July 30, 2007— -- A beautiful girl with a Cinderella story -- this time it's not a fairy tale, but a young woman's real-life struggle to escape poverty and servitude. Shyima, now 17 years-old, once worked as a slave in an American household.
It was a house just like any other in the wealthy Northwood district of Irvine, California. But Shyima worked in that home as a secret servant, often locked inside, for three years. She labored up to twenty hours a day without pay, trapped in a life that amounted to slavery.
"I [could do] nothing but…pray to God. That's about it," Shyima said.
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Shyima grew up in Egypt, one of twelve children living in a destitute section of Alexandria. When she was only nine, Shyima's mother sent her away from home so she could work.
But what Shyima did not know was that her parents had essentially sold her into slavery. A contract between her parents and Nassar Ibrahim, a 51-year-old entrepreneur, stated that Shyima would work for his family of seven for the next ten years. In exchange, Nasser would pay Shyima's parents a minimal monthly fee. She would receive no money for her work.
"I thought, 'This is a classic case,'" said Kevin Bales, who leads a human rights organization called Free the Slaves (http://www.freetheslaves.net/). "It has virtually every single marker for the enslavement of a young girl under domestic service."
According to Bales, there are about 27 million people enslaved around the world today. He estimates 15,000 slaves are brought into the U.S. each year.
Shyima became one of them when the Ibrahims decided to relocate to Irvine, California in August of 2000. In Shyima's case, the human trafficking was easy to hide. A passport picture and a false visa were all it took. Shyima's paperwork claimed she was "a student," "on vacation," and she would be back in "one month."
Once in the United States, the Ibrahims moved into an upscale home in a gated community. Instead of living in the luxurious house with the family, however, the Ibrahims forced Shyima to live alone in a small, dirty room in the garage. She slept on a mattress with no heating or air conditioning and washed her clothes in a bucket. She worked seven days a week, washing the dishes, doing laundry, and scrubbing the kitchen floors until late at night.
"When the whole family was there it was really busy all the time. You didn't get much sleep," Shyima explained. "[I would] just wake up and go do what I was told to do -- like working, clean up the rooms or bathrooms, doing the dishes."
Shyima was treated as a second-class citizen in the Ibrahim household. She was not allowed to socialize with the family or leave the house. Because she was not allowed to go to school, she did not know how to read, write, or speak English.
At age 11, Shyima had been not only forced into slavery, but also into a life of solitude. The Ibrahims controlled Shyima by intensifying her fears, telling her that her family in Egypt would be hurt or the police would beat her if she were to run away. Neighbors believed she was a cousin of the Ibrahim family, never suspecting the truth.
On April 9, 2002, 16 months after Shyima first arrived at the Ibrahim household, someone called in an anonymous tip. Detective Tracy Jacobson followed up with a visit to the house. Jacobson found a very frightened Shyima and brought her to a protective home for abused children.
"I believe she thought she was being arrested," Jacobson said. "Later on, I learned that Shyima had been told if she went outside that the police would arrest her and take her to jail."
At first she was scared, and only repeated what the Ibrahims had instructed her to say if she were ever discovered. But eventually, she confided to Jacobson about her life as a slave.
On the same day Jacobson freed Shyima, Nasser Ibrahim was arrested at his home. Nearly five years later Nasser and his wife Amal pleaded guilty to two federal slavery charges: conspiracy and harboring an illegal alien. Nasser was sentenced to three years in prison, and Amal was sentenced to 22 months.
Shyima was placed in foster care and taken in by Chuck and Jenny Hall, who invited her into their home, adopted her, and became the loving family she never had.
Shyima now attends school and speaks English. Once a hidden slave, she is now a typical American teenager: She recently got her driver's license, runs track at school, and attended the senior prom this past spring.
Shyima's escape from her life as a servant is the happily ever after many hidden slaves in America never get.