“I knew my life wasn’t normal,” Du√±ia Zelaya said of her childhood. She vividly remembers the night her mother and stepfather dressed her in strange clothes and did her makeup before driving her to a bar to work as a sex slave. She can’t remember her age, but she was probably 7.
Her mother gave her a drink to “give her courage.” Her two sisters, who were older though still minors, were dropped off first and then she was left at a bar where a man was waiting for her.
On Jan. 14, Zelaya shared her story during the L.A. Freedom Walk at Blessed Sacrament Church in Los Angeles. She finally left the life of prostitution three years ago.
Born into poverty and living as the child of immigrants, Zelaya endured the misery of prostitution for years. She was hungry for real love. “I noticed how all the other kids, their parents used to hug them and kiss them and I use to say, ‘I want that,’” she recalled.
Her mother’s affection varied with the cash flow, she explained. “When I made more money than my sisters, that was the only time I was shown a little bit of love.”
Zelaya spoke to the hundreds of protesters who gathered in the early morning hours to help raise awareness — and reaffirm the promise — that sex and labor trafficking will soon end.
The Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking (CAST) organized the event. The nonprofit organization, based in Los Angeles, advocates on behalf of victims of sex and labor trafficking and provides services for rehabilitating victims.
The month of January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, and Pope Francis continues to condemn the practice that keeps an estimated 30 million people enslaved. In December 2014, he called human trafficking — which includes forced labor, prostitution and organ trafficking — “a crime against humanity.”
Bishan Kumar also spoke at the Jan. 14 event, sharing the story of years of humiliation and abuse as a labor slave.
A registered pharmacist in India, Kumar had come to the United States to study. One school had accepted him, claiming to be accredited and hiring professors from Stanford and UC Berkley. He paid his tuition fees and waited for classes to begin.
“The classes never began,” he said. Instead, one of the professors put him to work at a rate of $10 per hour. But she never paid him. She demanded that he work 12 to 14 hours a day, including weekends and holidays. She told him to create fraudulent documents, wash dishes and set up workstations.
“There were times when I couldn’t fall asleep because of the body pains and the psychological trauma,” he said.
She threatened to terminate his student visa if he didn’t listen to her. “In fact, I would see her terminating other students’ immigration statuses, so I was always frightened.” Kumar added, “She used to yell at me all the time and treat me like a slave.”
Homeland Security finally caught up with her, sentencing her to 20 years in jail — a verdict that made the audience break out into loud applause.
Kumar also spoke about identifying victims of human trafficking. They work long hours, he said. “And if you try to talk to them, they won’t make eye contact and they look tired.” He also said that victims often work in back offices to avoid suspicion.
“Keep an eye on your surroundings,” he urged. “A lot of people came to the university when I was washing dishes, moving furniture — but no one was thinking, ‘Why would a student be doing all that?’”
Zelaya ended her speech by remembering her sister and the other women who are still working on the streets. “So today I ask you guys to walk with us,” she said. “Through this walk we are giving them a voice, letting them know that we are waiting here for them.”
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