US President Barack Obama has nominated an Indian-American survivor of human trafficking to a key post in his administration which deals with the issue of trafficking.
Harold d’Souza from Vadodara in Gujarat was today named a member of the US Advisory Council on Human Trafficking (ACHT), the White House said.
“I am honoured that these talented individuals have decided to serve our country. They bring their years of experience and expertise to this Administration, and I look forward to working with them,” Mr Obama said in a statement.
D’Souza currently works as a Senior Supply Chain Associate for Cincinnati Childrens’ Hospital Medical Center, a position he has held since 2008.
He is also a founding member of the National Survivor Network and is active with End Slavery Cincinnati.
His nomination to the ACHT is remarkable given the fact that not long ago D’Souza was the victim of a remorseless trafficker.
In 2003, a recruiter had secured an H-1B Visa for him to work in the U.S. as a business development manager for a manufacturing company in Cincinnati and was promised a salary of $75,000 per year – a fortune compared to his pay as a salesman in Vadodara.
“I came on a promise, a faith and to live the American Dream,” he said.
“The faith got changed to fear, the promise got transformed into slavery, and my dream was like a hell.”
The same day Harold and his wife Dancy D’Souza arrived in Cincinnati, their employer picked them up from the airport and took them to work at an Indian restaurant.
The couple had sold most of their belongings in Vadodara and came to the US with all their worldly possessions in a couple of suitcases and about $1000 in cash.
Their sons, Bradly, 7, and Rohan, 4, stayed in India with their grandmother for a few months so they could finish up the school year there. The boys arrived in Cincinnati in May 2003.
Although Dancy D’Souza had planned to stay home to raise her sons, the restaurant owner convinced the couple they could provide for their family better if they both worked, and he promised to pay her $1,000 a month on top of her husband’s salary, she said.
It was to be the start of nearly three years of 15-hour days, seven days a week – all without pay.
Harold and Dancy D’Souza would often slip into their small apartment in the early hours of the morning, careful not to wake up the boys who were forced to sleep on the floor.
“They were sleeping like rats,” Harold D’Souza told local TV station WCPO last year.
“That internally destroyed us.”
The D’Souzas didn’t know it at the time. But they had become victims of human trafficking.
Harold and Dancy D’Souza.
Working long hours, every day of the week without pay was not the life Harold D’Souza expected when he convinced his wife to leave their home in India and move to the United States for better opportunities.
Harold says his employer took his cash and all his personal documents for safekeeping the day he and his wife arrived and assured the couple that he was looking out for their best interests.
At first, the D’Souzas weren’t suspicious about not being paid. At one point, the employer told that he was setting aside money on their behalf so they could buy a house.
In order to keep the deception going, he even took the D’Souza’s to several local “Open Houses” organized by real estate agents.
He also told them that he was paying for the tiny one-bedroom apartment the family of four were staying in.
He told them they didn’t need money for food because they could eat at the restaurant, which they rarely did, Dancy D’Souza says.
He also told them Americans didn’t like children so their sons couldn’t come around the restaurant.
Bradly D’Souza remembers walking to the restaurant after school with his little brother to see his parents.
“They’d find a few seconds to kind of say hi and ask us about our day and then go back to work,” said Bradly, who is now 20 and a student at the University of Cincinnati.
“We’d stay there for a little bit and then head back to the apartment where we’d try to entertain ourselves. We lived in an area with geese,” he said. “If we could, we would chase the geese.”
Harold and Dancy D’Souza also worried about what their sons were eating. They remember having only enough food in the house for one meal and dividing it among the four of them. The boys, at least, ate free school lunches.
“When my son would go to a friend’s birthday party, he would bring food home for his younger brother because he knew there was no food in the house,” Harold D’Souza said. “I can still feel it, and I can still sense it – how it feels if you’re not hungry but if you’re starving.”
The weather was another challenge. The winters of 2003 and 2004 was the first time the family had ever seen snow. The D’Souzas sent their sons to school in the lightweight coats they had brought from India.
But the school informed the D’Souzas, asking that the children be given snow jackets and gloves – things that the couple had no idea about. Even if they did they could not afford it. When Harold told the restaurant’s chef, he offered to buy the kids the clothes.
At one point, the restaurant owner took out a loan in Harold D’Souza’s name and kept the money, Harold claims. The man then gave him a chit that detailed how much money Harold and Dancy D’Souza owed him for bringing them to the U.S. and providing their housing.
The man told him the bank loan would cover only 10 percent of the debt. The D’Souza’s had become bonded labourers in modern America – exploited by their own countrymen.
“When you don’t have any money or power or freedom, you surrender,” Harold says. “That’s what happened. I lost my speech.”
In June 2004, Dancy D’Souza decided she had to stand up for her family. She confronted the restaurant owner one Saturday and asked him to pay her and her husband the money he owed them.
“Harold was so completely emotionally broken,” Dancy D’Souza said. “It took all my courage to stand up to that man and say, ‘You need to just pay us our wages, and we’ll be fine.'”
It was then that the man told the D’Souzas that they had been working “illegally” during their time in the US and threatened to call the authorities and have them deported if she brought up the issue of money again.
When asked about the $1000 in cash they had handed over to him, the restaurant owner feigned ignorance.
The restaurant’s chef then urged the D’Souzas to find a way out of the situation – for the sake of the children.
A few weeks later, a lawyer for the restaurant owner visited Harold D’Souza at the restaurant and told him that if he didn’t agree to the restaurant owner’s terms, the lawyer would have him handcuffed, jailed and deported on Tuesday.
Harold and Dancy D’Souza didn’t know whom to trust, but they had run out of options. They gathered their sons and went to local police who referred the family to the US Department of Labour.
Harold and Dancy D’Souza were thrown out of the restaurant in August 2004 after the owner found out the Department of Labor was investigating him.
“Once we got out of his clutches, our life was not the same,” Dancy says.
The D’Souza family could glimpse freedom, but their life went from “worst to disaster,” as Harold D’Souza puts it.
The family couldn’t afford the rent the restaurant owner had been paying for their one-bedroom apartment and had to move. They moved to an even smaller apartment with the help of a non-profit organization which they approached through the boys’ school principle.
Local community groups organized food and other supplies.
Following the Department of Labour investigation, a judge determined that the D’Souzas were owed many thousands of pounds in back wages. They received one payment of
$6000 in February 2005 but the restaurant owner later filed for bankruptcy and avoided paying the rest.
He has never been prosecuted.
Bradly and Rohan D’Souza.
Harold D’Souza subsequently worked at odd jobs at other restaurants to support his family with the family’s church in the town of Blue Ash helping.
In March 2007, Harold approached a local community group that helps poor people find jobs and that pay a living wage.
At the end of a week of training, D’Souza told his story to Jodie Drees Ganote, a law student who was working as a legal advocate for the organization.
Ganote helped connect the D’Souzas with Pam Matson, a special agent with the local FBI office, and a lawyer at Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati.
She also introduced them to Jessica Donohue-Dioh, a co-founder and the former director of End Slavery Cincinnati, which works to fight against human trafficking locally.
Donohue-Dioh was the first person to put a label on the D’Souzas’ experience. She told them they had been victims of human trafficking.
“It was a shocker,” Dancy says.
Both Harold and Dancy D’Souza have multiple college degrees from their studies in India. The petition for Harold D’Souza’s H1-B Visa stated his bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and post-graduate diploma earned in India were “equivalent to a Master’s Degree in Business Administration from an accredited university in the United States.”
“You don’t expect educated people to go through something like this,” Dancy D’Souza said.
“You don’t think that trafficking happens in modern times, and we have that misconception that it does not exist anymore. It took a long time for us to wrap our thoughts around it.”
The FBI investigated the D’Souzas’ story and found “no credible witness” that refuted any of their claims and no evidence that either “was not the victim of human trafficking,”.
Still, federal prosecutors decided not to file criminal charges in the case.
“By the time they connected with us and then we connected them with the FBI, the evidence was gone,” said Donohue-Dioh. “Our FBI agent here investigated for years. But ultimately, like every organization, they have to decide if they can prosecute this or not.”
Harold D’Souza looked into filing a lawsuit, but again there was little to go on.
For their part, the D’Souzas say they are focused on looking ahead to the future.
“I always tell my wife and my kids, fix the problems, not the blame,” Harold D’Souza said. “And my wife used to say, ‘We never tell God how big the storm is in our life. We tell the storm how big God is in our life.'”
After all those months of working long hours every day in the restaurant, he said, the family has achieved the American Dream they sought.
Harold later got a job at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center where he has worked for six years. He’s now a senior supply chain associate.
The D’Souzas also received their permanent residency cars in 2014.
“All long journeys start with a small step,” Harold D’Souza said. “After 133 months, we got our freedom.”
The family now in an apartment in Blue Ash they bought in 2011.
Now they want to inspire others who have fallen victim to human trafficking.
“Have courage, have faith and have trust in the justice system of the United States of America,” Harold says.
“That faith and trust I gained in the 12 years I’ve been here now, that is the reason I can talk now. Because I know there is justice in this country.”