On Tuesday, three young women stood in the center of Manhattan’s Sheraton Hotel ballroom, beaming as a room of hundreds of the most influential figures in business, politics, and philanthropy from across the globe rose to their feet and cheered. On stage, President Obama had just finished telling the tales of these women’s escape from human slavery to the audience at the Clinton Global Initiative, where hundreds of leaders gather to discuss the world’s most pressing issues.
Sheila White, from The Bronx, had been sold into sexual servitude and abuse; Marie Godet Niyonyota, who is Congolese, was kidnapped by rebel fighters and held prisoner for years; and Ima Matul had come to America from Indonesia hoping for work. “But when she arrived, it turned out to be a nightmare. Cooking, cleaning—18-hour days, seven days a week,” Obama said. “One beating was so bad it sent her to the emergency room.”
Ima Matul and Kay Buck, her colleague at the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST) spoke on the phone with The Daily Beast after they returned to Los Angeles following a whirlwind week during which Matul took meetings at the White House, testified in front of Congress and had the president introduce her in front of an audience of the world’s most important change makers. The two women were still giddy with excitement from meeting with Obama (Ima and the president spoke together in Bahasa, Indonesia’s language) and other political bigwigs, jokingly complaining that they were tired from smiling so much.
“When I first met [Ima] she was so quiet and very petite,” Buck says. “But yesterday she looked like she was 6 feet tall.”
A lot has changed in the last decade since Matul transitioned from a human trafficking survivor who didn’t speak English to a jet-setting activist taking meetings in Washington, D.C.
“I was 17 when I was brought to this country,” Ima Matul began. “At that time I thought this was a great opportunity for me.” In 1997, a teenaged Matul was lured to the United States under promises of a nanny job for an Indonesian woman living near L.A., and $150 month. She suffered physical violence, mental abuse, and slave-like labor conditions without pay. One incident brought her to the emergency room when her employer’s husband said he “could see her brain” after she was badly beaten. Finally, after three years, she decided to ask the nanny next door to help her escape. Terrified of being caught by her overseer, Matul spent months trying to figure out how to write in English, and then when she did, spent months more building up the courage to get a note next door. Twelve years later, she still remembers what it said: “Please help me. I cannot take it anymore.” The woman agreed and brought her to CAST.
“The first night I was free I called my mother and we just cried the whole time without saying anything,” Matul says.
The staff at CAST, whom she now calls her family, taught Matul English and later provided a private tutor weekly until she got her GED diploma. She pauses to reflect on what would have happened to her if she hadn’t found CAST, and can’t seem to process the possibility: “I just don’t know where I’d be right now.” Matul recently started looking at colleges and hopes to study social work or public policy when she saves up enough money. But for now, she’s fully immersed the world of activism. Three weeks ago, she was hired to coordinate a group of survivors at CAST who learn lobbying, bill writing, and how to push for public-policy changes. The survivors’ backgrounds span 15 countries, but they have one thing in common: they’re all part of the fastest-growing criminal enterprise in the world: a human-trade industry worth $9 billion.
Matul, a 32-year-old mother of three, has been working tirelessly to further the cause of human trafficking survivors and organizations. She recently helped with a bill that outlines protections and rights for domestic workers—an issue near and dear to Matul’s heart—that’s currently sitting on the California governor’s desk.
Regulations from above cannot be underestimated in tackling trafficking. In his speech onstage at CGI, Obama outlined an impressive plan to fight what he considers modern-day slavery, assuring the audience that his administration is enacting ever-expanding reforms. “We're shining a spotlight on the dark corners where it persists,” he said. But there’s also a lot still to do. On Tuesday, he signed an executive order requiring business cooperation with the issue, and called for congress to renew the Trafficking Victims Protection Act—legislation to help identify and prosecute human trafficking situations, which expired last year.
Things are moving, but Buck says there’s still a long way to go, as more victims step forward. “The volume of cases identified has simply outpaced the funding,” she says. And for organizations dealing with survivors, a quick fix isn’t enough. The average stay for those at CAST is a year and a half, during which they are given everything someone who arrives without a dime to her name needs, from shelter and protection to medical treatment and language programs. The organization also brings over to America family members of the victims if they believe they could be targeted.
Matul’s story, incredible as it is, is just one of many. Across the globe there are an estimated 20 million human-trafficking victims. But with the overarching prevention work done by government agencies, and on-the-ground recovery provided by small charities such as CAST, a problem that has marred most of human history is being chipped at, bill by bill and story by story. Buck hopes Obama’s speech will “light some fires,” especially since many seem unaware of the magnitude of the problem that’s taking place in our backyards.
Obama addressed these voiceless enslaved people directly at CGI, saying, “Our message today, to them, is—to the millions around the world—we see you. We hear you. We insist on your dignity. And we share your belief that if just given the chance, you will forge a life equal to your talents and worthy of your dreams.”
A shining example stood under the spotlight at CGI just earlier this week. “Look what happens when people get back on their feet,” Buck says.