Captivated was an understatement as I sat there frozen and with tears brewing in the corner of my eyes.
Sounds like one you would found in movies, not in real life. It can’t be real!
But as I sat on the front row, seeing the trauma emerging from her words as she shared the gory painful experience, my heart aches.
How could we hear so little of this?
Shandra Woworuntu – From Survivor to Victory
As Shandra Woworuntu – the anti-human trafficking advocate shares her stories with everyone at Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, the whole room fell silent. You could hear a pin drop! Everyone was swept away by how horrifying it truly is to be a victim of human trafficking.
Her story is one of the many stories of what really happening in our world today that many people are not aware of. Modern day slavery is real. Surely it can’t happen, right? We are blindsided by the mere thoughts of women being sold into this strong grip of prostitution rings around the world. Until you sit there and listen to her.
A warning what I’m about to share can be a triggering to some, especially sexual abuse victims. I knew I was triggered to the point that I felt I could vomit and my whole body felt sick.
Shandra started by sharing how she finished college, had a great career up until the Asian economy crisis hit hard also political turmoil in 1998 resulted in her losing her job. Leaving her a single mom with not much choice but trying to find a better life for her and her daughter. She dreamed about working overseas and started looking through newspapers. Back then, online job boards were pretty much uncommon in Indonesia.
She landed a job through an ad posted in two notable newspapers in Indonesia. She put all the money she had saved to get the job – first red flag, people. Never ever pay for a job offer no matter how promising they may sound!
Shandra then aged 24 landed in America in the first week of June 2001 full of hopes and dreams. You know the famous American dreams. She was told she will be working for a hotel in Chicago.
Before she could even have any bearings of her arrival, she was picked up at JFK and being transported through different people until she arrived in Brooklyn. A brothel and the driver who shouted “Mama San! New girl!” shattered all her dreams of providing a better future for her little girl.
The first trauma was clearly still visible on Shandra’s face as she shared how she saw a young girl around the age of 12 or 13 lying on the ground screaming as a group of men took turns to kick her. Blood poured from her nose and she was howling, screaming in pain. One of the men grinned and started fooling around with a baseball bat warning Shandra not to mess around. She was later raped.
The silence in the room was heavy as people digest this.
Shandra chose not to focus too much on the gruesome details of what she had to go through being forced to have sex with different men in that brothel to pay for the ‘debt’ her trafficker held against her. She focused on how her survival instinct kicked in and that’s what keeps her alive through the hell that sounds like it can only be from a movie. She was drugged, transported between brothels, hotels; casinos and no one notice this act of horrendous crime. Somehow Shandra managed to collect some pieces of evidence – in forms of books of matches she took from the hotels, kept a diary where she wrote in Indonesian, English, Japanese and symbols – later was used as evidence to crack the brothel.
People – even the moderator – shed tears as she bravely told her escape story. It was nothing short but a miracle that somehow she got to escape twice! The second time, she managed to go to a local police station in New York City to report the crime.
Sadly, the police didn’t believe her. She turned to the Indonesian consulate in New York City who refused to give her much help but providing a letter that says she lost her passport. Shandra was forced to live as a homeless in New York City.
Her luck changed when she met a man named Eddy one day who bought her food and listened to her horrifying stories. He believed in her. One man can make a difference. One person who cares can safe life. Eddy contacted the FBI and they sprung to action. They busted the brothel. Shandra explained the experience as something that she only saw in movies.
Shandra has rightfully become very passionate as she later shared with us how the events pushed her to become an anti-human trafficking activist in the US. She is currently a member of the U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking and a survivor of human trafficking and domestic violence. She started a support group and a foundation to help victims of human trafficking in America. On December 16th, 2015, President Obama appointed her as one of 11 members of the U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking and the council held their first meeting on October 18th, 2016.
She had just published a children book to educate about the danger of human trafficking. Shandra and her non-profit organization Mentari are dedicating her life to fighting human trafficking by educating children and community and also raising awareness about this crime.
I was so deeply touched by her story and I was quite disappointed when I had to miss out on her other session at the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival on the power of forgiveness due to a clashed schedule with my workshop.
Later that day as I sneaked out to make a quick call to check on my son I found her being interviewed by a news reporter in the back area of one of the venues. I gathered all my courage to ask her for a picture – something I totally am not used to doing even when I see famous people here – and she graciously not only granted my request but also asked for my name card after I mentioned I am the founder of Single Moms Indonesia. I told her how inspiring her talk was. She said she is a single mom too and that maybe we could work together in the future. She mentioned she will frequently come to Indonesia starting next year.
Be still my heart!
Thank you, Ibu Shandra, for sharing your courageous journey and inspiring others to become more aware of human trafficking. I look forward to collaborating with you.
Please support her and together we could put an end to human trafficking. PS: I can’t wait to watch the documentary In Our Backyard that put a highlight on what is really happening in America. You can watch the trailer below: