The AP’s Rukmini Callimachi gives a heartbreaking report on a phenomenon that has spread to the US and Europe but has not garnered much attention. Wealthy immigrants from African countries have child labor imported to the US, where they work as slaves to the families who host them. Their sponsoring families, and even their biological families, say they should be grateful to have a higher standard of living than what they would have otherwise had in poverty, but the abuse and damage done is obvious:
The trafficking of children for domestic labor in the U.S. is an extension of an illegal but common practice in Africa. Families in remote villages send their daughters to work in cities for extra money and the opportunity to escape a dead-end life. Some girls work for free on the understanding that they will at least be better fed in the home of their employer.
The custom has led to the spread of trafficking, as well-to-do Africans accustomed to employing children immigrate to the U.S. Around one-third of the estimated 10,000 forced laborers in the United States are servants trapped behind the curtains of suburban homes, according to a study by the National Human Rights Center at the University of California at Berkeley and Free the Slaves, a nonprofit group. No one can say how many are children, especially since their work can so easily be masked as chores.
Once behind the walls of gated communities like this one, these children never go to school. Unbeknownst to their neighbors, they live as modern-day slaves, just like Shyima, whose story is pieced together through court records, police transcripts and interviews.
Shyima is one of the fortunate ones freed from slavery. She now refuses to speak in Arabic and has cut off all ties with her family in Egypt for selling her into bondage to pay off medical bills incurred by the family. Her parents and siblings see it differently. Despite being confined to a garage with no light, heat, or air conditioning, her mother claimed that it still beats living in their Egyptian tenement. Shyima’s sisters insist that she got opportunities they will never know by working as a child slave to the doctor and his wife, who both spent more than two years in American prisons for their crime and got deported after their release.
While working for the Ibrahims, Shyima never went to school. She worked from sunrise to well into the night. Neighbors recall seeing her washing dishes until midnight on occasion, although it never crossed their minds that she was doing anything other than normal chores. She did all the laundry but could not wash her own clothes or bedding in the machines; Shyima had to wash her own laundry in a bucket outside the garage and hang-dry the clothes. Until an anonymous caller tipped Child Protective Services to her plight, Shyima never thought of escape — and in fact was so afraid of what would happen to her that she lied to investigators for months while they pieced together what had happened to her.
Now Shyima is free, but no one really knows how many more like Shyima are in the US or Europe, locked behind the doors of homes, unable to call for help and unknowing that they should.