Life During & After Human Trafficking: A Survivor’s Story

Shandra Woworuntu, an activist and survivor of human trafficking, recalls her time in the underground sex business, the struggles of adjusting to a new life, and her quest to educate the world on this hidden crime.

In the midst of political turmoil in Indonesia, Shandra Woworuntu lost her job. With nowhere to go in her country, Woworuntu journeyed to Chicago after discovering a newspaper ad promising a temporary job in the hotel industry. Upon her arrival at New York’s JFK airport, she came face to face with the harsh reality.

With her passport, plane ticket, and belongings taken away and a gun pointed at her, Woworuntu fell prey to human trafficking. “Someone picked me up, but he didn’t send me to Chicago. Instead I was kidnapped and they put me into the underground sex business industry in New York City,” said Woworuntu. 

Just like Woworuntu, many people from across the globe willingly flock to the United States. Most come with hopes for a better life, but several are trafficked into the country. “Human trafficking is the foundation on which our country was built and still runs today,” said Jonathan Walton, director of New York City Urban Project, a faith-based non-profit with previous work in human trafficking.

According to the Global Slavery Index, approximately 60,100 people are currently victims of human trafficking in the United States. Since 2007, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center recorded 892 cases in New York State, with 201 cases reported this past year. Sex trafficking ranks the highest in the type of trafficking cases, with labor trafficking closely behind. 

After the ill-fated encounter, Woworuntu suffered through long months of brutal living conditions. Along with the other victims, she was kept in locked rooms with no possibility of opening windows or doors. “I never knew the time of the day,” said Woworuntu. Accompanying the captivity was a lack of appropriate nutrition, with alcohol and drugs being alternatives to food and water. A life of captivity put Woworuntu in confrontation with violence. Guns, baseball bats, and knives were used to threaten and prevent the captives from escape attempts. With no likelihood of leaving, obedience was her form of survival. “I didn’t want to die and I didn’t want people to beat me up, so I obeyed and I compromised what they asked me to do because I just want to save my life,” added Woworuntu.

All compromises made to survive soon paid off. Woworuntu managed to escape the underground sex business the same year she began. Her liberation was in the form of a small bathroom window on the second floor of a Brooklyn house. With no scratch or fractures, the escape was a miracle to Woworuntu.

All of her worries seemed to be left behind in that Brooklyn home, but another peril was looming. During her captivity, Woworuntu was given a phone number to call in order to obtain a ‘real’ job. “I was thinking I will get the job, get the money, and go back home. But when I  called the number he turned out top be another trafficker,” she added.  She successfully escaped again and arrived at a Chinatown precinct that same day in search for help, but none was found. Her cries for help at the Indonesian Consulate General also failed to receive any consideration for help.

In the wake of her pursuit for support, Woworuntu became homeless. Her sources for shelter were the parks, subways, the Staten Island Ferry, and Times Square. Finally, she met a man in a park listened to her story and connected her to the FBI. With their help, Woworuntu was able to rescue the girls trafficked along with her and the traffickers were put on trial.

Following the prosecution of the traffickers, Woworuntu felt no satisfaction. This discontent stems from the traffickers’ attempt to kidnap her daughter while searching for Woworuntu in Indonesia. “The situation kind of put me in a hard place to move,” said Woworuntu, “I was in a box.”

Adjusting to a new life outside of sex trafficking was no easy feat. Without family or acquaintances, her options proved limited. Immigration worked with Safe Horizon, a victims’ service agency, to help with Woworuntu’s immigration status and to provide shelter. The support lasted just 14 months, and soon Woworuntu was left, again, with nothing. “They kicked me out into the street  and I was always back to being homeless,” said Woworuntu.

Once Woworuntu settled into a new home, the disapproval of her new community became a new challenge to overcome. The media coverage her case received sparked a wave of criticisms.“I overheard so many things about me. It made me cry.” she stated. 

As of today, she still deals with the community’s judgement, along with the trauma from her experience. A weekly intake of medication has helped Woworuntu cope with the trauma, in addition to psychotherapy that keeps her mental health in check.

Aside from medical help, helping other victims of trafficking live a normal life also helped Woworuntu cope with her trauma. She founded her own non-profit organization, Mentari, to train and mentor survivors to stand on their own two feet. When asked about what she hopes to achieve with her organization, Woworuntu replies that she hopes to see more smiles, “I want to see more people not captured. I want to come in a movement together to end trafficking,” she said.

Accompanying her organization is the reintroduction of the Fraudulent Overseas Recruitment and Trafficking Elimination (FORTE) Act. This will prevent foreign labor contractors to contribute to human trafficking, and she hopes to reintroduce it on to the House Floor. With stories like hers and others, Woworuntu hopes to raise awareness about this hidden crime by educating the public. “We need to educate our community and our children so they don’t traffick,” said Woworuntu, “The education is not part of preventing them from being trafficked, but to prevent them to be a trafficker, too.”

If you suspect any activity in relation to human trafficking or know a victim, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.

Karina Hernandez