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by Esperance Uwayirege Taylor with Laura Secord
Early that morning I was drinking my tea on the porch at the shelter for trafficked women. I’d been there almost a month, my third shelter since October.
It was February and cold damp winds blew as two policemen delivered a small Asian woman to the door. They’d brought her directly from jail.
She was an unbelievably beautiful woman, with long hair falling straight, yet she wore baggy summer clothes—a short sleeved long brown sweater, khaki V-neck T-shirt, thin beige capris and flimsy beach shoes. She smoked frantically and looked frightened.
The shelter was in an old home and was filled with women who were survivors—young and old, Black and white, sex and labor-trafficked. Like myself, they sought therapy, education and legal help, as well as a place to sleep.
I’d been trafficked from Rwanda to an upper-class southern city by a white professional American man. After years enslaved, I’d become enlightened. I’d escaped, but eventually returned to that same city to live closer to my legal team. I had no job and no home. All I had were my documents, a thumb drive with my story in French and a mission to find justice.
Maya became my bunkmate. She had the top bunk, where she tossed and moaned all night long, filled with anger, and suffering cigarette withdrawal.
I worried about her—just released, labeled a prostitute and dangerous criminal. I could see her vulnerability, her fear and anger, because it was mine as well.
Her sorrow, her restlessness, her foreign status, reminded me of mine.
Both of us had been tricked into leaving home and coming to America with promises of education, only to discover enslavement. I had been labor-trafficked, while she’d been sex-trafficked from Korea to San Francisco to Atlanta. All night I would listen to her sob. She never slept.
The shelter raised money from local churches and brought us to their services to show how they’d saved us. The shelter gave Maya a Bible; she flipped the pages and threw it in the garbage, saying, “This is not my religion.”
I remembered how writing my feelings and telling my story had helped me—so I gave Maya a notebook and told her, “Write your story.” She wrote furiously, filling pages with Korean symbols, keeping it hidden in her mattress.
We became friends, but I didn’t stop worrying about her as she refused to eat, and kept wearing those thin clothes.
Meanwhile, the shelter paraded us to church after church, marching us to a special pew, where we could be stared at and recognized as prostitutes, sinners and victims. Maya rebelled. She refused to stand, clap and sing. She refused to eat the restaurant lunches after service, but chose instead to sit outside near the street.
She told me, “This shelter is lying to us. They are using us. They are not going to help us at all.” Then she’d get on her knees and scrub the floors with a rag.
Sometimes we had moments of laughter. We both loved fashion, even in our ugly misfit clothes. When I was young I wanted to be a fashion model, and before my country’s genocide, I worked as a professional and wore beautiful, tailored outfits. Maya loved Saks Fifth Avenue. She loved Chanel bags and the beautiful bottles of luxury perfumes. Once, while being driven to another church, we rode by a fancy mall. I pointed to Saks, “There’s your store,” I said. She smiled wide.
Every day, Maya demanded to be released. I didn’t know where she’d go. Like me, she had no home, no money, and no job. I worried she’d return to her trafficker.
Then one day, I saw her at the garbage, tearing page after page out of her notebooks, throwing her story away. Soon after, two men drove up and she disappeared, leaving everything behind.
My heart broke for her and for me. I could not know where she was going, maybe jail? Maybe the shelter sold her back to her traffickers?
As I watched her though the window, I sang my favorite song, The Prayer, for her:
“Lead us to a place.
Guide us with your grace
To a place where we’ll be safe.”
Missing my friend so much, I thought of how she’d changed me. Before I met her, I wanted to tell my story for me, but now, my ME became much bigger than myself. My ME became global. I committed myself to writing my story to help all the 50 million enslaved people around the world—women, children and men of all races. I believe our own voices, spoken loudly and with courage, can heal us, save us and can bring us justice.
Esperance Uwayirege Taylor survived three genocides in her home country of Rwanda where she was trafficked as a teen, and later found herself trafficked to the U.S. After her escape, she became a self-taught expert on modern day slavery, an activist for trafficking victims. She is writing a memoir about her experience.
Laura Secord is a poet, writer and teaching artist.