“I wanted to run away, but my manager told me I’d better not try. He was always talking about the other Korean girl who ran away and was found in the desert with her fingers cut off. It didn’t seem out of the ordinary that I could become like that girl in the desert.”
She was 17 years old and struggling. Her father had abandoned his family years ago; her mother was in debt to loan sharks; and now they were coming after Min-Seo, too. She was easy pickings for the “recruiter.”
There was a job—a good job—waiting for her in America, he told her. The beauty salon would train her. She would make enough money to pay off her mother’s debts. For years she had been dreaming of leaving South Korea and making a fresh start. This was her chance.
And that’s how it began.
“Min-Seo was picked up at the airport in Las Vegas,” relates her attorney Sarah Milad from Just Neighbors, our JFON site in Northern Virginia. “The traffickers immediately took her passport, and then they took her to her first client. On the very same day she arrived,” adds Sarah slowly, “she was forced into prostitution.”
Sarah holds Min-Seo’s case file in her lap. The file is as big as a Webster’s dictionary—a long and disturbing chronicle of a young girl’s year and a half as a sex-trafficking victim. Alone in a strange country, unable to speak English, under the complete control of her handlers, Min-Seo’s normal day would begin as early as 11 a.m. and end as late as 7 a.m., seven days a week.
“For them, I was a money-making machine. If there was a client booked, I wasn’t even allowed to go to the bathroom.”
They moved her from shop to shop, and then from city to city. It’s another way, explains Sarah, of keeping their victims off-balance and in their control. Girls like Min-Seo never have the chance to grow close to anyone who might help them or the opportunity to figure out ways to escape.
By the time Min-Seo came to Northern Virginia, she was 18 years old and in very bad shape. Young, slender, and pretty, she was often the target of the very worst kind of customers, the ones willing to pay more for the pleasure of slapping, kicking, beating, and choking girls. Min-Seo’s throat hurt so much she had trouble swallowing food and talking. She couldn’t sleep. She began urinating blood. And then she began bleeding from her vagina.
“One day it felt like my uterus was going to fall out of my body. I was in so much pain that I couldn’t stand up.”
The first time she called the 911 dispatcher, she told them that she wanted to escape, but that she was afraid of being deported or going to jail. Perhaps the dispatcher didn’t understand her faltering English. Perhaps he had misheard her. Or perhaps he was poorly trained.
“We can’t do anything for you,” he told her and hung up.
Min-Seo lay crumpled on the floor. She would die here, she thought. Her handlers would soon return, and they would never risk taking her to the hospital.
Min-Seo reached for the phone and called 911 again. This time, the dispatcher responded correctly and sent out the paramedics and the police.
Min-Seo was passed out when they arrived.
Human Trafficking is a federal crime and the FBI immediately opened a case against Min-Seo’s tormentors. Meanwhile, human-trafficking victims who cooperate with law enforcement are eligible for T-Visas, which allow them to remain in the United States, receive employment authorization, and eventually apply for lawful permanent resident status (green card.)
Local police referred Min-Seo to a shelter; counselors at the shelter then referred Min-Seo to Sarah at Just Neighbors.
“It was my first trafficking case,” says Sarah, the enormous case file still on her lap. “And it was just as rough as you would expect.”
But Min-Seo, Sarah realized, was luckier than most victims who are trafficked as young as 11 or 12 years of age; psychologically groomed for years, they rarely find the strength to leave the only life they’ve ever really known.
“Young victims like that come to the conclusion that they are utterly worthless apart from their trafficker,” says Sarah. “Many of them die in their 20s or 30s because when their bodies become very sick from the torment, they are dumped by their trafficker who no longer has a use for them. “
Sarah shakes her head and smiles. “But Min-Seo knew what was happening to her wasn’t right, and when she found an opportunity to get out, she never looked back. They stole years from her, but they could not steal her sense of self-worth. They tried to steal her dignity, but they failed.”
Min-Seo received her T-Visa. She now works a regular job, ironically enough, at a beauty salon. She continues to receive counseling, improve her English skills, and make friends like any other young woman. She also continues to cooperate with law-enforcement in any way she can, because she is determined that her traffickers be brought to justice.
“Her healing will be a process, but through the help of Just Neighbors, law enforcement and other service providers, she is now a survivor who is been empowered to stand up for herself and for the dignity of the thousands of other victims trafficked in the U.S. every year,” says Sarah, with satisfaction.
“Thank you! When I first met Just Neighbors I didn’t speak English, but they didn’t give up on me. I was so depressed and hopeless then, but I am happy now.”
Min-Seo finally has the fresh start she had dreamed of for so long.
What can YOU do to help STOP human trafficking?
The JFON Network has helped many victims of human trafficking over the years, yet Min-Seo’s story is one that will stay with us for a long, long time. How, you may wonder, was it possible that this young girl was victimized for so long and no one noticed?
“Victims are controlled so much that they behave and keep quiet,” replies Sarah Milad, Min-Seo’s attorney at Just Neighbors. “And people just don’t know what to look for.”
Let us first understand that human trafficking—whether it involves sex or labor —often occurs in plain sight…at hotels, businesses, and even at a neighbor’s house.
Let us then learn to recognize potential red flags and signs of human trafficking so that victims like Min-Seo can be identified, receive the assistance they need to escape their captors, and go on to live their lives in freedom and dignity.
For more information, please check out The Polaris Project, an organization that is committed to stamping out human trafficking and modern-day slavery forever.