Posted on December 6, 2010

Held As Slaves, Now Free

Scott Bronstein, Amber Lyon and Alexandra Poolos, CNN, December 3, 2010

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.


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. {snip}”

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.


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.


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.


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 traffickers convicted in this case were a mother, father and son who also came from West Africa, according to court documents and law enforcement officials.


The captors controlled the girls by beating them, withholding food, keeping them separated from anyone else and, at times, through sexual abuse, according to court documents.


Peter Edge, who led the team of [ICE] agents, said none of the girls’ customers ever called officials to help.

“Hundreds of people came into these salons, they probably witnessed things out of the ordinary,” said Edge, special agent in charge of ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations in Newark.


In the 2007 raid, the ICE agents found a notebook the girls used to track the tips they received, but couldn’t keep, at the hair salon. {snip}

More than two years later, Akouavi Afolabi; her husband, Lassissi Afolabi; and their son, Dereck Hounakey, were convicted of running the trafficking ring. Akouavi Afolabi was the ringleader, while her husband and son were accomplices, according to court documents.


Court records show the Afolabis knew many of the families whose girls they lured away to become their slaves. They had an elaborate scheme to lure the girls: Mrs. Afolabi would approach families of young girls in Ghana and Togo, where she had connections, and tell the families she would give the girls an education in the United States. They then used fraudulent visa papers to sneak the girls into the country.

Experts say the main reason for most modern-day human trafficking is money.

“Human trafficking is extremely profitable,” said Bridgette Carr, a law professor and a national expert on human trafficking.

The customers at the hair braiding salon where Zena and Nicole were forced to work would sometimes pay as much as $200 to $400 for elaborate braiding that would take many hours to complete.

The traffickers took every penny made by the girls, both in tips and payments for their hair braiding. They made about $4 million, according to court documents.

“It’s so profitable that we are seeing some drug traffickers get out of drug trafficking and into human trafficking,” said Carr, who teaches law at the University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor.