Slavery in America: An Undeniable Truth

Several thousand people are working against their wills without pay in the U.S.

July 8, 2008, 9:36 AM

July 11, 2008— -- In 1996, when Marie Pompee came to visit her relatives in Port-au-Prince, she offered to take their servant, an orphan named Williathe Narcisse, back to the United States to live with her. To 9-year-old Narcisse, the offer sounded like the answer to her prayers. But upon arrival, Narcisse tells a harrowing tale: her Hole in her new suburban Miami home was to be a domestic slave, forced to work under threat of violence for no pay.

When she did not complete her cleaning duties satisfactorily, Narcisse claims Pompee beat her and sometimes forced her to sleep in the garage.

Tempting as it may be to think of Haitian child slavery at a distance, confined to the troubled island, today an untold number of such slaves — known by the Creole euphemism restavèks, or "stay-withs" — suffer in bondage inside the United States.

Worldwide, there are more slaves today than at any point in human history, and America is not immune to the crime. Restavèks are only a fraction of the estimated 50,000 slaves held in the United States. Each year, traffickers take more people — up to 17,500 according to Justice Department estimates — into slavery in the United States than traders annually took into bondage in colonial America.

The Justice Department has successfully prosecuted sex trafficking cases in record numbers since the passage of the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act. But according to its own estimates, the government has liberated less than 2 percent of the slaves within U.S. borders.

Domestic slaves are the most difficult to discover, let alone free. Recent cases have revealed a pattern of domestic slavery in otherwise "decent" households, often in expatriot enclaves. In those cases, only the intervention of conscientious citizens broke the slaves' chains.

In 2005, a restavèk named Simone Celestin, being held in Broward County, Florida, escaped with the help of a friend of her captors, Evelyn Theodore and Maude Paulin. The women had kept Celestin out of school, forcing her to work for fifteen hours per day, and beating her with a curling iron or a mortar when she didn't clean to their satisfaction. When Paulin's friend reported Celestin's abuse to a community group, which subsequently aided in her rescue, Theodore and Paulin retorted that the young woman had concocted the story to gain permanent residence in the United States. A jury didn't buy it. On March 4 this year, Theodore and Paulin were found guilty of conspiring to violate Celestin's Thirteenth Amendment right to be free from slavery.

Domestic slavery is by no means limited to the Haitian-American community. In May, 2007, police in Syosset, N.Y. responded to a call from Dunkin' Donuts employees about a disheveled Indonesian woman in a towel who had stumbled into the restaurant, covered in bruises and able to say only one word in English: "Master."

Immigration officials investigated the suburban Long Island mansion where the woman, Samirah, indicated she had been held, and found another Indonesian maid cowering in a closet.

The owners, an Indian couple named Varsha and Mahender Sabhnani, were convicted several months later on a dozen counts including forced labor and peonage. In court, Samirah and the other captive, Enung, testified that the Sabhnanis had turned their $2 million home into a house of horrors once the women arrived in 2002.

If they slept late, or scavenged food from the garbage, Varsha beat them with brooms and umbrellas, stabbed them, poured boiling water on them, even forced them to eat spoonfuls of hot chili peppers until they vomited, then forced them to eat their own vomit. On June 26, Varsha was sentenced to eleven years in prison; a day later, her husband was sentenced to three years and four months.

As Williathe Narcisse tells her story, liberation also came thanks to the intervention of a stranger. In July 1999, she says that as she performed her duties with her captors at a safe distance, a television advertisement flashed a number for John Casablancas modeling agency on the screen. Catalina Restrepo, the 22-year-old intern who fielded Narcisse's call, was polite, but quickly got off the phone with the strange 12-year-old.

But Narcisse kept calling, and after beginning to have serious concerns about the incidents of abuse that the girl, in her halting English, was describing, Restrepo got involved, and put into motion a criminal investigation. While her husband and adult son fled back to Haiti to avoid prosecution, Marie Pompee was arrested. She pled guilty to reduced charges of harboring an illegal alien, and on July 1, 2004, a judge sentenced her to six months in prison. Pompee denied interview requests through her lawyer, but denied enslaving Willathe.

As with slaves throughout history, Narcisse's struggle did not end easily. To the dozens of foster families, case workers, therapists, teachers and health workers who briefly intersected with her after Pompee's arrest, it seemed she now faced a form of emotional bondage, manifested in ritual cleaning and self-abuse.

But today, Narcisse is a survivor. Still living in South Florida, she shares an apartment and struggles to find work. She is in her second year in college, and has dreams of working in television. And she doesn't dwell on the past.

"I would have friends — well, associates — in high school to whom I sometimes would tell the story of my rescue to, and they'd say 'I remember that!'" she said. "And then they'd start to feel sorry for me, and I told them not to feel sorry for me because I don't feel sorry for myself."

For every one Williathe Narcisse, Samirah or Simone Celestin, there are tens of thousands of slaves that suffer in the shadows in the United States. Those lucky few who got out only did so because ordinary citizens — a family friend, Dunkin' Donuts employees, a modeling agency intern — decided to get involved. In so doing, they became unlikely heroes and helped to free the slaves.

To report suspected cases of trafficking in the United States, call the Polaris Project hotline at 888-373-7888.

E. Benjamin Skinner is the author of "A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery." Please click HERE to read an excerpt from his book.

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