Stories of Survival

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Carmen brought her exploiters to justice and learned to love again

As a girl growing up in Oaxaca, Mexico, Carmen couldn’t yet fathom the journey she would take from pain and violence to healing and transformation. When she was just 14 years old, Carmen met her trafficker in a park. After offering her a ride home, he instead kidnapped, raped and illegally transported her from her hometown to the United States. Her trafficker and his two brothers eventually brought her to Queens, where the darkest five years of Carmen’s life began.

Upon arriving in New York City, Carmen’s trafficker immediately forced her into prostitution. She was forced to service anywhere from ten to forty clients per day, and threatened by her trafficker if she didn’t comply. She was raped and beaten on a daily basis by clients as well as her trafficker. While he made thousands of dollars per day by selling her, Carmen never saw a cent of the money she was “paid.”

“He did not care how I felt, if I was sick, if I had enough food or sleep. He only cared about how much money I made him.”

In addition to the brutal sexual and physical abuse she endured during her captivity, Carmen constantly worried about her family’s safety. Her trafficker frequently threatened to harm her family unless she complied with his demands and ordered her to forget everything and everyone she knew back in Mexico. However, in the midst of her darkest moments, Carmen never gave up hope that she could find safety and freedom from exploitation.

“I was so angry. So mad! I can’t describe the dreams they stole from me. Every time [my trafficker] said something about me forgetting where I came from, I thought, ‘One day you will remember me!'”

One day, after her trafficker called her on the phone and threatened her, demanding money she didn’t have, Carmen fled. She escaped in the middle of the night, running up to a virtual stranger and asking for help. The woman saw the bruises on Carmen’s body and promised to help her.

After being trafficked for five years, Carmen finally found refuge at the Queens Family Justice Center, where she connected with Sanctuary for Families. There, she met Lori Cohen, former director of Sanctuary’s Anti-Trafficking Initiative. Working with Lori, as well as a Sanctuary counselor and case manager, Carmen found the support she needed to begin healing from the darkest moments of her life and see a way forward into a brighter future.

“She’s not just a survivor. She’s an advocate and a role model.” – Lori Cohen, former director of Sanctuary’s Anti-Trafficking Initiative 

Finding Sanctuary allowed Carmen’s life to blossom in ways she never thought possible. Sanctuary connected Carmen with a team of pro bono attorneys from New York City law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, who worked with Carmen to secure her legal immigration status. The team also helped her mother find safety in the US and reunited her with her daughter after years apart. She also graduated from Sanctuary’s Economic Empowerment Program, where she enrolled in English Language and GED courses and received her home health aide certification.

After courageously testifying against her trafficker in 2013, Carmen’s abuser and his two brothers were sentenced to an 18-year imprisonment after pleading guilty to sex trafficking. Not long after, Carmen met Luis through a mutual friend. After being abused by so many men in her life, she was taken by Luis’s kind heart and thoughtful mind. From the beginning, Luis treated her with love and respect.

“[Luis was] the first man I ever trusted.”

After dating Luis for a month, Carmen finally told him about the trauma of her past. He cried at the reality of what she had gone through and marveled at her courage and strength. Soon after, they began to plan their future together.

In 2016, Carmen and Luis married, with members of the Sanctuary team by their side, including Lori Cohen, whom she had worked with since she came to Sanctuary in 2012. After the ceremony, her pro bono attorney even came to congratulate the newly married couple and presented Carmen with her green card. The next day, she celebrated her 26th birthday, hopeful and excited for the future ahead of her.

Today, Carmen is happily married to her loving husband and caring for their beautiful baby daughter. She is an advocate for other survivors around New York City, and recently started her own piñata business. She is thriving in ways she never thought she could.

“We all have the same right to be happy…It’s really possible to move ahead. Nothing is impossible. You can have a normal life. My past does not define my future.”