus system. She helped him find a church that primarily served people from his home country and that gave him a sense of community in his new city.
Seeing the potential in his sharp wit and intuitive handle on the English language, Darci helped Nelson find and apply for a scholarship in interpretive services. Unsurprisingly, he thrived in the field. As an interpreter, Nelson could provide not only what people were trying to say, but why they were saying it.
With a community, church, and new career path, Nelson began to develop real security and stability, eventually learning that his visa would allow him to bring his parents to the US as well. With the help of the International Organization of Migration, Darci and Nelson were able to complete the process to bring his family to the US. He was finally able to re-unite with his sister and mother.
“I would like to thank Heartland Alliance. They got me settled. They helped me get my mom to the US, and to get her the medical care she needed. They helped me get trained, and even hired me in the end.”
That, however, is hardly the end. Nelson’s future is bright, and his contributions to the city of Chicago are growing. In our next installment, we’ll cover what happens when an immigrant who was formerly trafficked is provided the opportunity to thrive.