[Stop-traffic] Alleged slavery in Detroit

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Subject: [Stop-traffic] Alleged slavery in Detroit
From: Ann Jordan (Annj@HRLawgroup.org)
Date: Thu Aug 10 2000 - 12:54:39 EDT


                
                            
                             Alleged slavery in Detroit
                             area reflects disturbing global
                             trend

                             August 10, 2000

                             BY AMY KLEIN
                             FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER

                             She slept in the windowless basement of a
sparkling
                             brick colonial in Farmington Hills, while
upstairs, a
                             couple and three young children lived in bright
                             rooms among new computers and televisions.

                             Once in a while, the young girl from Cameroon
was
                             allowed outside to pull garbage to the curb,
shovel
                             snow or take down the Christmas lights.

                             When she talked back, she was beaten, she said.
                             Sometimes with belts. Sometimes with
high-heeled
                             shoes.

                             And sometimes, the man would slip down to the
                             basement and rape her, she said.

                             The arrest of a Cameroonian couple in
Farmington
                             Hills late last month is the latest example,
authorities
                             say, of a flourishing, underground slave trade
that
                             smuggles women and children from destitute
                             countries into the United States each year --
luring
                             them with promises of an education, a green
card
                             and a way out of stifling poverty.

                             Each year, between 45,000 and 50,000 women
                             and children are trafficked as slaves into the
United
                             States from Asia, Europe, Latin America, India
and
                             Africa, according to a 1999 report by the
Central
                             Intelligence Agency.

                             Their stories take horrifying and tragic turns.
Thrust
                             into a foreign culture and speaking little or
no
                             English, some slaves are locked indoors for
weeks
                             at a time, forced to scrub the floors and walls
in
                             sprawling homes, repeatedly starved and
threatened
                             with deportation, say human rights advocates.

                             In more egregious cases, they are beaten and
                             raped, swapped or sold from family to family.

                             During the past three years, many of the most
                             high-profile and disturbing cases have emerged
in
                             the country's international hubs -- New York,
                             Washington and Los Angeles, cities where
                             diplomats bring domestic helpers from their own
                             countries on temporary work visas and end up
                             abusing them.

                             Recently, however, allegations of slavery are
                             cropping up in less likely areas, such as
Michigan
                             and Arkansas, underscoring the claims of
activists
                             that the practice is far more commonplace than
                             previously suspected.

                             "This is now the classic case that we are
seeing
                             again and again," Martha Honey, a spokeswoman
                             for the Campaign for Migrant Domestic Workers
                             Rights in Washington, said of the Farmington
Hills
                             allegations.

                             Since it formed three years ago, the campaign
has
                             learned of around 200 cases of domestic worker
                             slavery in Washington alone.

                             And, since police arrested Joseph and Evelyn
                             Djoumessi of Farmington Hills, two more local
                             complaints of domestic slavery -- in Oakland
                             County and in Ann Arbor -- are under
investigation,
                             said Farmington Hills Police Chief William
Dwyer.

                             Against this backdrop, the U.S. Senate last
month
                             passed a bill that would punish those who use
                             psychological force (existing laws punish those
who
                             use physical force) to hold a person against
his or
                             her will. The bill would also create a
temporary visa
                             to keep victims who speak out from being
                             deported. The House passed a similar measure
and
                             Congress is expected to vote on a bill this
fall.

                             But it may not be enough.

                             In search of an education

                             Three years ago, a 14-year-old girl in Cameroon
                             began a journey that would bring her to
America.

                             It is unclear where she lived in Cameroon, a
central
                             African country of more than 15 million people
that
                             is roughly the size of California.

                             And it is unclear where her parents are now.
The
                             Oakland County Prosecutor's Office wants to
                             charge them with neglect, arguing the girl's
presence
                             here gives them jurisdiction.

                             This much is known: Through her mother, the
girl
                             met Joseph and Evelyn Djoumessi, police said.
And
                             her life changed forever.

                             Joseph Djoumessi and Evelyn Neba came to the
                             United States from Cameroon in 1986 on
                             immigration visas. He was 29, she was 21. Neba
                             had a handful of relatives in the area,
including a
                             sister in Southfield.

                             In 1992, Joseph Djoumessi became a citizen; it
is
                             unclear when Evelyn Djoumessi gained
citizenship.
                             About 3,000 Cameroonians live in the United
                             States; metro Detroit is home to about 75,
experts
                             say.

                             The couple soon married and in 1993 Joseph
                             Djoumessi graduated from Wayne State University
                             Law School, but never passed the bar exam, and
                             instead worked as a computer consultant. Evelyn
                             Djoumessi worked as a pharmacist in Detroit,
                             police said.

                             The Djoumessis had three children in the next
seven
                             years. They made several trips back to
Cameroon,
                             where Evelyn Djoumessi's mother still lives,
                             prosecutors said.

                             In October 1996, they greeted a young girl at
the
                             airport as she got off a plane from Cameroon,
                             taking her back to their home on Arden Park in
                             Farmington Hills. The girl passed through U.S.
                             customs with an immigration visa but
authorities
                             suspect her birth certificate was forged --
perhaps
                             by the Djoumessis, Chief Dwyer said.

                             The girl, speaking in English, testified at a
                             preliminary hearing in 47th District Court on
                             Wednesday that the Djoumessis had promised to
                             send her to school if she took care of their
children
                             and cleaned their house.

                             Instead, she said she never went to school,
rarely
                             left the house and was beaten by both
Djoumessis.
                             She had seen a doctor and a dentist once in
three
                             years, police say.

                             Beginning in the summer of 1998, when the girl
was
                             15, Joseph Djoumessi raped her three times, the
girl
                             testified. The Free Press does not print the
names
                             of alleged rape victims.

                             "He told me not to tell anybody. I told him it
hurts
                             and he said he would do it gentle," said the
girl,
                             covering her face with her hands.

                             "She had grown accustomed to it," Chief Dwyer
                             said. "All she wanted was a good education."

                             Early this year, Joseph Djoumessi moved to
                             California to work as a computer programmer at
                             the China Lake Naval Weapons Center.

                             With his wife in Farmington Hills focusing on
the
                             final stage of her pregnancy, the girl seized
an
                             opportunity.

                             From a window, she had watched teenagers
playing
                             basketball and throwing parties at neighbor
Susan
                             Aschoff's house.

                             She began showing up at Aschoff's door late at
                             night after taking out the garbage or early in
the
                             morning, on her way home from walking the
                             Djoumessis' child to the bus stop.

                             At first the mother of four and the young girl
only
                             chatted in the doorway for a few minutes at a
time,
                             before the girl nervously sneaked back home.
                             Gradually, Aschoff said, the girl told of the
abuse in
                             matter-of-fact snippets.

                             "This was brought to me, I wasn't someone who
                             figured it out," Aschoff said.

                             In February, growing increasingly worried,
Aschoff
                             called Farmington Hills Counseling Services for
                             advice. They called the police.

                             During the probe, Joseph Djoumessi lived in
                             California with his 6- and 4-year-old
daughters,
                             while his wife stayed behind with the baby, now
6
                             months old. They put their home up for sale,
and
                             police said they believe Evelyn Djoumessi
intended
                             to join her husband.

                             The Djoumessis were arrested July 26 -- he on
the
                             West Coast and she in Farmington Hills -- and
both
                             are being held at the Oakland County Jail.
Joseph
                             Djoumessi, held without bond, is charged with
                             conspiracy to kidnap, kidnapping, three counts
of
                             criminal sexual conduct and three counts of
child
                             abuse. If convicted, he could be sentenced to
four
                             life terms.

                             Evelyn Djoumessi, held on $500,000 bond, is
                             charged with conspiracy to kidnap and
kidnapping
                             and faces a maximum of one life sentence for
each
                             charge. She is also charged with child abuse.

                             The couple's two older children are in state
                             protective custody in California. The
6-month-old is
                             staying with Evelyn Djoumessi's older sister.

                             Immigration and Naturalization Services is also
                             investigating whether the couple forged the
girl's
                             birth certificate, Dwyer said.

                             Lawyers for the Djoumessis deny the charges.
Bill
                             Mitchell, a lawyer representing Joseph
Djoumessi,
                             said details of the case have been exaggerated.

                             "Just because there is an allegation, doesn't
mean
                             that it's true or that it's even a crime," he
said.

                             The girl's biological mother and father wanted
a
                             better life for their daughter and handed
parental
                             control to the Djoumessis, Mitchell said,
including
                             the authority to discipline the child.

                             "I don't deny that there may be people out
there
                             who are taking advantage of those who wish to
                             come and participate in the glory of these
United
                             States, but I do not believe that the
Djoumessis are
                             these people," Mitchell said.

                             Meanwhile, the girl was removed from the home
in
                             February and now lives in an Oakland County
                             foster home. She is 17 and bright, police said,
but
                             only recently finished the ninth grade after
three
                             years without schooling.

                             A global crisis

                             From her three-person, nonprofit office in
central
                             Los Angeles, Jennifer Stanger has heard many
                             stories like this one.

                             Since the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and
                             Trafficking was founded last year, the advocacy
                             group has counseled 15 victims in Los Angeles,
                             helping them navigate a complex legal system.
It is
                             the only agency of its kind in the country,
Stanger
                             said, and it is overburdened.

                             Slavery, Stanger said, is more profitable than
other
                             types of trafficking because a slave is easier
to hide
                             and can be used for many years, rather than the
                             one-time profit reaped from selling drugs or
guns.

                             Each year, anywhere from 700,000 to 2 million
                             women and children are trafficked between
                             countries around the globe, used for domestic
                             work, sweatshops and prostitution rings, the
CIA
                             reports.

                             Among cases cited by the CIA:

                              In New York, a Nigerian smuggling ring charged
                             parents $10,000 to $20,000 to bring their
children
                             to the United States, promising better
educations
                             for the children. Once here, the ring forced
the
                             children to work as domestics.

                              A pastor brought Estonian teenagers to
                             Woodbine, Md., in 1997, promising to enroll
them
                             in a church school but then forcing them to
clean
                             roach-infested apartments and install office
                             furniture.

                              A group of hearing-impaired and mute Mexicans
                             were brought in 1997 to the United States,
                             enslaved, beaten and forced to peddle trinkets
in
                             New York City.

                             While sweatshop abuses garner more headlines,
                             immigrants smuggled into domestic slavery may
be
                             more vulnerable because prosecuting such cases
is
                             problematic.

                             "This is a hard thing to prove because it's not
like
                             they're behind barbed-wire fences or under
armed
                             guard," Stanger said.

                             Typically, the CIA found, people who use
domestic
                             slaves are Middle Eastern or African and bring
over
                             someone of their own ethnicity, promising to
send
                             wages home to the family. Often the
                             well-intentioned family half a world away is
                             unaware of the abuse.

                             The Campaign for Migrant Domestic Workers
                             Rights is handling two such cases, in Maryland
and
                             Virginia. In both instances, no criminal
charges have
                             been brought against the sponsors.

                             Christina Elangwe, now a 22-year-old
                             Cameroonian, came to Germantown, Md., with a
                             Cameroonian couple, using the passport of the
                             woman's sister. Elangwe wanted an education and
                             to see a new country, she said in a telephone
                             interview from Maryland.

                             "I thought they were really good people. They
told
                             me they had a lot of plans for me," she said.
"I said,
                             'I want to go to school.' They kept telling me
to
                             wait.

                             "I believed them and I thought it would
happen."

                             Instead, Elangwe, then 17, cooked dinner and
                             scrubbed floors while taking care of the
couple's
                             three children. She was not paid. The couple
told
                             Elangwe they were sending money home to her
                             parents, but she has not spoken to them and
does
                             not know whether it is true.

                             She said she was too scared and helpless to
leave.

                             Then she met Louis Etongwe, a Cameroonian
living
                             with his wife in Newport News, Va., who was
                             helping three other enslaved women escape.

                             A 46-year-old public school employee, Etongwe
                             spent months trying to free the women, writing
pleas
                             to U.S. government officials and ultimately
letting
                             the women move into his home.

                             "The first thing that came to mind was that
these
                             people are evil," Etongwe said. "I felt
                             misrepresented because that's not all
                             Cameroonians."

                             On Feb. 10, Elangwe ran away to stay with
                             Etongwe. She was free with no money and no
                             plans. She is talking to a lawyer about suing
the
                             couple for back pay.

                             She has given up on the idea of school, she
said
                             through tears.

                             Dora Mortey, a primary school teacher in Ghana,
                             came to the United States in May 1999 as a
                             domestic helper for a man living in Fairfax,
Va. She
                             agreed to help as a nanny and cook meals in
                             exchange for $400 a week and the promise that
she
                             could go to the library and continue her
studies.

                             Instead, the family called her "The Creature"
and
                             Mortey was awakened at 5:45 a.m. to work until
                             9:30 p.m., receiving only $400 over four
months.

                             "They embarrassed me and frustrated me," said
                             Mortey, 28, who eventually ran away and moved
in
                             with a cousin who lived nearby. "I am going to
stay
                             in the country. It would be heartbreaking for
me to
                             go empty-handed back to Ghana."

                             A better life

                             The same vision that brought Elangwe to
Maryland,
                             Mortey to Virginia and the 17-year-old girl to
                             Farmington Hills lures tens of thousands of
women
                             and children -- armed with work visas or
prepared
                             to slip in illegally -- to the United States
each year.

                             "There is an increasingly impoverished mass of
the
                             population that is being left behind or
eroded," said
                             Honey, with the Campaign for Migrant Domestic
                             Workers Rights. "We're seeing people being
forced
                             out of their countries to search for work."

                             Cameroon is relatively poor. In 1999 the
average
                             adult earned $2,000, compared with $31,500
                             earned by the average adult in the United
States,
                             according to the CIA. It's not unusual for the
                             poorest residents in African countries to work
as
                             domestic helpers for richer relatives, said
Nicolas
                             Van De Walle, a Michigan State University
political
                             science professor and member of the African
                             Studies program. And those helpers may often be
                             treated worse than if they were in the United
States,
                             he said.

                             But abuse is not the norm.

                             "There's nothing culturally that would
predispose
                             them to this," Van De Walle said of the
Djoumessi
                             case. "It would be a slur on Cameroonian
culture to
                             suggest otherwise."

                             But many Africans dream of a better life in the
                             United States, for themselves and for their
children,
                             Van De Walle said. It's a dream that leaves
some
                             vulnerable.

                             Taking aim at the growing problem, a
                             Congressional committee is expected to finalize
                             comprehensive slave-trafficking legislation by
                             mid-September.

                             While activists hail the bill as a good start,
some say
                             it does not protect victims enough from being
                             deported, particularly if they are in the
United
                             States illegally.

                             Meanwhile, in a foster home in Oakland County,
a
                             17-year-old girl is learning what it means to
be a
                             teen. She has discovered American clothing and
                             listens to boy-band rock, like 'N Sync.

                             Most of all, she is smiling, said Aschoff, the
                             neighbor who continues to visit the girl.

                             "She is the bravest young lady I have ever
seen,"
                             Aschoff said. "She was the one who made the
                             decision to change her destiny."

                             Contact AMY KLEIN at 248-591-5629 or
                             klein@freepress.com.

                                    
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