Bright, educated, ambitious Agnes jumped at the chance to work abroad. A friend told her about a woman recruiting hard working Ugandan girls for hotel, restaurant, and small business jobs in China. Hoping to make fast money to subsidize her own struggling business, Agnes contacted the woman who skillfully spoke the words she wanted to hear. She was told she was perfect for the job. The compensation was excellent and even the cost of her visa and airfare was covered. Agnes’ new high-income job with opportunity for advancement made her feel like the luckiest girl in the world.
After three long months of anticipation, Agnes received the phone call that would launch her new career – her new life. “You’re flying out tonight,” the woman told her. “Pack your things and meet me at the airport.” There Agnes was given her airline ticket and a Chinese phone number to call after landing. Agnes boarded the flight with several other Ugandan girls, some of whom were quite young.
Upon arriving in China, Agnes telephoned the number, and another woman, “the boss”, picked them up in a taxi. Before reaching the hotel, visas were confiscated and the girls were informed there were no restaurant or business jobs. Excitement was immediately replaced with confusion and fear.
At the hotel the boss led Agnes into a private room where she was examined and humiliated. She was told she owed the boss $4000 for her visa, airfare, taxi rides, and even the hotel room she’d be occupying. She had three months to repay it, (the length of the visa) or else she’d be there longer and owe more money for the extension. The discrepancy between what she owed and what she was “paid” made it impossible for Agnes to ever pay off her debt.
After five months of relentless physical, emotional and sexual abuse, Agnes had lost all hope of seeing her family again until Sarah, a friend who was also trafficked from Uganda, confided to Agnes that someone in China was working with an organization called Kwagala Project to get her home. Agnes couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She pleaded with Sarah to remember her once she made it back to Uganda. ”Either way,” Agnes begged, “you’ll have to tell me if these people can help me, so I’ll know whether to wait or end my life.” Sarah promised to do everything she could.
Proving to be true to her word, and within just a few weeks of her own arrival, Sarah was able to welcome Agnes home and introduce her to the people who moved heaven and earth to help get her there. Both young women have been safely recovering in Kwagala’s comprehensive aftercare facility. Agnes will be resuming school next term and Sarah is saving the money she’s earned making jewelry at Kwagala in order to launch her own small business.
They are both doing exceptionally well.
Because I’ve heard countless trafficking stories over the years I’m no longer shocked to learn what one is capable of doing to another for selfish gain. Indeed, the pit is bottomless.
However imperious I think I am towards man’s ability to damage, I am that much more astounded by the good which manages to rise from the ashes. The oft asked question, “Can you believe someone is capable of that?”, is no longer in reference to the offenders. Instead, we look at girls like Agnes and ask the question with complete astonishment and awe.
Returning home safely is not the end of her story. In some ways it’s just the beginning. Agnes is not retreating from this nightmare a broken and silenced woman. She is still that bright, educated, ambitious young lady, only now with an intense desire to help other victims. ”What can I do to save more girls?” She has asked repeatedly.
“You can tell your story,” she was recently told.
“What will the people do when they hear it?”
“They will have to make a choice.”
On August 13, 2012, Agnes, alongside her dear friend Sarah, stood before the American Bar Association in Kampala, Uganda and recounted their experiences in painstaking detail. Shaking and tearful, they were asked several times if they needed to stop. Nodding no, they proceeded to give the information that could save more lives as well as further the collaboration between governmental stakeholders and victim-support non-governmental organizations like Kwagala Project.
In addition to being enormously proud of their bravery, I’m challenged by their aggressive need to make change happen. “What can I do to save more girls?” This has been Agnes’ bottom-line question since her return last Spring. It is mine as well.
Today, I can tell her story.