Human trafficking: Supporting foreign-born victims

By Holly Austin Smith — From her column Speaking Out in the Washington Times Communities

Supporting Foreign-Born Victims

RICHMOND, VA, January 30, 2013 – Several advocates have emailed me recently asking for advice on how service providers can best serve foreign-born victims who were trafficked within the United States. This is a great question, I thought. As a domestic-born survivor of child sex trafficking within the U.S., I recently wrote an article offering advice to service providers working with domestic children who endured similar exploitation. In order to approach this particular question, though, I thought it best to hear directly from foreign-born survivors themselves.

I’m pleased to present advice from two empowered survivor activists: Ima Matul and Shandra Woworuntu.

Ima Matul, Survivor Coordinator for the National Survivor Network, was lured from her home in Indonesia to work in America as a nanny. Upon arrival, however, Ima was separated from her cousin and forced into domestic servitude for several years. Ima offered the following advice to service providers working with foreigners:

• Shelter is always first priority, but it has to be a shelter specific for victims of human trafficking, not for victims of domestic violence or homelessness. “My experience was in [a domestic violence] shelter,” Ima explained, “And it was hard for me to relate with the other residents.”

• Offer shelter services to male victims as well as female.

• Inform victims about their rights within this country.

• Offer education to victims, including English as a Second Language (ESL), General Educational Development (GED) classes, and computer skills.

• Offer life skills workshops that include the following: how to find housing, how to find a job, how to open a bank account, how to build credit, how to manage or budget personal expenses (including rent, groceries, transportation, and medical costs), how to find a low-cost or free clinic, how to apply for education scholarships, and how to drive. “As foreigners we know nothing about this country,” Ima stated, “We don’t even know [about the emergency number] 911…We need [a] lot of services and education to prepare oursel[ves] to [live] independently, [without] always asking for help.”

• Offer self-defense classes or workshops, especially for girls and women.

• Include a mentorship program and peer support.

• Be educated about other cultures in order to offer cultural sensitivity.

Shandra Woworuntu, now a rehabilitation counselor in New York City, was also lured to the U.S. from Indonesia in 2001 with promises of better work. Upon arrival, Shandra and two other women were trafficked for sex within the U.S. After her escape, Shandra briefly struggled with poverty and homelessness until law enforcement sought her out to testify against her traffickers. In exchange for her cooperation, law enforcement connected Shandra with a service provider and gave her a small sum of money until shelter was available. Shandra offered the following advice to service providers working with foreign-born victims:

• First and foremost, Shandra explained, the victim must go “straight to [a] shelter, no matter what.”

“[In]my experience,” Shandra stated, “I had to be homeless for many days, [I] lived in the subway [without] enough money [or] clothes to support my life.”

Like Ima, Shandra was eventually moved to a shelter for victims of domestic violence. Shandra encourages the development of separate shelters for men, women, boys, and girls who have been victims of human trafficking. She stated that the most preferable living situation would be for each person to have his or her own room in order to avoid arguing and other negative experiences. However, she recommends that victims with severe trauma may be more comfortable staying in a room with a roommate.

• Offer psychological help to all victims.

• Employ a translator to help with communication between the victim and his or her case worker, therapist, and all other institutional interactions. (NOTE: Ima expanded on this idea to require that each translator be screened in order to ensure there is no connection to the traffickers).

• Offer a food pantry instead of food vouchers. Shandra stated that, in her experience, the food vouchers were never enough.

• Provide educational support (e.g. GED classes) and materials (e.g. art and books) within the shelter as victims may not only find it difficult to maneuver through public transportation but many are also still dealing with psychological trauma (e.g. flashbacks), which are triggered under stressful situations.

• Provide each victim with a money allowance in case of an emergency situation outside of the shelter.

• Once ready to enter into the community, the survivor should be informed of all activities and educational opportunities available to him or her.

For additional tips or further information, I encourage you to reach out to Ima and Shandra directly. As Survivor Coordinator of the National Survivor Network, Ima can also connect with other survivors of human trafficking for additional information and advice.

Please email Ima at

Please email Shandra at

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