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Posted on Fri, Feb 4, 2011 : 9:31 p.m.

Women open human trafficking symposium at University of Michigan by detailing personal stories

By David Jesse

Nicole was 10 when a woman came to her parents’ house in the African country of Ghana, offering what seemed like paradise — a better future and an American education.

Nicole was thrilled. It seemed her dreams had come true.

But instead, long days braiding hair in a New Jersey shop turned into long weeks and months. Five years passed, and Nicole was forbidden from even greeting her neighbors as they passed on the street.

“It was the shop, then the house, then the shop, then the house,” Nicole told a crowd of more than 150 University of Michigan students, professors and community members Friday night as “Successes and Failures in International Human Trafficking Law,” a Michigan Journal of International Law symposium kicked off. The symposium continues Saturday.

Nicole and Dede — not their real names — spoke at today's event. They're both clients of the Human Trafficking Law Project, run by U-M professor Bridgette Carr.

Bridgette Carr.jpg

Bridgette Carr runs the University of Michigan Human Trafficking Clinic.

The project is the nation’s first clinical law program dedicated to fighting human trafficking. U-M students and Car represent victims like Nicole and Dede.

Carr said she talks to students who assume that means they'll be working in foreign countries.

Not so, she says.

“We have cases that are from 20 miles from here,” she said.

The clinic has clients who have been forced into the sex trade, and others who have worked in hair braiding shops and have been kept as domestic servants.

In addition, students are working to build an online database of human trafficking cases in the U.S. More than 150 cases have already been logged.

The searchable listings contain the stories of children tricked into leaving their homes in West Africa, then forced to work without pay in American hair-braiding shops; girls and young women forced into prostitution on American streets; and workers who toiled against their will on American farms.

“The University of Michigan’s human trafficking database is a critical advance in the fight against modern slavery,” Ambassador Luis CdeBaca, who leads the State Department’s efforts against human trafficking and will be the keynote during the symposium, said in a press release. “Whether a practitioner or a policy maker, an advocate or academic — the work of all modern abolitionists will benefit from this compendium.”

Each database entry is carefully screened and researched by law students, recent law graduates, and other volunteers who flesh out the initial results of LexisNexis searches.

The researchers then make entries into searchable fields such as name, state, and category of offense. To ensure reliable data, each entry is reviewed by a program manager before it becomes visible to the public.

“The database was a huge undertaking for the clinic, and we’re so grateful for the support of the Law School and the hard work of the students and graduates who brought the project to fruition,” Carr said. “Its launch is a major step toward the clinic’s goal of not just representing individual victims, but also being a resource for other educators and practitioners involved in the fight against human trafficking.”

Dede was 13 when the same woman who recruited Nicole showed up at her family’s home in Togo, making promises about an American education.

“I was only 12, so I was like, ‘OK,'” Dede said. “In my parents' minds, I was going for an education.”

Dede went through ruses — including pretending to be married — to get a visa to come to the U.S.

Her dreams died when she landed at the airport.

“When she picked me up at the airport, she said, ‘You know you’re not here for school, you’re coming here to braid (hair).'”

And so the girls did, working six or seven days a week from 7:30 a.m. until well past midnight some nights. They made several hundred dollars a week in tips, which they had to immediately turn over to the trafficker.

“If you bought a bottle of water, she’s going to ask, ‘Where did you get that? That’s my money.'”

That’s why traffickers do what they do, Carr said. It’s highly profitable, she said, noting more than 20 girls worked in this ring, each bringing in several hundred dollars a week. And there’s low risk since penalties for human trafficking are laxer than for smuggling drugs.

And the victims are trapped, Nicole and Dede said.

There was no where for them to go for help. They knew no one, and although both thought their customers knew something was fishy, no one spoke up.

“It was right there in front of them,” Nicole said. “They would ask me how old I was, and I always said I was 18. Customers who kept coming back heard that I was 18 year after year. I forgot that each year, you’re supposed to get older. They could have done something. None of them stepped up."

Finally, someone did go to the police and tell them about the traffickers.

That’s always a key tipping point, Carr said. Police can decide to investigate and prosecute traffickers or they can decide it’s an immigration issue, and the girls need to be rounded up and deported. That's the difference between being a victim or being the bad guy, she said.

Nicole will never forget Sept. 6, 2007. Around 5:30 a.m., as she was sleeping, there was a series of loud bangs that woke up everyone in the house. One of the girls opened the door to find police with guns drawn, barging in.

That didn’t end the fear for Nicole, Dede and the other girls. They didn’t know whether they could trust the police.

‘We knew (our) papers were fake. We were afraid they would send us home,” Dede said, adding they were afraid that the traffickers would use their connections in their home countries to hurt the girls.

“I was thinking, 'Is this happening?'” Nicole said. “I’ve been dreaming about this half my life. It felt like a dream. There was joy. I finally got to relax.”

The girls who were over 18 got to stay in New Jersey. Those who were under 18 were placed in foster care, with several ending up in Michigan.

Nicole now wants to be a nurse. Dede wants to be a lawyer.

They both say their cases should be learning opportunities for Americans.

“A lot of people don’t think this (slavery) is still going on,” Dede said. “It is. Pay attention. If you see a child by their looks, but they are telling you they are 18, ask questions. They might be scared to come to you and tell you. We was.

“We would go home every day praying someone would do something.”

David Jesse covers higher education for He can be reached at or at 734-623-2534.



Sun, Feb 6, 2011 : 4:12 a.m.

"What are your solutions?" One possibility: root cause=deception in Africa. Root solution=awareness in Africa. Spread the word there? Through ads, radio, tweety? Don't trust strangers with offers too good to be true? Enlightening folks there eliminates most downstream issues.


Sun, Feb 6, 2011 : 1:37 a.m.

There are a lot of African hair-braiding places around downtown Ypsilanti with children working and hanging out at all hours, including school times. Are these monitored at all?


Sat, Feb 5, 2011 : 8:56 p.m.

Good for those at the human trafficking clinic and Brigette Carr! We do need stronger laws to prosecute those who are the traffickers. That would help a lot.


Sat, Feb 5, 2011 : 6:34 p.m.

@ Searcher We are discussing the plight of CHILDREN being forced into slavery in this country and others. What does a disadvantaged, uneducated 12 year old child know, or should I say, understand the concept of legal or illegal entry into another country. Desperation will lead people, especially children, to do desperate things, including, leaving their parents and families in search of a better life in a far away land. These children are duped. They are tragically naive. Shame on you, and the others who agree with your comment.


Sun, Feb 6, 2011 : 2:28 a.m.

julie, Stop read, and think, please. There is clearly a difference between adults and children. I was speaking about adults. I said "women and men", not children . Children are not culpable for their actions and are true victims. I have NO shame for being compassionate and understanding the difference between those who should be punished and those who need to be protected. I have spent hundreds (yes hundreds!) of hours over the past three decades working with families, attorneys, embassies and consulates, in order to make sure unaccompanied children illegally brought or sent to this country contrary to law are humanely treated and respected. I have spent many a long night sitting up with these children talking with them and reading to them and feeding them until we could get them repatriated or safely lodged. Those of us who do the tough job, do not need to be preached to. Our actions speak louder than words.


Sat, Feb 5, 2011 : 6:32 p.m.

Maybe we need to tighten our borders so we can prevent this from happen in the US. It will not stop all slavery but it will make it more difficult and will reduce it. What are your solutions?


Sat, Feb 5, 2011 : 5:50 p.m.

Legal entry or not, these are real live human beings! Emotional and with the same senses we all have. This is right up there with the worst type of crime. Captive and enslaved with no means of communicating to the outside world for help. My highest regards to the law students, administrators, and down to the smallest bit of volunteer action to bring justice to these victims.


Sat, Feb 5, 2011 : 4:16 p.m.

@Searcher, fully agree. Rational, reasonable thinking cannot/will not t happen when one thinks with their heart only and allows their blood to boil. Human trafficking is wrong, prosecute them to the fullest extent. So far , little more than 150 cases have been entered into their data base across the USA. This is a miniscule number. I would suggest this group of folks could do far more good by including American girls/boys( young teens) who are forced into prostitution by their pimps. They would then have cases in the tens of thousands, not just in the low hundreds which would benefit far more "mistreated" people.


Sat, Feb 5, 2011 : 10:22 a.m.

Searcher, Blame the victim? Blame a TWELVE YEAR OLD child who is sold a bill of goods by a seasoned professional human trafficker? I cannot comment because anything I said while my blood is boiling would be removed, as it should be. Shame on you.


Sat, Feb 5, 2011 : 12:18 p.m.

Cash, I am sorry you misunderstood my intent I can not answer every retort, but adults and children are held to different standards. To infer that I believe otherwise is both unfair and untrue. Adults inadmissible aliens at out ports of entries outnumber minors by AT LEAST 50 to one (sorry I am not at work and do not have access to the exact number, but 50 to 1 is conservative.) Notwithstanding this ratio, children are not 'blamed". They are handled humanely and professionally. Most CBP and ICE officers are parents themselves. They are treat children using the highest standards set by the United States' Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000 (reissued in 2003). Children are indeed victims. I have deep compassion for them and have worked in this are for 30+ years. My last word....Keep up the good work Bridgette Carr and Ambassador Luis CdeBaca.This abuse must stop for everyone's sake.


Sat, Feb 5, 2011 : 7:20 a.m.

@WhyCan'tWe BeFriends - the rest of the story... It is most unfortunate that any person is abused emotionally or physically. However, most these women admittedly came to the United States in violation of law. I do not accept that they were duped. I know all too well from repeated first hand personal experience that women (and men) will obtain visas and then on occasion are able gain entry to our country by fraud. Once things do not go their way, oops - they cry foul. (from the article, "We knew (our) papers were fake."). Fortunately when they are caught at port of entry, they are refused entry and returned voluntarily or removed as an expedited deportation and the cycle is interrupted. Sorry - this is not the land of milk and honey. There is is a legal way to come to this country. Tens upon tens of thousands of intended immigrants wait in line and follow the rules annually. To those lawful immigrants, I say 'welcome' and 'good luck' in your new life in America. But to the others (the liars and scammers), I am grateful we have strong laws against fraud and misrepresentation in attempts to gain entry into our nation. I am equally appreciative that there are dedicated Customs and Border Protection Officers and Enforcement Officers at our ports of entry to thwart illegal entry. More should be denied visas, or caught and refused entry. And what about the human traffickers who promote this vicious cycle? - Prosecute them to the fullest extent the law allows to deter others from dehumanizing and exploiting laborers. Firm laws are in place, it is matter of getting the Assistant United States Attorney to accept these cases for prosecution and gain and guilty plea or verdict. Finally, you are woefully misguided when you state, "They have no rights and have no voice." There is a legal method for victims of human trafficking to obtain legal status. But perhaps you either didn't know that...


Sat, Feb 5, 2011 : 8:26 p.m.

Glad I didn't respond to this last night - I did, actually, repeatedly, but deleted before posting. @Cash and @snoopdog said what I would have said - both in the 'victim' and the 'blood boiling' notations.


Sat, Feb 5, 2011 : 4:09 a.m.

This story has been live for 2.5 hours now and there is no one issuing a comment?! Sure, it is easy to talk about trees too tall under utility wires and whether Ann Arbor is full of elitists. Well, here is a story for the little people - the littlest of people in fact, those with few if any advocating for them. They have no rights and have no voice. Where are your big mouths now?


Mon, Feb 7, 2011 : 5:44 a.m.

@ crain, The story was reported at about 8:30 PM (I was lenient) and your complaint is about my apparent math error?! I was not in error.


Mon, Feb 7, 2011 : 5:30 a.m.

@ cash - sorry - will take that into consideration in future

Craig Lounsbury

Sat, Feb 5, 2011 : 9:22 p.m.

according to the byline the story was posted @ 9:31 PM last night and your post was at 11:09 PM. Thats not 2 hours and 30 minutes thats 1 hour and 38 minutes. And it was Friday night.


Sat, Feb 5, 2011 : 10:16 a.m.

Please give us big mouths a chance to awaken.