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
August 10, 2000
BY AMY KLEIN
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
She slept in the windowless basement of a
brick colonial in Farmington Hills, while
couple and three young children lived in bright
rooms among new computers and televisions.
Once in a while, the young girl from Cameroon
allowed outside to pull garbage to the curb,
snow or take down the Christmas lights.
When she talked back, she was beaten, she said.
Sometimes with belts. Sometimes with
And sometimes, the man would slip down to the
basement and rape her, she said.
The arrest of a Cameroonian couple in
Hills late last month is the latest example,
say, of a flourishing, underground slave trade
smuggles women and children from destitute
countries into the United States each year --
them with promises of an education, a green
and a way out of stifling poverty.
Each year, between 45,000 and 50,000 women
and children are trafficked as slaves into the
States from Asia, Europe, Latin America, India
Africa, according to a 1999 report by the
Their stories take horrifying and tragic turns.
into a foreign culture and speaking little or
English, some slaves are locked indoors for
at a time, forced to scrub the floors and walls
sprawling homes, repeatedly starved and
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
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
Recently, however, allegations of slavery are
cropping up in less likely areas, such as
and Arkansas, underscoring the claims of
that the practice is far more commonplace than
"This is now the classic case that we are
again and again," Martha Honey, a spokeswoman
for the Campaign for Migrant Domestic Workers
Rights in Washington, said of the Farmington
Since it formed three years ago, the campaign
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
said Farmington Hills Police Chief William
Against this backdrop, the U.S. Senate last
passed a bill that would punish those who use
psychological force (existing laws punish those
use physical force) to hold a person against
her will. The bill would also create a
to keep victims who speak out from being
deported. The House passed a similar measure
Congress is expected to vote on a bill this
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
It is unclear where she lived in Cameroon, a
African country of more than 15 million people
is roughly the size of California.
And it is unclear where her parents are now.
Oakland County Prosecutor's Office wants to
charge them with neglect, arguing the girl's
here gives them jurisdiction.
This much is known: Through her mother, the
met Joseph and Evelyn Djoumessi, police said.
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,
sister in Southfield.
In 1992, Joseph Djoumessi became a citizen; it
unclear when Evelyn Djoumessi gained
About 3,000 Cameroonians live in the United
States; metro Detroit is home to about 75,
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,
The Djoumessis had three children in the next
years. They made several trips back to
where Evelyn Djoumessi's mother still lives,
In October 1996, they greeted a young girl at
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
suspect her birth certificate was forged --
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
and cleaned their house.
Instead, she said she never went to school,
left the house and was beaten by both
She had seen a doctor and a dentist once in
years, police say.
Beginning in the summer of 1998, when the girl
15, Joseph Djoumessi raped her three times, the
testified. The Free Press does not print the
of alleged rape victims.
"He told me not to tell anybody. I told him it
and he said he would do it gentle," said the
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
final stage of her pregnancy, the girl seized
From a window, she had watched teenagers
basketball and throwing parties at neighbor
She began showing up at Aschoff's door late at
night after taking out the garbage or early in
morning, on her way home from walking the
Djoumessis' child to the bus stop.
At first the mother of four and the young girl
chatted in the doorway for a few minutes at a
before the girl nervously sneaked back home.
Gradually, Aschoff said, the girl told of the
"This was brought to me, I wasn't someone who
figured it out," Aschoff said.
In February, growing increasingly worried,
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
while his wife stayed behind with the baby, now
months old. They put their home up for sale,
police said they believe Evelyn Djoumessi
to join her husband.
The Djoumessis were arrested July 26 -- he on
West Coast and she in Farmington Hills -- and
are being held at the Oakland County Jail.
Djoumessi, held without bond, is charged with
conspiracy to kidnap, kidnapping, three counts
criminal sexual conduct and three counts of
abuse. If convicted, he could be sentenced to
Evelyn Djoumessi, held on $500,000 bond, is
charged with conspiracy to kidnap and
and faces a maximum of one life sentence for
charge. She is also charged with child abuse.
The couple's two older children are in state
protective custody in California. The
staying with Evelyn Djoumessi's older sister.
Immigration and Naturalization Services is also
investigating whether the couple forged the
birth certificate, Dwyer said.
Lawyers for the Djoumessis deny the charges.
Mitchell, a lawyer representing Joseph
said details of the case have been exaggerated.
"Just because there is an allegation, doesn't
that it's true or that it's even a crime," he
The girl's biological mother and father wanted
better life for their daughter and handed
control to the Djoumessis, Mitchell said,
the authority to discipline the child.
"I don't deny that there may be people out
who are taking advantage of those who wish to
come and participate in the glory of these
States, but I do not believe that the
these people," Mitchell said.
Meanwhile, the girl was removed from the home
February and now lives in an Oakland County
foster home. She is 17 and bright, police said,
only recently finished the ninth grade after
years without schooling.
A global crisis
From her three-person, nonprofit office in
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.
the only agency of its kind in the country,
said, and it is overburdened.
Slavery, Stanger said, is more profitable than
types of trafficking because a slave is easier
and can be used for many years, rather than the
one-time profit reaped from selling drugs or
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
Among cases cited by the CIA:
In New York, a Nigerian smuggling ring charged
parents $10,000 to $20,000 to bring their
to the United States, promising better
for the children. Once here, the ring forced
children to work as domestics.
A pastor brought Estonian teenagers to
Woodbine, Md., in 1997, promising to enroll
in a church school but then forcing them to
roach-infested apartments and install office
A group of hearing-impaired and mute Mexicans
were brought in 1997 to the United States,
enslaved, beaten and forced to peddle trinkets
New York City.
While sweatshop abuses garner more headlines,
immigrants smuggled into domestic slavery may
more vulnerable because prosecuting such cases
"This is a hard thing to prove because it's not
they're behind barbed-wire fences or under
guard," Stanger said.
Typically, the CIA found, people who use
slaves are Middle Eastern or African and bring
someone of their own ethnicity, promising to
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
Virginia. In both instances, no criminal
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
me they had a lot of plans for me," she said.
'I want to go to school.' They kept telling me
"I believed them and I thought it would
Instead, Elangwe, then 17, cooked dinner and
scrubbed floors while taking care of the
three children. She was not paid. The couple
Elangwe they were sending money home to her
parents, but she has not spoken to them and
not know whether it is true.
She said she was too scared and helpless to
Then she met Louis Etongwe, a Cameroonian
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
to U.S. government officials and ultimately
the women move into his home.
"The first thing that came to mind was that
people are evil," Etongwe said. "I felt
misrepresented because that's not all
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
couple for back pay.
She has given up on the idea of school, she
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,
agreed to help as a nanny and cook meals in
exchange for $400 a week and the promise that
could go to the library and continue her
Instead, the family called her "The Creature"
Mortey was awakened at 5:45 a.m. to work until
9:30 p.m., receiving only $400 over four
"They embarrassed me and frustrated me," said
Mortey, 28, who eventually ran away and moved
with a cousin who lived nearby. "I am going to
in the country. It would be heartbreaking for
go empty-handed back to Ghana."
A better life
The same vision that brought Elangwe to
Mortey to Virginia and the 17-year-old girl to
Farmington Hills lures tens of thousands of
and children -- armed with work visas or
to slip in illegally -- to the United States
"There is an increasingly impoverished mass of
population that is being left behind or
Honey, with the Campaign for Migrant Domestic
Workers Rights. "We're seeing people being
out of their countries to search for work."
Cameroon is relatively poor. In 1999 the
adult earned $2,000, compared with $31,500
earned by the average adult in the United
according to the CIA. It's not unusual for the
poorest residents in African countries to work
domestic helpers for richer relatives, said
Van De Walle, a Michigan State University
science professor and member of the African
Studies program. And those helpers may often be
treated worse than if they were in the United
But abuse is not the norm.
"There's nothing culturally that would
them to this," Van De Walle said of the
case. "It would be a slur on Cameroonian
But many Africans dream of a better life in the
United States, for themselves and for their
Van De Walle said. It's a dream that leaves
Taking aim at the growing problem, a
Congressional committee is expected to finalize
comprehensive slave-trafficking legislation by
While activists hail the bill as a good start,
it does not protect victims enough from being
deported, particularly if they are in the
Meanwhile, in a foster home in Oakland County,
17-year-old girl is learning what it means to
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
Aschoff said. "She was the one who made the
decision to change her destiny."
Contact AMY KLEIN at 248-591-5629 or
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