In her black leather jacket, rag-knit sweater, tight pants, three-inch heels and oversized tinted glasses, Lorena Barrios, 54, looks like a lady of means from the Westside. And that’s where we met, in a trendy coffee-and-tea place on Wilshire.

But the backstory of the Filipino woman, who lives in Hawthorne, puts a quick lie to that thought. As a young mother, she left her five children in the Philippines to work as a nanny in Saudi Arabia, escaping when the family and she were vacationing in Southern California. Four years later as a domestic worker, she made a night getaway from another abusive household — this time a Filipino family living in the Southland. 

“When I came to Arabia in 1996, oh my God, I take care of the baby, and I can’t sleep every night,” she recalls in a rising voice. “And one, two o’clock my employer asks me to go with her to shopping. I come home, then I can only sleep one hour.”

Depression from leaving her family followed Lorena to the Persian Gulf. She couldn’t stop thinking about her kids, ages 13 to just 1 when she left. And being cooped up most of the time just added to her daily misery.

“I was very lonely. And if you went out, you needed to wear the black scarf over your face, abaya, over your head,” she says. “But you couldn’t go out because it was dangerous. Somebody could rape you. Twice a tutor in the house attempted to rape me.”

Somehow Lorena survived. And after her three-year contract was up, she returned to the Philippines, where she says it took her a full year to recover. But then she returned to the same Egyptian family in Saudi Arabia. Her husband was drinking a lot and didn’t work steadily. And she wanted to give her kids a better future.

Lorena went with the family on a vacation to Southern California. In the South Bay Galleria mall, she met a Filipino lady at the food court and poured out her dilemma. “You can come and work for me, and I can give you a good salary … $150 a month, and every year you get a raise,” the woman named Rizzie promised. And while it was still dark the next morning, she picked her up outside the Marriott Hotel near LAX.

She couldn’t believe her good luck. But the escape in short order turned into a nightmare. The workload in her new Torrance home was even worse — taking care of 12 people this time, including six kids.

“I cook, I finish washing up three o’clock in the morning,” she says in a tired voice just remembering. “And around five, six o’clock, I have to get up to clean her car outside. It was still really cold, and I’m always sick with a cold. I wash and iron all their clothes. If she needs something, even one o’clock at night, then she call me.

“If I can’t finish my work right away, she say, ‘Hurry up!’ Sometimes I pass out because I’m too tired. And I sleep on the kitchen floor.

“The husband is OK, he is considerate,” she reports. “But she is mean to me. She always told me, ‘You don’t tell anybody. If you tell anybody, I’ll have the immigration deport you.’ And she always told me, ‘Don’t open the door. Don’t talk to anybody.’ She took my passport and threatened me.”

Hidden in Arizona

This went on for almost four years. Then Rizzie’s sister-in-law and her mom really took notice. “I guess they read my face,” she notes. “They said, ‘You have a problem. But you don’t have to stay here and work so hard. You can go anywhere with anybody. You can stay with us.’”

Another early morning escape. But this time her employer quickly tracked her down and she reluctantly returned. “I went back because they threatened me,” she points out.

Meanwhile, CAST (Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking) was contacted. The FBI got involved when Lorena was taken to hide in Arizona. But the agency found her and put her on a plane back to Los Angeles. And she stayed in CAST’s shelter for eight months.

“They helped me get medical care and to see a dentist,” she says. “I could go to school for English. I had a phone card to call my family in the Philippines. I could talk to my children. We had sewing and other classes. Everybody had chores, and I helped everybody. I got Social Security and my work permit. And every week we came together to share our feelings.”

After, the Good Shepherd Center helped Lorena transition fully into the American society she didn’t really get to know. And she got a $15,000 settlement from her former employer, which she used to bring all but one of her children to live with her in Southern California in 2007.

She worked three jobs, riding the bus from Hawthorne to the San Fernando Valley, then back to Baldwin Park. “I would cry, ‘Oh, my God!’ I was so tired of working. I only slept two nights a week,” she says. 

Today, one daughter is a nurse, another a nursing assistant and the third is studying to be a physical therapist at Cal State Dominquez Hills. Her oldest son back in the Philippines also works in the health field, while her youngest is a third-grade honor student here.

Praying every night

“I always thought I would escape because it was so bad,” Lorena, who just works one live-in caretaker job four days a week now, confides. “One time, my employer asked me to cook a steak. She didn’t like my cooking. You know what she did? She threw a knife in front of me. And I slept on the floor for four years in that kitchen.

“I just prayed every night. I said, ‘Lord, I know there will be an end of my sacrifice.’ And I’m glad there was an end to my suffering. When I went to CAST, it changed my life. And I got my children.”

For a moment, she stops talking in the noisy Westside coffee place. Women walk by with their espressos and lattes, looking a lot like Lorena Barrios looks. “When you remember all your past, it’s so scary, you know,” she says, glancing down and tearing up. “I had to be strong because of my children.”

Working abroad

The Filipino economy is dependent on Filipinos working overseas. Structures are in place to help move over 1 million Filipinos a year to jobs abroad. The same legal structures can be illegally exploited by human traffickers:

> 10 percent of the total population and 22 percent of the working-age population are employed abroad;

> 10 percent of the Philippines’ GDP (Gross Domestic Product) or $24 billion in 2012 was money sent home from Filipinos working in other countries;

> 47 percent of Filipinos live on less than U.S. $2/day.

CNN Freedom Project Documentation, updated through May 9, 2013.

“Tens of millions of women and girls around the world are employed as domestic workers in private households. They clean, cook, care for children, look after elderly family members, and perform other essential tasks for their employers. Despite their important role, they are among the most exploited and abused workers in the world. They often work 14 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week, for wages far below the minimum wage. They may be locked within their workplace and subject to physical and sexual violence. Children and migrant domestic workers are often the most vulnerable.”

— Human Rights Watch