‘Nobody is paying attention’

Slavery isn't a problem of the past. It's happening today, in our own backyard, and few people are aware of it.

Abuk Macamangui Bak, who escaped from slavery in Sudan, shares her story to create awareness of the issue of human trafficking.

Abuk Macamangui Bak, who escaped from slavery in Sudan, shares her story to create awareness of the issue of human trafficking. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)

Abuk Macamangui Bak was 12 years old when insurgents attacked her village in Sudan. She remembers the homes going up in flames and her brothers and sisters scattering in different directions. Abuk held her grandfather’s hand as they ran; within moments he was shot and killed. Her voice shakes as she recounts the image.

Abuk was taken to a village in northern Sudan and sold as a slave to an Arabic family. She remained a captive for a decade and endured frequent beatings — once, she said, because one of the cows she had taken to pasture ran off. She did not speak Arabic; they did not speak Dinka, her tribal dialect.

One evening, after an attempted rape, Abuk fled.

“At that time I said, ‘God is with me and could take me from this place.’ ”

Now 33 years old and living in Lynn, Abuk has found happiness. She has been married for nine years, has three children, and works as an aide in a Lynnfield nursing home. Abuk shares her story for many reasons, among them catharsis and to create awareness. “Nobody is paying attention, like killings, kidnapping — they should really know — being put as slaves, and no one knows,” she said.

Her story is not as unusual as one might expect. Modern-day slavery is an issue not only in far-flung countries but in our own backyard. According to Karen McLaughlin, director of the Massachusetts Human Trafficking Task Force, the state reports that between 14,000 and 17,000 people are trafficked into the United States each year. Typically victims are from poor families and lured under the guise of a better life once their legal status clears.

Carol Gomez, cofounder of Trafficking Victims Outreach & Services Network, said her organization has dealt with more than 100 cases involving people affected by domestic violence, labor exploitation, and trafficking/slavery since 2002. Her group helps find legal advocacy, medical and mental health care, and housing for clients who have left or want help escaping exploitation.

Among the cases Gomez has worked on was that of Naseem Mohamed Siraj, the 36-year-old woman who successfully sued her Brookline captors and returned to India. Rick Mann, the attorney who worked on the case pro bono, said he would like law enforcement agencies to receive more education to look for these crimes.

“It is kind of a hidden problem,” Mann said. “You have people living in situations where often times they don’t go out of the house. You really have to be trained to spot the signs.” Senator Mark Montigny and Representative Marie St. Fleur recently secured $180,000 in the state budget for training and education for law enforcement to better identify and work with human trafficking cases.

Many victims of abuse lead fulfilling lives after escaping their captors. They go to school, begin careers, fall in love, and speak about their experiences with candor.

One local woman, who asked not to be identified, came from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Her father, a political prisoner, worried that the Ethiopian government would target her, and he insisted she leave the country. She signed up with an agency to work for a family in Dubai, where she was then enslaved. A few years ago she and another servant came to Boston with the family and vacationed at the Charles Hotel. They summoned the courage to run. One of the hotel valets was from Ethiopia. He took the two women to his sister’s home and sought legal council. The woman is now enrolled in nursing school and working as a nurse’s assistant.

“There’s a catharsis of telling one’s own story,” says Emma Reinhardt, 31, of Newton, the founder of HERvoices. org, a nonprofit that collects testimonies from women and girls — including Abuk — and brings them to audiences in schools, community groups, and businesses, giving the women a platform in which to tell their stories.

“When we learn of people being exploited we have a tendency to instantly posture ourselves in a pitying position rather than listening for the real voices and the real people,” said Reinhardt, who has spent nearly a decade working in human rights and conflict resolution. “If someone has the opportunity to speak candidly in a way that’s true to them, they feel a sense of empowerment.”

One woman who shared her story though HERvoices had signed up with a job agency in her South Asian country and was sent to Boston to work for a family with a baby. When she arrived, her employers picked her up from the airport and took her passport. “The husband said to me I can’t walk on the streets or the policeman is going to shoot me,” she said in a phone interview.

The family often created unnecessary work for her, she said. “I had to clean the bathroom three times a day — after they showered I had to clean the bathroom.” The couple also hired nurses to help care for the baby, she said, and the nurses reported the case to city officials, who rescued her. The woman now works as a pharmacist’s assistant.

Abuk’s wedding photo sits on a shelf next to a large-screen television at her home in Lynn. Asked how long she and her husband had known each other before the wedding Abuk answered, “Two days.”

Abuk’s husband, Atak, is the brother of the man who helped her the night she escaped from her captors. The evening Abuk fled she approached him in the street and asked for help in her native language, which he knew. Together they searched for her family, but as a decade had passed they found no one. After two days he told Abuk that his younger brother, Atak, lived in Egypt and he would buy her a ticket and arrange a passport if she agreed to marry him, a common tradition of her tribe. Abuk accepted the offer.

“I told him, ‘OK, I can marry your younger brother. I saw you are a good guy,’ ” Abuk recounted.

Two years later her brother-in-law found Abuk’s mother. It had been 12 years since they had seen each other. Today Abuk’s mother, brother, and sister live in Lynn as well.

“Something I learned from my life is to be patient,” Abuk said. “Maybe something will be coming.”

Susan Chaityn Lebovits can be reached at Lebovits@globe.com.

© Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company.

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