Photo: Courtesy of Shandra Woworuntu
In 1998, Indonesia was affected by political turbulence; there were robberies, rape, killings, riots, and religious persecution. I was working as a money market trader but lost my job when this hit. I knew the power of the US dollar and set my eyes on the states. I paid a recruiter $3,000 to find me a job in America.
Soon after, I received a job offer working as a waitress at a hotel in Chicago where I was promised monthly earnings of $5,000, this money would go to fund my daughter's college, and the plan was to work for six months. I was naive and should have realized it was too good to be true. I just thought about going to the dreamland of dollars where I could meet Whitney Houston, eat McDonald's, Pizza Hut and enjoy the beauty of Central Park in New York.
"I was verbally, physically and sexually abused on a daily basis. The buyers treated me like an animal, a rag doll that they could do whatever they wanted with my body."
Upon arriving at JFK, I was picked up by a man named Johnny Wong who would take me to the hotel in Chicago where I would be working. When I arrived, he let me know it was too late to travel and that I would spend the night in New York. My dreams were gone just like that; I wasn't going to Chicago. I had been kidnapped and sold into the hand of an organized traffic ring. I was taken to a brothel at gunpoint, calling out "Mama-san! New girl!" I had been sold to the sex buyers. With the gun still pointed at me, there was no way to escape. I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t scream.
Thoughts of my young daughter danced through my head to distract me from the abuse and pain I was enduring. I tried to fill my mind with happy memories of my childhood. Memories of me as a 10-year-old dancing, playing in the garden catching butterflies and singing. My body soon numbed, and it shivered with every buyer's abuse - they would push me against the wall and hit me. I would sometimes throw up from the smell of their sweat. I was no longer dreaming. I was verbally, physically and sexually abused on a daily basis. The buyers treated me like an animal, a rag doll that they could do whatever they wanted with my body. From a dream to a living nightmare, I learned how to cry on the inside and to keep my tears to myself.
The fear of their guns is what kept us in line and obedient, but for some of the slaves, a bullet would be the only relief. Death by a gunshot was the quickest solution rather than dying a slow death as one of their sex slaves. Our keepers demanded $30,000 from us in exchange for our freedom. For every session, $100 would go towards this 'debt,' as we were raped over, and over again. Guns represent death, an illusion of power to control us - it is what kept them in power.
"We were force fed drugs and alcohol to help us stay awake for the next buyer. I felt so empty, powerless, numb, lost, in complete darkness with no desire to eat."
Every forty five minutes, rooms were on rotation night after night with a buyer paying around $120 - $350. We were force-fed drugs and alcohol to help us stay awake for the next buyer. I felt so empty, powerless, numb, lost, in complete darkness with no desire to eat. All I could think is when would my life be over. My faith kept me going, the hope for a new day, a new life, a new beginning is what kept me alive. That glimmer of hope was enough! I was done. I was determined. I was going to find a way out. I was going to find my way home to see my daughter.
This hope brought me to the smallest bathroom window of a second-story apartment building in Brooklyn. I prayed - in the name of the father, and of the son, and of the Holy Spirit, I jumped. Without a scratch, I survived; I was alive. Breathing the fresh air - I was that butterfly from my dreams. I was free.
I still get flashbacks and the smell of whiskey makes me retch. If I hear specific ringtones, the ones used in the brothels, my body stiffens with fear. Sometimes faces in a crowd remind me of the traffickers and the buyers, glimpses of those faces even for an instant, freeze me.
"The many years of involvement in this movement to end human trafficking and modern slavery have made me stronger."
The happiness of being free and the support system that I was able to find allowed me to grow.
Since 2004, I’ve dedicated my life to helping other victims and survivors of trafficking. This help led me to the development of a nonprofit organization that I founded, Mentari – a Human Trafficking Survivor Empowerment Program Inc that is based in New York to help survivors in their reintegration into society. We do this by providing them with the skills needed to attain jobs and live independently.
The mission of Mentari is DREAM, Direct services to survivors, Resources, Empowerment, Advocacy, and Mentorship. Mentari raises awareness about human trafficking globally through education and public awareness.
We distribute prevention tools like feminine hygiene pads with human trafficking indicators and a hotline number they can call to seek help. In 2015 and 2016, we distributed 10,000 educational comic books about human trafficking, “Impian Dewi.” We met with 15,000 students in Indonesia during the distribution.
Organically, I became a public figure and was recognized by The State of New Jersey and appointed to be The State Commissioner on Human Trafficking from 2015 – 2017. In 2015, I was appointed by Former President Barrack Obama to be the first U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking. I leveraged my story to educate and raise awareness of human trafficking by using my expertise to make changes and lobby legislators to change current legislation and regulation. There is still a lot of work that needs to be done.
"It is a healing process that I am still working through and know that it will take time."
The many years of involvement in this movement to end human trafficking and modern slavery have made me stronger. It has slowly helped me heal; it is a healing process that I am still working through and know that it will take time.
I have received many awards because of the work I have done, but honestly, I don’t like awards. My work is to help people, mostly survivors. I have happiness and joy when I witness them grow success; my job is not for the award.
In 2017, co-founders of Mentari nominated me to become a L’Oreal Paris Women of Worth. Knowing that I was competing against thousands of amazing women who have taken their passion and expertise to make a change in the world, I did not think I would hold up to them since I am far away from perfect.
With the faith of Mentari, I was honored to be a finalist and a Women of Worth recipient. Tears of joy swept over me when I saw my name and photo displayed on their website and all over social media. The award was recognition, but my goal is to use this platform to draw people in to learn more about human trafficking to help end it.
With determination, I accepted the award and used it for good – to help more people receive services from Mentari and to teach them the skills to land a job. My ultimate dream is to have a transitional home. This is a goal that I hope to achieve one day.
"I am not determined by my experiences as a sex slave, and I will continue to live my life by this phrase "I Am Worth it.""
On the night of the “L’Oreal Paris Women of Worth” celebration, I was awarded the 2017 National Honoree for Women of Worth. I was surprised, emotional; I remember crying for joy and thanking God for making this my dream in America. I am thankful for the $35,000 that Mentari received through this program. This money is going to help expand our program and to reach more survivors that need help. I want to inspire other women and young girls to work diligently and to stay on their path until they reach their goal.
Every woman out there has the potential, don't be afraid, afraid to fall, to get up and change your strategy until it works. There is no success if you haven't failed. I am not determined by my experiences as a sex slave, and I will continue to live my life by this phrase "I Am Worth it."
For the 13th year, Women of Worth is calling for nominations, so a woman you know might be able to receive a grant. The nominations are open through May 31st.
Shandra Woworuntu is a survivor of human trafficking and domestic violence. She founded Mentari, a nonprofit that assists victims of human trafficking by utilizing a client-centered approach designed to develop culinary abilities, create growth, develop self-sufficiency and assists with future employment opportunities through a Culinary Arts Program.
Woworuntu was an honoree at L’Oréal Paris' annual philanthropic program, Women of Worth. Now in its 13th year, the program selects ten women from thousands of nominations to be honored for the impact they have made by receiving a grant of up to $35,000 and national recognition. The public is encouraged to nominate a woman who has devoted her time to serve her community championing change through a wide range of causes through May 31.