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My 10 years of freedom: From human trafficking victim to survivor and advocate

by Maria Suarez, Women Helping Women Bilingual Volunteer Coordinator, National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles

June 9, 2014 | 10:22 am

Maria Suarez telling her story at the NCJW/LA Press Conference for the launch of the Human Trafficking Outreach Project with Mayor Garcetti, Councilmember Martinez, Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, Supervisor Knabe, City Attorney Feuer, and other advocates, Feb. 9, 2014

It has been 10 years since I have been free, flying like a bird! In the mid-1970s, at the age of 15, I was sold for $200 to a man who I supposed to be working for, which was not true. He was my trafficker. I was kept in his house for more than five years against my will.  During those long years I endured the worst abuse you can imagine.  The abuse started after 3 days of being in his place.  He was terrorizing me with witchcraft. He raped me and beat me and abused me verbally and emotionally. He said he was going to kill my family and burn their houses. He told me I was going to go to jail because he had satanic powers. The abuse happened daily and I felt like I was in a cage.

My family filed a report and asked the police to help them find me.  The police did not do anything. Their answer to my family was that if I did not report anything on my own to them I must have been okay.  The abuse continued and continued. My trafficker had a garage guest room and rented it out to a couple. One day my trafficker was bothering the tenant’s wife by torturing her with his witchcraft making sexual advances. Her husband could not take it anymore and he killed my trafficker.  The husband called for me and gave me a piece of wood and told me to put it under the house. I did not know what was going on. I did what was told of me and followed his directions, which how I learned to survive in that home.

The day he was killed, I went into shock. I felt free from him physically, but not emotionally.  I did get to enjoy three days at my sister’s house even though I was not all there emotionally due to the trauma.  But, my freedom only lasted for a very short three days because I was arrested and sent to jail for placing the piece of wood under the house as I was directed to do by the husband.

I spent a year fighting my case.  Unfortunately, I had very poor legal representation. I was my attorney’s first criminal case and he had already been disbarred for selling and using drugs.  But he fought my case with an immigration attorney’s bar number.  With this poor representation I ended up being sentenced to 25 years to life and sent to prison.   During the trial I did not understand what was going on. I did not speak any English. I had arrived to southern California from Mexico a month before I was trafficked. I sometimes think that speaking English would not have helped me either way because I was suffering from deep emotional trauma.  The trauma started as soon as he started the abuse.  I suffered the trauma from the day I arrived to his house until his death and afterwards.  I did not know what was happening to me or the meaning of my sentence until years later.

As soon as I got to prison I enrolled in school and started to learn English. I was very disappointed with the system, with the police, judge, and society.  I started to learn more about my case and sentence and I felt disappointed in how people knew about this monster and no one did anything to help me.  I felt that society, instead of helping, sent me to jail with the goal of not letting me out.  I felt they put me behind bars and threw the key away so no one could open the gates.

Due to the fear I had of his witchcraft I used to dream of him and he would torture me in my dreams.  My sweet mother told me to pray for him and to forgive him.  She also told me to a saying when a death person comes to your dreams and doesn’t let you sleep.  It is a prayer in Spanish: If you don’t leave me alone I will send you to sweep the streets of Saint Tomas.  He did stop coming to my dreams.  I prayed and asked God to help me forgive my trafficker and for God to take care of him.  Eventually I was able to forgive him.

I spent 22.5 years in prison for this crime I did not commit.  After all those years, I thought I was going home with my family.  But no!  I did not go home. The INS picked me up and held me for 5 months and 7 days.  This time I was told I was going to be deported. But this time I was able to get help from three very good pro bono attorneys who helped me prove that I was a victim of human trafficking.  I was able to stay in the United States with a T-Visa and later on I was able to obtain my green card. Today I’m in the process of getting my citizenship and will hopefully get it very soon.

I remember, on May 24, 2004, while sitting in the cafeteria area during my INS detention and waiting to go out for recreation time, a bird came to my window. I cannot remember details, but I do remember a bird coming to the window and knocking with his beak, calling my attention.  I looked to the side and saw the bird and right away I knew that bird was bringing me good news.  The bird came for the second time and knocked on the window.  Sure enough after recreation time I was told to contact my attorneys.  I called them and the news was that I was free. On that day I felt like the whole world was mine, but I had to keep my release secret from anyone in detention with me.

The next day, May 25 of 2004, I walked out of INS detention.  I didn’t know exactly what to do, but I knew I was coming home.  My beautiful family and friends were there waiting for me.  I was so overwhelmed that while walking towards my family and hugging them I started to faint and lost consciousness.  I remember waking up at my sister’s house and not knowing how I ended up there.

Today marks ten years of my freedom and I can tell you that those ten years of freedom have been heaven to me.  In my freedom, I have learned to follow my heart and desires, which has been to help others that might be in the same situation I was in before.  I want to prevent them from taking the same steps I took.  I want society to be educated and to learn about Human Trafficking, for everyone to know that Human Trafficking does not discriminate based on color, age, race or gender.

Remember, human trafficking is like a monster that has a lot of heads. If you catch one trafficker, get rid of one head, there are still many others who continue damaging and causing pain to our society.  Let’s educate ourselves about this horrible issue and let’s prevent others from getting hurt.  Let’s help our new generation be more aware of human trafficking. Let’s advocate and stop the monster from hurting the new generation and others.

Help stop human trafficking in Los Angeles: If you're interested in raising awareness about human trafficking in Los Angeles Country, become a volunteer with NCJW/LA. Click here to learn more about our Human Trafficking Outreach Project .

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Maya Paley is Director of Legislative and Community Engagement at the National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles. The programs she works on include the annual Jewish...

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