They arrived in the United States from West Africa, young girls held against their will and forced to work for hours on end. But this time, it didn’t happen hundreds of years ago.
Nicole’s journey started in 2002, when she was barely 12, in her small village in western Ghana. She and about 20 other girls were held in plain sight, but always under the watchful eyes of their captors.
“It was like being trapped, like being in a cage,” said “Nicole,” now 19. CNN agreed not to use her real name.
“I always have to behave, behave, behave, behave. No freedom at all.”
The girls’ families sent them to the United States after being assured they would receive a better education. But once they arrived, they were forced to work in hair braiding shops across the Newark area — just a short drive from New York City, right in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty.
The girls, who are now young women, have never spoken publicly before, until now.
“It was horrible,” said Zena Amevor, who was 15 when she was brought over from Togo. “Sometimes there was not enough food for us to eat. … It was like a prison. I was just stuck there. … It was horrible.”
For the first time, the former slaves provided details about their horrifying odyssey and an intimate view into the world of human trafficking and contemporary slavery.
“Jacqueline” was 13 when her family sent her to the United States, not knowing that a woman she called “auntie” was a human trafficker. It was unclear if the woman was a blood relative.
“My dad … worked hard so I could go to school, so when my auntie came and told my family that I could go to a school in the U.S. … they trusted her,” she said. “Everyone was happy about it.”
The girls worked in the salons right out in the open, in front of customers. They were on their feet all day, sometimes for more than 12 hours, weaving intricate and elaborate hair braids, seven days a week.
This went on for more than five years.
“We stood there all day, just braiding,” Jacqueline said. “If they want really small braids, you stay there sometimes until 2 a.m. … That’s every day.”
At times, they were forced to braid the hair of American teenagers no older than they were — girls who were free and had no idea the people braiding their hair were slaves.
“I wished I could go with them,” Nicole said. “Most of the time, I’d end up just breaking down later crying … because when I see teenagers going around, going to the movies and just being a teen … I just couldn’t understand why my life has to be this way … ”
In one of the many ironies in the case, the customers whose hair was braided by the slave girls were mostly African-American women, many of whom could have been descendants of slaves brought to America generations ago.
Slavery through trafficking continues widely today in the United States, though often undetected, according to law enforcement officials.
Nicole, Zena, Jacqueline and the other girls were held in groups in several houses around Newark and East Orange, New Jersey. The girls were brought to the United States at different times between 2002 and 2007, according to court documents. As the group grew, the traffickers ran out of places to put them and had to rent more living quarters.
The homes were always in the middle of residential areas with manicured lawns and nice houses, often near churches, schools and community buildings.
“I think it’s hard for people to believe that in 2010, we have people who actually put people in slavery,” said Paul Fishman, the U.S. attorney for New Jersey, whose office successfully prosecuted the case. “It’s the most fundamental and intolerable violation of human rights.”