- The Washington Times - Monday, April 25, 2011

Five young women trapped in the world of sex trafficking escaped and, in interviews with The Washington Times, tell how they got caught and how they got out.

Tysheena, 21, was 13 and in New York when she met at a bus stop the 27-year-old man who would become her pimp. At first they talked on the phone, and then he started buying her gifts. They began what she thought was “a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship.” She started cutting classes at 14 to be with him.

Molested at 12 by a relative of her stepfather, she fought repeatedly with her mother and, after one beating, began running away. On one of those occasions, the man took her to Atlantic City and showed her the street where prostitutes worked.

“He explained to me he was a pimp,” she said, adding that he told her that working for him as a prostitute was “the only way to survive without going back to my mother.” She said she decided to do it because “he was the only person who loved me.”

She worked for him for three years, during which she was beaten if she disobeyed him and threatened with death if she left. She got out of the life when she was 17 and ended up living with an uncle in Maryland, where she finished high school and then went to Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS) in New York, where she now works with other girls as an outreach coordinator.

Sheila, 24, has been away from the life for five years, a victim of sex trafficking from ages 15 to 19. At 15, she tried to escape her dysfunctional home, where there was domestic violence and alcoholism, by moving in with a friend. Instead, she was raped by her friend’s stepfather and ended up in foster care, where she was abused.

“I felt that no one really cared about me,” she said, until a girl in the foster care home introduced her to a 30-year-old man she described as “real sweet.” She said, “For the first time I had someone listening to me.” She did not know he was a pimp and the girl from the home was his recruiter.

“He got me into the life. This was not my choice,” she said, adding that he threatened her with a hot iron and once beat her in front of others. “No one asked if I was all right,” she said.

When she was 17, she was arrested and sent to GEMS, but she soon was back on the street with her pimp, where she remained for another two years. She got out at 19 and now also works at GEMS with other young women as an outreach coordinator.

Katrina, 31, was 16 and in Atlanta when she met a 31-year-old-man who would be her pimp for three years. “He drove a nice car and offered to spend a lot of money on me,” she said, but she was forced instead into prostitution. She said she was expected to make him $800 a night.

“When I wanted to leave, I couldn’t leave,” she said. “He isolated me from my family.”

He also moved her to New York, where there were regular beatings. She said she still has marks on her legs from where he had his dog bite her. Although threatened with more physical violence if she tried to leave, she escaped when she was 19, taking her baby son and sleeping in a car — eventually returning to Atlanta, where she is using her experience to work as a peer-support specialist for the Georgia Care Connection, helping young girls who have been trafficked.

She said her background makes it easier for the girls to talk to her. “There is not much they have done that I haven’t done,” she said.

Brandy, 31, another peer-support specialist at Georgia Care, was forced by her mother to have sex with the mother’s friend in exchange for goods, which she called “material things.” “I was exploited by my mom between the ages of 2 and 6,” she said.

At 18 she also began to barter for money, goods and meals. “I went out and exploited myself,” she said, pointing out that, given her background, “it was normal to be exploited for sex.”

She said she changed her life around in her mid-20s and now is trying to help other girls. “It is rewarding to even get a smile out of a kid,” she said.

Anna, 27, was bought to the United States from Mexico under false pretenses and forced into prostitution. She was almost 16 when she came to New York to work in a factory. Instead, the man who brought her forced her to work in a Brooklyn brothel.

“I was working every day from 9 a.m. to midnight,” she said through a translator. “I saw 50 to 60 men daily.”

She said the man who brought her to this country beat her and burned her with cigarettes if she refused to work. She said he told her he could make one call to Mexico and have her family harmed. With the help of another woman, she escaped to Atlanta in 2000.

“I still have a lot of problems sleeping,” she said, but she is getting help from an Atlanta-based nonprofit, Tapestri Inc., which works with foreign-born victims of sex trafficking, many of whom fear beatings from traffickers or arrest and deportation by authorities if they try to escape. “I get scared going outside,” she said.

• Chuck Neubauer can be reached at cneubauer@washingtontimes.com.

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