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By Katie Vloet
Illustration by Carolyn Reed Barritt
Photography by Leisa Thompson
She thought about leaving. Of course she did; who wouldn’t?
But where would she go? Whom could she trust? What would her captors do if they found out?
So, day after day, year after year, throughout her early teens, often for 14 hours a day, Nicole worked at the grueling task of beautifying women with African braids. Rows and rows of tiny, intricate braids that turned Nicole’s hands old before their time. Grandma hands, she called them.
At the end of every day, she would turn over her money, tips and all, to the people who had brought her to the United States with promises of an education and a better life. At the end of every day, she would return to the cramped apartment near Newark, New Jersey, along with the other young women brought to the United States from Africa, young women who braided hair, lied about their ages, surrendered their wages and tips, dreamed of better lives while fearing the wrath of their captors.
Some call their situation human trafficking. Nicole leans toward a term that many people associate with an era long in the past.
“Anyone who thinks slavery doesn’t happen anymore,” she says, “they should know that slavery did not end. It still exists. Today you cannot always see it happening, but, no, slavery did not end.”
Nicole (a name she has adopted in the United States) is a client of the Human Trafficking Clinic at Michigan Law, the first clinical law program solely dedicated to the issue. She is from Ghana, where a family friend from the neighboring country of Togo in West Africa first spoke to Nicole’s family when she was 10 years old. With promises of an education in the United States, her family allowed the family friend, known to all as “Sister,” to take Nicole.
Nicole’s case is not unusual. Many Human Trafficking Clinic clients were lured to the United States with assurances of a great education. Some, like Nicole, were thrust into the world of forced labor with backbreaking shifts in service industries. Some were forced into the sex industry. They are men, women, children; from Africa, Eastern Europe, and the United States. Some were not yet teenagers when they began their time in forced bondage.
In many cases, they are people we see every day—at restaurants, beauty salons, hotels. Some work hidden away from the public eye as domestic servants or in the health- and elder-care industries. In many cases, someone has had—and squandered—the chance to go to authorities to report a situation that didn’t seem right.
“For human trafficking to be successful,” notes Bridgette Carr, ’02, director of the Human Trafficking Clinic, “the trafficker has to be willing to exploit the vulnerability of someone. And we have to be willing to look the other way.”
Carr and her clinic are helping shine a light into the dark recesses of the human trafficking world. With interviews on CNN and other high-profile media outlets, Carr tells audiences something that surprises a lot of people: Slavery still occurs. Indeed, there are more slaves in the world now—about 12.3 million—than at any other point in history, Carr points out.
The 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report, published by the U.S. Department of State, underscores the breadth of the issue. The report came out a decade after the United Nations ratified the international standards against trafficking in persons—the Palermo Protocol—and the United States enacted the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.
“Millions continue to toil in modern forms of slavery,” Luis CdeBaca, ’93, ambassador-at-large with the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons in the Department of State, writes in the report. “Enslaving someone still carries too little risk. Remediation, fines, or warnings are too small a price to pay—those who would profit by stealing freedom should lose their own. Fighting trafficking commands too few resources, too little vision, and as a result, too few outcomes.”
Countries including Iran, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and more are identified in the report as Tier 3—countries whose governments do not fully comply with minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so. Even the far more compliant Tier 1 nations such as the United States are identified as source, transit, and destination countries. The human trafficking industry, the report points out, is found in virtually every country and myriad industries throughout the world.
“With the majority of modern slaves in agriculture and mining around the world—and forced labor prevalent in cotton, chocolate, steel, rubber, tin, tungsten, coltan, sugar, and seafood—it is impossible to get dressed, drive to work, talk on the phone, or eat a meal without touching products tainted by forced labor,” the report states. “Even reputable companies can profit from abuse when they do not protect their supply chain—whether at the level of raw materials, parts, or final products—from modern slavery.”
When Nicole first was taken by Sister from Ghana to Togo—Sister’s native country—the girl was given her first job: selling candy by the roadside. Then, during her first years in the United States, Nicole babysat for a young boy whom Sister claimed was hers. For an entire year, she stayed inside Sister’s house with the boy, growing envious of the other girls who got to work in the hair salon; at least they got to leave the house. More than anything, though, she wanted to go to school.
After selling candy and babysitting for a few years, “I finally realized they weren’t ever going to let me go to school,” she recalls. “It was heartbreaking.”
She trained herself to braid, and, at age 14, began working in a salon. “I taught myself on mannequin heads. I watched the other girls to learn from them, but then I was better,” she laughs.
Jacqueline, another young woman who was brought over by the traffickers, was a blood relative of Sister. Once in the United States, “I asked about school, and my aunt said, ‘There’s no school.’ I was very sad. I love school, and I want to be somebody. When she told me I couldn’t go to the school, I just crashed.”
That same day, Sister put Jacqueline to work in one of the hair-braiding salons. She was 13.
Sometimes, Nicole and Jacqueline braided the hair of girls their age. Recalls Jacqueline: “I thought, ‘Am I ever going to live like them?’ ”
Clients routinely asked the girls—especially the petite and youthful-looking Nicole—how old they were. “I always said, ‘I am 18, I am 18.’ I said to some people that I was 18 for many years. One customer, she even called me ‘18,’ ” Nicole says. As far as she knows, none of her clients contacted authorities about the apparently underage girls working in the salon.
Nicole, Jacqueline, and about 20 others turned in all of their wages to the trafficking ring made up of Sister, as well as her husband and son. Nicole began by bringing in $300 a week, then made well over $500 in a couple of years. “Everything. They got everything. I got a tip of 50 cents one time,” Nicole recounts, “and I had to give it to them.”
Along the way, their fear of their traffickers grew. Jacqueline says of Sister: “She was never a happy woman. She’d beat me up. She threw hot water on me with a spoon while she cooked. Sometimes she wouldn’t let me eat if I messed up.” The girls knew they couldn’t escape without documentation of their identities; their fraudulent passports, which Sister had obtained in order to bring the girls to the United States, had all been taken from them. Several girls later would report sexual abuse at the hands of their captors. Sister’s son, Dereck Hounakey, later said in court that he’d had sex with many of the girls, including one minor.
They longed to tell someone, but whom? Like many of Carr’s clients, they were fearful of the police because, in their home countries, the police typically are not associated with protecting and helping people. The only people they knew in the United States were the other hair braiders, the traffickers, and their clients.
“My aunt sat next to me when I talked to my parents on the phone. It was the first time I ever lied to my father,” recalls Jacqueline. “I wished I could tell him, ‘I just want to come home.’“ Nicole sums up her feelings about Sister succinctly: “She was evil. She was evil. She was evil.” Neither girl thought she would ever be free, after years of captivity. Then, early in the morning of September 6, 2007, everything changed.
The long, disorienting day began with a loud knock at the door. Nicole and the other girls jumped out of bed, terrified that the apartment was about to be robbed.
“The oldest girl opened the door. The police told her to raise her hands. I thought we were all in trouble,” Nicole says. “They said, ‘Everyone on the floor with your hands on your heads.’ ”
But the police weren’t there for the girls. They went to the room of Dereck Hounakey, Sister’s son. Nicole remembers him being handcuffed, and all the documents being taken out of his room. “Then the police said to us, ‘We’re not going to hurt you. It’s okay.’ It was like being in a scary movie.”
Some of the girls cried. Some were stunned that Dereck had been taken away. Before long, though, they realized this was a turning point. “We knew right away,” Nicole says, “that it was the end.”
It wasn’t a perfectly happy ending. “I had lost hope, but when the police came, I had hope again,” Jacqueline says. “I was relieved, but I didn’t know if someone was going to take me and put me in another house.”
For Nicole, a strong distrust of police had carried over from her youth in Ghana and Togo. She and the other girls were questioned for days in a hotel, and they couldn’t make any phone calls or contact anyone in the outside world.
This was bad news for Nicole, who had a solid work ethic and a sense of loyalty to the salon owner, who may not have known about the trafficking ring. “I just wanted to call my boss and tell her I wouldn’t be at work.”
Soon, the girls were being sent to foster homes around the country. When Nicole’s plane landed far away from New Jersey, she walked toward her new foster family, who greeted her with smiles and balloons. Finally, she said, she no longer felt “trapped.”
Things were not looking so bright for Sister (real name: Akouavi Kpade Afolabi), her ex-husband, Lassissi Afolabi, and son Dereck Hounakey.
In court, attorneys for Akouavi Kpade Afolabi asserted that this was all a cultural misunderstanding. It wasn’t forced labor, but rather a West African–style apprenticeship program. Carr thinks Sister “really believes her own rhetoric, that the girls were better off here, working for her.”
The judge and the federal jury didn’t buy it, especially after hearing how the girls were forced to work for hours and days on end, their wages taken by their traffickers, their inability to leave the house, the fear and intimidation—indeed, one witness testified that Sister would frighten the girls by using a voodoo ritual, telling them they would go insane if they escaped.
Sister was convicted on 22 counts, leading to a record-setting sentencing for a human trafficking case: 27 years in prison. At her September 2010 sentencing, she also was ordered to pay more than $3.9 million in restitution, which included the wages the girls earned at the salons and were forced to give to Sister and her family.
Lassissi Afolabi pleaded guilty and was sentenced to more than 24 years in prison, with charges including trafficking and sexual abuse. Dereck Hounakey pleaded guilty in March 2009 to one count of conspiring with others to commit forced labor, trafficking with respect to forced labor, and holding visas and identification. He was sentenced to four and a half years in prison. A fourth defendant, Geoffrey Kouevi, pleaded guilty and received a 26-month term for helping Sister to obtain fraudulent visas for the girls.
The prosecutions never would have happened without the strong interest of law enforcement agents in New Jersey in stopping human trafficking, Carr believes. In particular, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey worked diligently on the case, with a several-months-long investigation in which some investigators traveled to Ghana and Togo to interview the victims’ families.
To this day, the feelings of the victims are complex. Nicole said seeing Sister in court was like “facing the devil,” but she also felt bad for her captor when she saw her in court. “I’m happy that I’m away from her, but I don’t enjoy seeing her in prison for so long.” She also is sad about the fate of Sister’s children, including Dereck, even though he had admitted to mistreating and abusing the girls.
“I pray for them,” Nicole says softly. “I try to pray for them.”
Including its representation of eight young women in the hair-braiding case, Carr’s clinic is working on 20 active cases, 17 of which are labor cases and three of which involve sex work. And they all have an important thing in common.
“With every one of my cases, there’s a missed opportunity for intervention. … Traffickers are really smart, and they know people are just going to look away. The fact that my clients could be in this hair salon for so many years at 9, 10, 11 years old is frustrating but not surprising.”
What also isn’t surprising is the motive for most perpetrators of human trafficking: money. “We’re seeing people getting out of drug trafficking and into human trafficking because they can make more money,” Carr says, “and, unlike drugs, they don’t have to hide the slaves. “
The clinic has helped the girls in the hair-braiding case obtain T visas, which allow some human trafficking victims temporary residence in the United States. Carr and her students also are trying to get visas for the girls’ family members so they can be reunited, some of them after nearly a decade apart. They help the girls adjust to their new jobs or schools—generous school tuition is available for foster kids, Carr points out—and act as the girls’ general practitioner attorneys. “Miss Bridgette and her students are doing a marvelous job,” says Nicole. “They take care of everything.”
It’s a lot of work, much of it emotionally exhausting. “But seeing them get married, going to college…” Carr says. “Like Jacqueline. She wants to go to school to be a lawyer. If they survived this and manage to still feel joy, how can we at the clinic complain?”
The young women are indeed surviving and feeling joy. At the houses where she lived with the other hair braiders and the traffickers, Jacqueline, now 18, often doubted herself. “I didn’t know I was smart.” She knows now; she was accepted to a well-regarded university and plans to start there in the fall. “I’m nervous, but if I made it out of my aunt’s house, I can make it anywhere.”
Now 19, Nicole began college last fall. In her classes, she has written essays about her past, and she is proud of her ability to teach her instructors and classmates about modern-day slavery. “I don’t feel the need to hide it. I feel 100 percent free to talk about it, and influence people to do better.”
She has a plan for her future, which includes training to be a nurse and continuing to learn from her experiences in New Jersey. Sister is out of her life. Nicole can go where she pleases and keep the money she earns at work, and she can finally understand what life is like in the United States as a free person. She likes this new person, this new version of Nicole.
“It’s time,” she says, “to let me be me.”
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