In smuggling case, 'victims' defend the accused
by Brian Donohue/The Star-Ledger
Saturday May 10, 2008, 9:00 PM
Last September, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested two men and a woman from Togo who they said smuggled 14 girls and young women from West Africa, forced them to work without pay at hair-braiding salons in Newark and East Orange, and kept them in line with threats and beatings.
It was, one agent said, a case of modern-day slavery.
Now, four of the alleged victims say they weren't exploited at all.
Rather, they described the three people charged in the case, Lassissi Afolabi, 44, Akouavi Kpade Afolabi, 39, and Dereck Hounakey, 30, as benevolent parent figures who rescued them from misery in their African village, where drinking water was hauled from a stream each day and their parents struggled to feed their families.
They say they long to return to the hair salons -- even if they weren't paid for their long hours performing intricate hair weaves. And worse, they say, their parents in Africa are blaming them for the downfall of the three jailed suspects, who had been sending money to the workers' families before the salons were shut.
When she calls home, says one 21-year old woman, her parents blame her for disappointing the village, then they hang up on her.
"I can't take it any more," said the woman, who, like all of those interviewed requested her name be withheld because she is a witness in an active criminal investigation.
"Before, we were happy," she added, shaking and visibly nervous as she spoke. "Now we are not happy. My life is going to hell."
Prosecutors and social workers cast doubt on the women's statements, noting such victims remain vulnerable long after they are pulled from abusive situations. They also fear the women may have been coerced to protect the suspects, or have developed a psychological attachment to them.
Nonetheless, no one involved in human trafficking can recall a case, in New Jersey or elsewhere, in which victims have launched such a defense of their alleged abusers.
Their account shines a rare light into the complex world investigators and prosecutors navigate battling human trafficking -- where toughened U.S. laws and hard evidence often collide with complex victim pathologies and conflicting cultural and economic norms.
"This is not an unusual case, although it's complicated, and it's heart-wrenching for these girls," said Andrea Bertone, executive director of Humantrafficking.org, an anti-trafficking organization in Washington, D.C.
"They don't think of themselves as victims, but our law defines them as such," she said. "It makes it difficult for prosecutors emotionally, but our laws are very clear: You can't bring them here to work and keep them in these conditions."
The four who spoke to The Star-Ledger represent a fraction of the 14 former hair salon workers now classified by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as human-trafficking victims.
They told their stories in a pair of interviews arranged by Akl Afolabi, son of the two suspects. Akl Afolabi was not present for the first interview but was in the room during the second, held at the Linden office of attorney John Brucki, who is representing the Afolabis.
The three suspects are charged with harboring illegal aliens for financial gain, a crime that carries a maximum of 10 years in prison. Kpade Afolabi, known by the women as "Sister," also is charged with smuggling, which carries the same sentence.
Prosecutors also are considering charges of human trafficking, or forced labor, which carry even stiffer sentences.
Brucki says the three deny the charges, claiming the workers were paid and entered the country legally. Prosecutors say the workers lied about being related to those who sponsored them for visas. But Brucki said family lines often are blurred in tribal systems.
"This case is not as simple as the government makes it out to be," he said.
The four women would not answer questions about the smuggling charges or how they entered the U.S. But they angrily dispute the public statements and allegations in court papers by federal authorities stating they were beaten and forced to work.
"Nobody forced us to work," said one 21-year-old woman. "My life got better. I eat well, I drink good water, I wear good clothes. These people, they changed our life for the better."
Prosecutors aren't buying it.
At least one other victim has told investigators Lassissi Afolabi would beat the women if they did not return to their apartments after work, asked for money or disobeyed his orders, according to the criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Newark. Prosecutors say they are prepared to present more evidence at trial.
"Any suggestion that these people were benevolent patrons is absurd and contrary to the information we possess," said Mike Drewniak, spokesman for the Office of the U.S. attorney in Newark.
RIPE FOR EXPLOITATION
ÂLike many West African nations, tiny Togo, population 5.5 million, remains wracked by the abject poverty that makes it fertile ground for human traffickers.
No estimates for adults are available, but the U.S. State Department says anti-trafficking workers in Togo rescued approximately 4,000 victims of child trafficking between 2002 and 2006. Children were trafficked to Central Africa, France, Germany and the Middle East to work as domestic servants, produce porters, farm workers or roadside sellers.
Many, the State Department says, were fed poorly, clothed crudely, cared for inadequately, given drugs to work longer hours, or forced to work as prostitutes.
The four salon workers, all between ages 18 and 21, concede they were desperate to leave Togo. One 21-year-old described living with 10 family members in a one-room house with a dirt floor and a ceiling that leaked when it rained.
"I wish the police would go back to our country and see our village," said the woman. "They need to see with their own eyes what it is like. My house there? Here, they would not call it a house."
Prosecutors say Kpade Afolabi, a slight woman who looks far older than her 40 years, had no trouble finding families willing to ship their daughters off to the U.S. with the hope they would go to school or work to send money home.
To do it, prosecutors say Afolabi, a legal U.S. resident, would seek out Africans who had won U.S. immigrant visas in an annual lottery but who could not afford the fees or plane tickets.
She offered to pay for their trip -- but only if the visa holder would smuggle one of the female workers into the U.S. by having her pose as their wife or daughter.
One victim from Ghana, not among those interviewed by The Star-Ledger, told investigators she was 15 when her father arranged for her to leave home with Kpade Afolabi to attend school in the U.S., according to court papers.
She lived for several months, along with four other girls, with Kpade Afolabi in Togo before being introduced to a man she was told would pose as her stepfather for the immigration process.
After obtaining a false Togo passport, she went to the U.S. embassy in Togo and claimed in an interview with U.S. officials that the man was her stepfather. In October 2002, Kpade accompanied the five girls on a flight to New York.
Once in the U.S., prosecutors say Afolabi put the women to work at Ashley's Hair Braiding on Central Avenue in East Orange, owned by her husband, and at Newark Hair Braiding on 18th Avenue, owned by Hounakey.
The salons were among dozens, if not hundreds, in Newark and other cities advertising African hair-braiding and catering largely to African-American women among whom the long, intricate braids have become fashionable.
A session for a person with long hair can last up to seven hours. Customers pay between $15 and $100, depending on the type of braid and length of hair.
Many salons hire women from Africa, where the skill is passed down from mothers to their young daughters.
The four women interviewed lived in a boxy, newly constructed East Orange home owned by the Afolabis. Others lived in a nearby, aging two-family rental house shared with Hounakey.
Prosecutors said they were driven to work each day in a green van by Hounakey, and toiled six days a week, braiding hair for no pay, and ordered to return home immediately after work. The suspects took their passports and other ID, would beat and threaten them if they did not return home immediately after work, asked for money or disobeyed the Afolabis, according to prosecutors.
"This is a case of modern-day slavery," said Tom Manifase, deputy special agent in charge of investigation for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
DEFENDING THE ACCUSED
Seated in the lawyer's office on a misty late winter morning, the four women look like typical American youth, bundled in hoodies and down parkas. Across their cheekbones they bear traditional tribal scars, symbols of identity cut into their skin as young girls.
Asked if they were controlled by Hournekay and the Afolabis while they worked at the salons, they roll their eyes and let out a collective groan like annoyed teenagers.
"What we're doing for her, it's like (a form of) thanksgiving," said the 21-year-old. "If we don't get paid money, it's no problem."
They speak fluent English and have work permits allowing them to live in the U.S while they apply for special visas issued to victims of human trafficking. Three have found new jobs, but social workers asked The Star-Ledger not to publish the name of their employers to protect their identities.
They are receiving assistance from Catholic Charities in Newark, which has a contract with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to help refugees and trafficking victims. Citing confidentiality rules, Catholic Charities officials declined to comment on the case.
Despite this help, the four say they are more lost than ever, living in apartments and struggling with day-to-day life in a new country.
"They are the only three people we know in this country," said the 18-year old, referring to the jailed suspects. "I feel like my father and my mommy are in jail."
Meanwhile, their real parents, back in Africa, are angry.
The Afolabis had been sending money earned from the hair salons back to their village. The women may not have received paychecks, but they say a large network of relatives and villagers were benefiting from the Afolabis' money.
Social workers and authorities close to the case caution that a combination of factors have placed enormous pressures on the women.
As for their past treatment, one social worker said, the girls "do not know the difference between abuse and discipline. They don't know anything about freedom," the worker said. "They think they have to be loyal to these people."
Other experts who work with victims of human trafficking say the women's statements fit the description of a phenomenon known as "traumatic bonding." It causes victims to develop an emotional attachment and dependence on their traffickers.
The women, however, disagree. They say no one is making them talk, just as no one made them leave Togo and no one made them work in the salons.
They chose that life, they say, and it was better than what they had in Africa -- better, they say, than the rootless future ahead.
"All we want," one woman said, "is to go back to the life we had."
Brian Donohue may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (973) 392-1543.