When Abdenasser "Sammy" Ennassime returned home to visit his family in Morocco six years ago, he could brag of a bustling coffee shop, a baby son, and an American wife to show for his more than two decades in the United States. In this light, Ennassime's suggestion to bring his adolescent niece, Lamyaá, to his home in Tacoma to help with the new baby—in return for enrolling her in school and guiding her toward U.S. citizenship—was seen as the magnanimous gesture of a generous uncle.
"I was happy that I was going to see a new country and go to school in America," says Lamyaá. "But I was so young and, of course, I didn't want to leave my family."
But for Lamyaá's family, with four children all supported on her father's salary as a maintenance person for Royal Air Maroc, the decision was obvious: Lamyaá would go to the U.S. with her uncle and become an educated American.
Initially, it seemed that everything was on track. Lamyaá's mother accompanied her to Tacoma for the first few months to help her adjust, and she was placed in a junior high where she immediately took to her studies and began to learn English.
But there were warning signs from the beginning. Lamyaá was given a small 5- by 10-foot room with the window blocked out to sleep in. She was denied a house key, and all of her papers and identification were taken from her. She was required to work long weekend hours at the Ennassimes' Lakewood coffee shop, Lake City Perk, and her list of chores at the Ennassime home was overwhelming.
"At first, Sammy always said, 'I'm gonna take care of you, treat you like a daughter,'" recalls Lamyaá, pushing her black bangs from her forehead as she sips a fruit smoothie through a green straw at a Tacoma downtown Starbucks. "He promised me that I was going to go to school and have a good life."
But Lamyaá's diary sparked a rapid escalation in her uncle's efforts to control her. "In high school, I started keeping a diary about my life and all of the things they were doing to me, and you know, about boys, too," she says. "Sammy read it and got really angry; he called me spoiled and said I didn't appreciate what I had."
In an alarming turn, Ennassime pulled Lamyaá out of high school in the middle of her freshman year, claiming to authorities that he wanted her home-schooled in an effort to preserve her Muslim culture. Lamyaá, who had comforted herself with the promise of an education, was devastated. Without the escape of school, Lamyaá's life became entirely dictated by her aunt and uncle. At first she was forced to work one shift a day seven days a week at the coffee shop, but she soon began regularly working double shifts of 12 to 14 hours without monetary compensation. Back at the Ennassime home, she was expected to care for the Ennassimes' young son and continue cooking meals and cleaning for the family, afterward falling onto a mattress in her solitary dark room, wondering if this was all America had in store for her.
Preoccupied with the thought of Lamyaá attracting male attention, Sammy forced her to wear baggy clothes, forbade her from wearing makeup, and ordered her not to converse with customers. And back at the Ennassime house, the computer was locked despite Sammy's claims to officials that he had bought home-schooling software. All outside communication was forbidden, and when Sammy learned through caller ID that Lamyaá had, in a moment of defiance, called a co-worker, he struck her across the face with a telephone, according to court documents.
"I wasn't a real teenager," she says. "I didn't have a cell phone or friends—nothing. I would try and be good, but [Sammy] was always angry about something."
But the abusive uncle would get his comeuppance: In December 2005, Ennassime was charged with one count of forced labor and concealing and harboring an alien. In September, he was convicted of these charges, and last month, Ennassime, who declined to comment for this article, was sentenced to 240 hours of community service, three years probation, six months home detention with an electronic monitoring device, and responsibility for $65,000 in back wages to be paid to his niece. Ennassime still owns and operates Lake City Perk, and at his sentencing last month, he stated simply, "I'm sorry I broke the law."
"This was a crime in which a child was misled and mistreated," says Ye-Ting Woo, the federal prosecutor in this case. And to the feds, that crime was part and parcel of human trafficking, a term that is more likely to conjure images of human cargo in forgotten shipping containers and young women languishing in underground brothels.
Human trafficking is now tied with arms dealing as the second largest criminal business in the world, and is growing faster than any other. It first became an issue in Washington state in the late '90s, when several reports of abused and murdered mail-order brides in the area hit the news. Though under current law few mail-order brides qualify as trafficking victims, the cases raised awareness of the vulnerability of new immigrants in the state and the abuse that often befalls them.
Washington's large immigrant community, international border, and busy port make the state a triple threat for trafficking. In 2004, a federal grant was given to the state to set up the Rescue and Restore Campaign, which focuses on raising awareness and building anti-trafficking coalitions among law-enforcement officials and nongovernment organizations (NGOs) that work with immigrant and refugee populations. But daunting challenges soon began to reveal themselves.
"Immigrant communities are often afraid of law enforcement or officials of any kind," says Carrie Schonwald of Refugee Women's Alliance (REWA), an NGO working with the Rescue and Restore Campaign. "Especially after 9/11, because many already felt harassed."
Beyond a fear of authorities, many immigrants don't know their rights and believe that if they aren't documented, they can't presume protection under the law. Though a series of visas exists specifically for victims of trafficking who cooperate with law enforcement, many in immigrant communities fear deportation, and most don't even know that what is happening to them is a crime.
"Sammy would say, 'You're illegal, I can do what I want,'" says Lamyaá, whose legal immigrant status lapsed when the Ennassimes failed to renew her visa. "I didn't know the law, and I had to believe him. I didn't want to go back to Morocco because I was afraid I wouldn't be able to get an education there—that was the whole reason for me to come to the U.S."
Lamyaá's case is emblematic of surprising patterns in domestic trafficking, where immigrants are most likely to be victimized by someone from their own culture, nationality, or family. Trafficking in general disproportionately affects women, and many in the local NGO sector suspect that up to 80 percent of trafficking victims in the U.S. are female, though not exclusively within the sex industry as many originally suspected. Because women are frequently trafficked by men, existing gender roles often play a part in the power dynamic, as in Lamyaá's case.
Her experience also illustrates how psychological control can be as effective as physical restraint in trafficking cases. Lamyaá actually spent much of her time unsupervised and could have physically escaped, but says she felt she had nowhere to escape to and lacked a knowledge of the resources and rights available to her.
"As long as you're being deceived, coerced, or forced into labor in any way, it can be trafficking," says Harvey Sloan, a detective with the Seattle Police Department's Human Trafficking Unit. "Actually, because traffickers often don't want to 'damage their commodity,' psychological intimidation and coercion is the most common tactic. Victims are told repeatedly that if they try to leave and go to law enforcement, they will be arrested and deported. The victims are also often told that if they try to leave or inform on the traffickers, their families in their home countries will be killed.
"This is a complicated issue, and it takes time to get a handle on it," adds Sloan. "While trafficking victims are extremely hard to locate, the real numbers are easily in the thousands."
Despite those thousands of potential victims, many people who work to combat trafficking fear that waning political will and a lack of public sympathy may threaten their efforts. A recent reallocation of federal anti-trafficking funds in Washington, D.C., made them dependent on the volume of cases uncovered rather than the volume of outreach conducted—emblematic of federal impatience at the slow pace of detection and prosecution. And while Americans find stories of young foreign women forced into sex slavery after being promised jobs in America to be abhorrent, it may prove harder to garner sympathy for the agricultural, restaurant, and domestic workers who have become trapped in comparatively mundane situations.
"I like to compare human trafficking today with domestic violence of 15 years ago," says Sloan, discussing the difficulties of trying to raise awareness for a new and often elusive crime. "Domestic violence was not known or recognized as a problem or a crime at that time, but now it is. I'd like to see the same kinds of resources and awareness campaigns applied to trafficking and see it become the new crime to be curbed."
Though local law enforcement and NGOs have uncovered less than 100 trafficking cases in the past two years, two cases that have been brought to light, involving a Kenyan nanny in Snohomish County and Chinese restaurant workers in Lynn-wood, suggest that trafficking permeates numerous industries and communities.
In the case of the Chinese restaurant workers, as is true with many trafficking cases, it was circumstances rather than outreach or public awareness that led to legal intervention: A call reporting an "assault with cleaver" at the Oriental Buffet in Lynnwood, sent police to nearby Stevens Hospital, where officers interviewed an injured man who'd worked at the restaurant.
Through an interpreter it was discovered that 11 undocumented Chinese workers were being forced to live in a crowded apartment and work at Oriental Buffet for $2 an hour, despite promises that they would be paid fair wages and given decent living conditions upon arrival in the U.S. They weren't allowed any communication with the outside world, and telephone use was banned. Without proper documents or any real knowledge of the country they were in, the workers could think of no way out of their miserable circumstances. When they tried to organize to demand better wages and phone calls to their families back in China, the restaurant's owner, Zhon Yong Ni, became irate and attacked one of them with a meat cleaver. Ni was charged with human trafficking but fled the country before his trial.
In 2004, a Lynnwood church alerted NGOs to another trafficking case, revealing that one of its members, a Kenyan woman, had been promised $300 a week, vacation time, and school fees for her daughters in Africa by a South Snohomish County couple in return for becoming their live-in nanny. Upon arrival in the U.S., however, her papers were taken from her and she was locked inside the home to cook, clean, and take care of the children.
She was never paid the agreed-upon wages, and no school fees ever made it to her daughters back home. Moreover, she was allowed only one hour out of the house per week to attend church. After 13 months, she finally found the courage to ask for help. The couple, both doctors (one originally from Kenya), pleaded guilty to trafficking charges and were given six months home detention and paid the victim restitution and back wages.
By the time Lamyaá was 17, co-workers and customers at Lake City Perk were finally beginning to ask questions about her state of affairs. But Sammy always had a way of deflecting their concerns. "When people would question him not having me in school or his control on me," she says, "he would just say, 'I am trying to raise her the Muslim way,' and people would go for it."
But when the Ennassime family left on a vacation to Morocco, leaving Lamyaá behind, she finally got around to planning her escape. Despite Sammy's best efforts, Lamyaá had developed relationships with fellow employees, and though none of them had any experience with trafficking issues or knew the laws relating to Lamyaá's situation, they found a lawyer for her.
"I never thought I was going to leave," says Lamyaá, recalling the terrifying period just before her escape. "But I knew: This is too much; I cannot do this for the rest of my life."
Currently living in a foster home in Federal Way with a year-long court battle behind her, Lamyaá, now 18, is making up for lost time. She's back in high school, and when she's not studying, she's busy with Spanish lessons, belly-dancing classes, an after-school job, and most recently, a bit of modeling. Her restitution for back wages, $65,226.65 in total, is being saved for college, and it looks like Lamyaá—who is currently applying for a special trafficking victims visa and expects to become a full U.S. citizen in three to four years—will fulfill her family's dreams and become an educated American.
"I go to school, I get good grades, I have lots of friends, and I always have someone by my side now," says Lamyaá. "It's like a normal life—finally."
Sarah Stuteville is a co-founder of The Common Language Project (www.commonlanguageproject.net, a Seattle-based online magazine devoted to covering underreported social justice issues.)