Late at night, the neighbors saw a little girl at the kitchen sink of the house next door.
Shyima was 10 when a wealthy Egyptian couple brought her from a poor village in northern Egypt to work in their California home. She awoke before dawn and often worked past midnight to iron their clothes, mop the marble floors and dust the family’s crystal. She earned $45 a month working up to 20 hours a day. She had no breaks during the day and no days off.
The trafficking of children for domestic labor in the U.S. is an extension of an illegal but common practice in Africa. Families in remote villages send their daughters to work in cities for extra money and the opportunity to escape a dead-end life. Some girls work for free on the understanding that they will at least be better fed in the home of their employer.
The custom has led to the spread of trafficking, as well-to-do Africans accustomed to employing children immigrate to the U.S. Around one-third of the estimated 10,000 forced laborers in the United States are servants trapped behind the curtains of suburban homes, according to a study by the National Human Rights Center at the University of California at Berkeley and Free the Slaves, a nonprofit group. No one can say how many are children, especially since their work can so easily be masked as chores.
Once behind the walls of gated communities like this one, these children never go to school. Unbeknownst to their neighbors, they live as modern-day slaves, just like Shyima, whose story is pieced together through court records, police transcripts and interviews.
For a year, Shyima, 9, worked in the Cairo apartment owned by Amal Motelib and Nasser Ibrahim. Every month, Shyima’s mother came to pick up her salary.
Tens of thousands of children in Africa, some as young as 3, are recruited every year to work as domestic servants. They are on call 24 hours a day and are often beaten if they make a mistake. Children are in demand because they earn less than adults and are less likely to complain. In just one city—Casablanca—a 2001 survey by the Moroccan government found more than 15,000 girls under 15 working as maids.
The U.S. State Department found that over the past year, children have been trafficked to work as servants in at least 33 of Africa’s 53 countries. Children from at least 10 African countries were sent as maids to the U.S. and Europe. But the problem is so well hidden that authorities—including the U.N., Interpol and the State Department—have no idea how many child maids now work in the West.
By the time the Ibrahims decided to leave, Shyima’s family had taken several loans from them for medical bills. The Ibrahims said they could only be repaid by sending Shyima to work for them in the U.S. A friend posed as her father, and the U.S. embassy in Cairo issued her a six-month tourist visa.
She arrived at Los Angeles International Airport on Aug. 3, 2000, according to court documents. The family brought her back to their spacious five-bedroom, two-story home, decorated in the style of a Tuscan villa with a fountain of two angels spouting water through a conch. She was told to sleep in the garage.
It had no windows and was neither heated nor air-conditioned. Soon after she arrived, the garage’s only light bulb went out. The Ibrahims didn’t replace it. From then on, Shyima lived in the dark.
While the family slept, she ironed the school outfits of the Ibrahims’ 5-year-old twin sons. She woke them, combed their hair, dressed them and made them breakfast. Then she ironed clothes and fixed breakfast for the three girls, including Heba, who at 10 was the same age as the family’s servant.
Neither Ibrahim nor his wife worked, and they slept late. When they awoke, they yelled for her to make tea.
While they ate breakfast watching TV, she cleaned the palatial house. She vacuumed each bedroom, made the beds, dusted the shelves, wiped the windows, washed the dishes and did the laundry.
She started wetting her bed. Her sheets stank. So did her oversized T-shirt and the other hand-me-downs she wore.
While doing the family’s laundry, she slipped her own clothes into the load. Madame slapped her. “She told me my clothes were dirtier than theirs. That I wasn’t allowed to clean mine there,” she said.
She washed her clothes in a bucket in the garage. She hung them to dry outside, next to the trash cans.
It never occurred to her to run away.
“I thought this was normal,” she said.
“There is a sense that children should work to help their family, but also that they are being given an opportunity,” said Mark Lagon, the director of the U.S. State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.
In 2006, a U.S. district court in Michigan sentenced a Cameroonian man to 17 years in prison for bringing a 14-year-old girl from his country to work as his unpaid maid. That same year, a Moroccan couple was sentenced to home confinement for forcing their 12-year-old Moroccan niece to work grueling hours caring for their baby.
In Germantown, Md., a Nigerian couple used their daughter’s passport to bring in a 14-year-old Nigerian girl as their maid. She worked for them for five years before escaping in 2001. In Germany, France, the Netherlands and England, African immigrants have been arrested for forcing children from their home countries to work as their servants.
In several of these cases, the employers argued that they took the children with the parents’ permission. The Cameroonian girl’s mother flew to Detroit to testify in court against her daughter, saying the girl was ungrateful for the good life her employers had provided her.
Shyima’s mother, Salwa Mahmoud, said her father believed she would have better opportunities in America.
For months Shyima lied to investigators, saying what the Ibrahims had told her to say.
She went without sleep for days at a stretch. She was put on four different types of medication. She moved from foster home to foster home. Her mood swings alarmed her guardians. In school for the first time, she struggled to learn to read.
Investigators arranged for her to speak to her parents. She told them she felt like a “nobody” working for the Ibrahims and wanted to come home. Her father yelled at her.
Three years ago, she broke off contact with her family. Since then she has refused to speak Arabic. She can no longer communicate in her mother tongue.
During the 2006 trial, the Ibrahims described Shyima as part of their family. They included proof of a trip she took with the family to Disneyland. Shyima’s lawyer pointed out that the 10-year-old wasn’t allowed on the rides—she was there to carry the bags.
The couple’s lawyers collected photographs of the home where Shyima grew up, including close-ups of the feces-stained squat toilet and of Shyima’s sisters washing clothes in a bucket.
The couple pleaded guilty to all charges, including forced labor and slavery. They were ordered to pay $76,000, the amount Shyima would have earned at the minimum wage. The sentence: Three years in federal prison for Ibrahim, 22 months for his wife, and then deportation for both. Their lawyers declined to comment for this story.
Shyima was adopted last year by Chuck and Jenny Hall of Beaumont, Calif. The family lives near Disneyland, where they have taken her a half-dozen times. She graduated from high school this summer after retaking her exit exam and hopes to become a police officer.
Shyima, now 19, has a list of assigned chores. She wears purple eyeshadow, has a boyfriend and frequently updates her profile on MySpace. Her hands are neatly manicured.
But in her closet, she keeps a box of pictures of her parents and her brothers and sisters. “I don’t look at them because it makes me cry,” she said. “How could they? They’re my parents.”
EPILOGUE: On a recent afternoon in Cairo, Madame Amal walked into the lobby of her apartment complex wearing designer sunglasses and a chic scarf.
After nearly two years in a U.S. prison cell, she’s living once more in the spacious apartment where Shyima first worked as her maid. The apartment is adorned in the style of a Louis XIV palace, with ornately carved settees, gold-leaf vases and life-sized portraits of her and her husband.
She did not agree to be interviewed for this story.
Before the door closed behind her, a little girl slipped in carrying grocery bags. She wore a shabby T-shirt. Her small feet slapped the floor in loose flip-flops. Her eyes were trained on the ground.
She looked to be around 9 years old.