12 Years Ago I Was Trafficked — Now, I Have Hope

by Panadda Mccoy

Twelve years ago, I was under control of my trafficker and had no hope for my future. It began while I was living in Thailand with my son; I had a dream to come to the United States, get a good job, and eventually bring my son with me. Traffickers get you to believe they care for you. They are nice to you and make you believe they are providing for you. It seems very sincere.

I found people who said they would help me and care for me like a family, but I never knew what these people really had in mind. I never once thought I would be trafficked; I didn’t even know what trafficking was. I was promised a way into the United States and a job when I arrived. They were so nice to me, and I was excited. However, after arriving in the U.S., they told me I owed a lot of money to their organization, and in order to pay the money back, I would have to work in the sex industry within a massage parlor. The job never seemed to get smaller. The hours only seemed to get longer. I thought this would never end. When would I see my son again?

Eventually, Homeland Security conducted an investigation that helped me out of this situation. I was traumatized at the time. I had nowhere to go, no money, and no one to turn to. Homeland Security agents applied for my Continued Presence status and connected me to social services agencies for support. This is when I was connected to API Chaya, an API-led community-based organization that supports survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and labor and sex trafficking. With their guidance, I received basic needs such as food, shelter, counseling, and access to free legal services. I was connected to a pro bono attorney who worked on my T visa application. After receiving assistance from social services agencies and getting more stable, I went back to school and got a job as a nursing assistant. Daily, I took care of elderly people at a nursing home and assisted living. I loved my job, and I was proud of what I was doing. It was a job that not only gave me a living wage, it also made me a better person. It motivated me to give back to the community.

Two years ago, I was asked to participate in the Human Trafficking Survivor Leadership Program at API Chaya, where I would become a part of the first formal cohort of Human Trafficking Survivor Leaders. Formally launched in 2015, previous clients of API Chaya organized and volunteered their time to support other survivors and build their leadership skills. Later, API Chaya took inspiration from the National Survivor Network and the survivor leadership programs at the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST) to reimagine and grow this survivor leadership team. We set the course for our own learning as API Chaya holds space and provides resources for survivors to explore our passion and build the skills we want. Right now, we are a small but strong team of three. Together, we’ve been able to attend the annual Freedom Network USA Human Trafficking Conference, and have learned about facilitation and storytelling, public speaking, communication, leadership development, community organizing, policy advocacy, and providing direct service. These trainings allowed me to become more involved with anti-human trafficking work, supporting survivors and educating the community on human trafficking Issues. 

As a Human Trafficking Survivor Leader, I coordinate activities for the Human Trafficking Survivors Support Group at API Chaya. In the winter, we gave a workshop about the Human Trafficking Leadership team during API Chaya’s annual Generations Fest. There we shared the goals of the Human Trafficking Leadership team, which include building community and breaking isolation. We also want to provide educational opportunities to the public using the expertise of our own experiences. Recently, I applied to become an intern advocate at API Chaya, and my application got accepted. I hope to be able to develop my advocacy skills so that I can become more effective in supporting other human trafficking survivors from a victim to survivor to survivor leader, and now, here I am, a survivor advocate intern. Step by step, I am getting closer to my dream, which is to become an anti-human trafficking survivor advocate. Next year, we are designing a yearlong plan to set our own course for future program goals, where I also hope to be more involved in massage parlor outreach and work directly with survivors whose stories mirror mine. 

I am very grateful for all the opportunities I have. Not only am I learning what it looks like to directly support other survivors, but I am also learning to be a voice for people living in silence.  Through these efforts, we want to move beyond awareness and invest in systemic change. A lot of trafficking survivors face deportation when they are no longer in the trafficking situation, and without a visa or green card, they are left vulnerable to workplace exploitation and unable to leave their job. When the law doesn’t do enough to give survivors and vulnerable people more opportunity, we have to fight for change. Working with API Chaya is providing me the space where I am able today to help support other survivors and people vulnerable to exploitation.


Featured image attributed to Kim Seng under a Creative Commons 2.0 license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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