[Stop-traffic] News/US: Alleged slavery in Detroit area reflects disturbing global trend

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Subject: [Stop-traffic] News/US: Alleged slavery in Detroit area reflects disturbing global trend
From: Melanie Orhant (morhant@igc.org)
Date: Sun Aug 20 2000 - 09:48:59 EDT


Alleged slavery in Detroit area reflects disturbing global trend
By Amy Klein
Detroit Free Press, August 10, 2000

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."
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