Have you ever struck up a conversation with a stranger on a plane, only to discover that she’s being trafficked?
In November 2017, I completed a program evaluation in Northern Nigeria and was heading home. My 31-hour flight to Los Angeles included a long layover in Cairo, from 9 PM to 2 AM.
My seatmate from Abuja to Cairo was a petite Nigerian girl dressed in a black-specked dress and headscarf. I later learned she was 24, but her shy demeanor made me think she was an adolescent. As she struggled with the tray table, I realized she had never flown before.
Towards the end of our flight, I asked if she was visiting family in Cairo. She smiled hesitantly. No, she was heading to Saudi Arabia. I again asked her if she had family there, but she shook her head. She was going there for work. An elementary school friend had sent her a WhatsApp message about a job opportunity, and she had jumped at the chance — although really, she wanted to study fashion design. She showed me pictures on her phone of various women in bright-printed dresses. “I made them,” she said proudly.
“You don’t know anyone in Saudi Arabia?” I pressed again. She shook her head. In fact, she did not speak Arabic either. I began to interrogate her. “What kind of work will you be doing? For how long? Do you have a contract?” She murmured that she thought she would be a nanny, but was not sure. “I think I will stay a year,” she told me. She had no contract.
“Do you have a round-trip ticket?” I inquired. She looked at me, perplexed. She was not exactly sure what I meant. She dug into her purse and produced a piece of paper — a crudely Xeroxed single page of a one-way ticket to Riyadh. “Who will be meeting you in Riyadh?” I demanded. She was uncertain. She only knew that someone would come to the airport carrying a sign with her name.
The story sounded eerily familiar. Several years earlier, for a research project, I had interviewed some formerly trafficked women in the U.S.. They each told me of being contacted by a female acquaintance, whom they had not seen in many years, with a work opportunity abroad. It was a chance to travel, gain experience, make money. As one woman said, she felt like she had won the lottery.
The plane had now landed. “Have you ever heard of trafficking?” I urgently asked the girl. She shook her head. She was growing frightened. She began talking rapidly to another girl behind her in the plane. This girl was even smaller, dressed in white. I soon learned she was 22. I asked to see her ticket, and was horrified to see the same crude Xerox. Their onward flight left at midnight, which meant that they would arrive in Saudi Arabia at 3 AM, when no one would be around. How convenient, I thought grimly.
As we exited the aircraft, I urged them to stay close to me. “Let me talk to some Egyptian authorities. Maybe they will call Interpol.” We entered the police station in the transit area and I began to describe the situation to an Egyptian policeman. He interrupted, “Is this a kidnapping?” No, I assured him, but it was probably trafficking. “What is trafficking?” he inquired. I could not tell if he was truly ignorant or just mocking us. I begged to meet with his superior.
The girls were getting panicky, arguing with each other. My former seatmate turned to me: “She is blaming me for talking to you. She wants to go catch her flight. Her suitcase with all her things is heading to Saudi.” I implored the girls to wait. I longed to Google for information, but we were in transit, without WiFi.
Eventually, we met with an Egyptian police commander. I asked him to call Interpol. “Why?” he demanded. “Don’t they have work visas for Saudi Arabia? Are they children? Is there a gun being held to their heads?” I responded, “But trafficking is a criminal activity!” The commander sneered, “This is because of the policies of their f***ing country. It is not our problem.”
Not knowing what else to do, I gave my business card to my former seatmate and urged her to be in touch if she could. I begged her not to allow anyone to take her passport, and to contact the Nigerian Embassy if she were mistreated. The girls forlornly left for their gate.
Shaken, I found my way to an airport lounge. I had never felt so powerless. I wondered if I had actually made things worse, by causing the girls to feel miserable and angry. In the lounge, I was able to use Google. I was appalled to read one newspaper account about Nigerian girls being trafficked to Saudi Arabia for their organs.
A few weeks later, I met a human rights lawyer and asked his opinion. He said, “Unfortunately, the bad actor here is Saudi Arabia. Why did they allow these poorly qualified girls to get work visas? Will they ensure that they have legitimate employment and are not entrapped?” He noted that these traffickers had covered their tracks perfectly. The girls were not minors, they had work visas, and no “minder” accompanied them. They did not even have an agent’s name in Saudi Arabia. Everything was by the book — and profoundly evil.
Several months went by. One day I found a voicemail on my office line, followed by a brief email from “Leticia.” She explained: “For the past 3 months ma, things wasn’t easy… It was exactly your prediction. I want to thank you for preparing my mind towards my ordeal. I was force[d] to learn their language quickly. I was assaulted by the madam’s husband. Overused by the wife and her children. At the long run, I fell very ill and I prayed that my illness should be an avenue for them to send me back to my country. God answered my prayers. I was taken to the hospital twice. To my surprise, the test and all the medicals they run on me, nothing was found. My health condition became worse, and bless God I was sent back to my country. So I’m home and am strong and fine.”
Leticia’s Facebook account is a witness to her ordeal. Prior to our meeting on the plane, she had been posting every few days. Then came a gaping three-month hole. The silence ended abruptly with photos of Leticia sitting somberly on a plane, with the caption, “Feels good to be home. Thank you Lord for your safety.”
Over time, Leticia shared more details. Upon arrival in Saudi Arabia, she was driven directly to the house of a family who had four children. From that day until her departure, she was never allowed to leave the house except to go to the hospital. She worked seven days a week, from early until late. The family and visitors constantly hounded her to work quickly. The family allocated her a small bedroom downstairs with no lock, so anyone could enter unannounced. We never discussed the husband’s sexual assaults. However, she did say that she learned Arabic to refuse him and his children.
The first two weeks were particularly terrible because she couldn’t call home to let her parents know that she had arrived safely. Prior to leaving Nigeria, she had exchanged some money. She gave it to the wife and begged her to purchase a sim card for her phone so she could call home, but the wife pretended not to understand. Leticia wept. Finally, the wife bought her a sim card, but said she could only use her phone to call her parents. The wife checked Leticia’s phone every day to verify. She also increased Leticia’s duties. By the time she would call home at night, she was exhausted and could only speak briefly.
Leticia’s life might have continued like this for many years had it not been for the serious illness. She asked the wife to buy her an air ticket to go home. Leticia gave her all the money she had received as salary (800 riyals — about $200 — per month), along with the money she had brought with her.
Leticia arrived home with less money than when she had left. She knows that she had miraculously escaped years of forced servitude, but feels disoriented and chastened. She does not want other Nigerian women to suffer her fate, but has no way to warn them. She believes the family in Saudi Arabia should be punished, yet recognizes that Nigeria is unlikely to act.
On my part, I am dismayed that despite correctly identifying a young woman who was being trafficked, I could do nothing to stop it. What is the point of educating the public to detect signs of trafficking if the authorities in many parts of the world will not intervene unless someone is underage? Families in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere can engage in household slavery because their governments issue visas to poor young women — and turn a blind eye to their ultimate plight.
Harriet Tubman, the famous abolitionist who had been born into slavery, in 1855 declared, “Slavery is the next thing to hell.” She would be despondent to learn that despite extraordinary technological breakthroughs that enable people to glide through the air from one country to another, slavery has endured into the 21st century.