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Free will

How Naseem Mohamed Siraj's plea for help turned into an organized effort to save her

From left: Rick Mann, Roshan Bhandary, Osnat Levy, and Carol Gomez helped free Naseem Mohamed Siraj.
From left: Rick Mann, Roshan Bhandary, Osnat Levy, and Carol Gomez helped free Naseem Mohamed Siraj. (Globe staff photo/Jonathan Wiggs)

Two years ago, the local media began buzzing about the case of Naseem Mohamed Siraj.

The 36-year-old Indian woman sued the Omani couple she'd been working for since 1998, accusing them of holding her ''against her will as a full-time domestic laborer" and claiming they'd essentially enslaved her. In the contract Siraj signed before arriving in the United States with the family in January 2003, she promised to care for a 3-year-old child at minimum wage, then $5.75 per hour. The couple -- Tahira Juma, a pediatrician who moved to Brookline to take a medical course at Boston University, and her husband, Saleem Alkhaburi, an engineer -- promised Siraj two days off per week.

Instead, Siraj cared for as many as four children, with whom she shared a room in a two-bedroom apartment. She ate the children's dinner leftovers for food and functioned not only as a nanny but as a cook and housekeeper. She worked 14 hours a day -- seven days a week during the first six months of her arrival. For her trouble, she was paid a total of $1,250 over the course of 15 months.

Siraj received an undisclosed settlement for her case, and the media reported her plans to return to India. The couple who employed her returned to Oman.

What people didn't hear in the news reports was the story about the organizations and people who had come together under the direction of Trafficking Victims Outreach & Services Network, or TVOS Network -- a nonprofit grass-roots organization of immigration rights advocates, service providers for domestic violence victims, health care professionals, attorneys, and labor organizers who battle human trafficking in New England -- to tear Siraj from her employer's grip.

There was the neighbor, Osnat Levy, who lived in the same building as Siraj and discovered her plight.

The lawyer, Rick Mann of the firm Holland & Knight, who became involved in the case at the behest of Boston's American Anti-Slavery Group, which Levy quickly contacted after learning about Siraj's situation.

The shelter run under the auspices of the Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence, which offered housing and counseling to Siraj after she left her employers.

And the women -- Carol Gomez, founder of TVOS Network, and Roshan Bhandary, a South Asian advocate at the Asian Task Force -- who educated Siraj about her rights in the United States.

''It's really community based," says Gomez, 37, describing TVOS Network. ''It places the communities that this issue directly impacts in the center of the discussion rather than to be talked about by people who don't have a personal involvement in it."

TVOS Network has handled more than 50 human trafficking cases since forming in August 2003. Most involve domestic servitude; some concern multiple clients, such as the laborers forced to work in the fisheries of New Bedford. In 2004 the Department of State estimated that between 14,500 and 17,500 people are brought into the United States annually and forced to work as prostitutes, laborers, or servants. A 2004 report by the National Intelligence Council, a think tank for the intelligence community, called female trafficking the second-most-profitable illegal industry globally, trailing only drug trafficking. In an area where victims often prefer to keep their identities shielded because of their illegal status or their traumatic experiences, Siraj's story offers one of the few detailed examples of how TVOS Network helps its clients.

With TVOS Network's central goal of community building, its function also goes beyond the victim to address the tensions that can emerge between the nonprofit organizations helping people and the immigration and law enforcement officials upholding the law. TVOS Network brings both sides together during monthly meetings to educate them on such issues as globalization and migrant workers, the subject of its February meeting.

''It's a very high learning curve on everybody's part," says Gomez, ''because the issue is presenting itself as new, even though it's not new at all in the history of this country. It's not much different from transatlantic slavery. Certainly migrant workers are working like slaves all over the country as we speak and have been forever."

She continues: ''We can easily put a Band-Aid on the issue by putting somebody in a shelter for three months, washing our hands, and saying, 'We did our best.' [But] somebody's getting their fruits picked, their toilets cleaned, and [their] children taken care of by people who are in a less empowered place. If we don't address some of the root causes and change the structures that enable this kind of iniquity to exist, then we're not in my mind [creating] a holistic solution."

'Please help me'
On a recent rainy day four people involved in Siraj's case -- Mann, Bhandary, Gomez, and Levy -- met at Holland & Knight in downtown Boston to discuss how they aided Siraj. It began in 2003 when Siraj's former neighbor Levy saw Siraj at a Brookline playground caring for a 3-year-old girl and a 6-year-old boy. One day, just before the Fourth of July, Siraj asked about Levy's own daughter and two sons.

Levy thought, ''Wow, that's great. Now I can ask her questions."

Levy had assumed Siraj, a Muslim who dressed in long skirts and long-sleeved shirts with her head covered by a scarf, was the grandmother of the children, but Siraj initially identified herself as ''the aunt." Siraj soon confessed to Levy that she wasn't the children's aunt -- her employers had demanded that she identify herself that way. Siraj complained about not getting paid.

The interaction sounds simple, says Levy, but it was made difficult by the fact that Siraj spoke Hindi and very little English. ''I really didn't think I understood her," says Levy. ''[I thought] something was wrong with me." As the time came for Levy to leave, Siraj uttered one last request, ''Please help me."

Levy couldn't stop thinking about the encounter. She called friends to ask for advice, then went online to read about slavery. She found the organization she was looking for in the American Anti-Slavery Group, which focuses on abolishing modern-day slavery, particularly in the countries of Sudan and Mauritania. The organization asked Mann to provide pro bono legal counsel for the case.

Siraj had little time alone; the 3-year-old child was with her constantly, and her employer's two older children and Alkhaburi, their father, joined the family in August. She managed to find time to talk about her situation to translators culled from the Burlington-based South Asian women's group Saheli. It was the first time Saheli had dealt with a victim of human trafficking, says Saheli chair Usha Vakil, who did some translating. Siraj seemed poised to leave the family, says Vakil, then decided to stay.

A frustrated Levy still didn't think that enough was being done on Siraj's behalf. In his search for an organization experienced in helping trafficking victims, Tommy Calvert, a representative of the American Anti-Slavery Group, discovered TVOS Network, which began working on the case in October.

''We all came together [to] talk as a team," says Gomez, who met with Levy and Calvert to get an overview of the case. She brought in Bhandary, who worked at the Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence and spoke Hindi, and an immigration lawyer from Greater Boston Legal Services. With Siraj, they began to map out a strategy that would address Siraj's concerns about her immigration status, and her housing and employment needs.

Gomez and Bhandary met Siraj at various locations. Their job consisted of educating Siraj about the laws of this country and helping her figure out whom to trust.

''What happens in Oman is if a slave or servant [breaks] a contract, the burden is on the servant," says Gomez. ''If they left the employer, ran away, complained of abuse, the police would go after the servant and send them back to the employer."

Siraj's fears were further inflamed by the comments from her employer, who according to Bhandary told Siraj that if she left, ''You'll be arrested."

Siraj was also getting pressure from her husband, who remained in India with their three children. The money she made helped her support her family. He wanted her to remain in the job.

Religion also played a role. ''She was a devoted Muslim," says Bhandary. Gomez explains that Siraj felt, ''God knows what is going on. It's not up to her to hold [the family] accountable; it's up to God to take care of the [situation]."

Making things even more complicated was the fact that her relationship with Alkhaburi was quite good.

Siraj seemed poised to leave three times but backed out. After that third time, Levy decided to sever ties. ''I had to step back," says Levy, who stopped talking to Siraj and refused to be the ear that Siraj could go to to air complaints.

Siraj's case of cold feet wasn't unusual, says Gomez. The inability to act ''is similar to domestic violence [victims]," she continues. ''It takes six or seven times [for a domestic violence victim] to leave a situation. I think we understood with Naseem it wasn't an unusual process."

Empowering a victim
At the end of March, Levy's husband noticed Siraj crying in front of the apartment building. Siraj soon came to Levy's door. She told Levy that the eldest boy, who was about 11 years old, punched Siraj while she was feeding him -- the children demanded that Siraj feed them by hand. The incident happened in front of his mother.

''Who did nothing," says Mann.

Siraj told Levy for a fourth time that she wanted to escape. Again, TVOS Network scrambled into action, discovering that a space at the Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence shelter would open in a few days. On that April 1 day, Levy met Siraj as she returned from taking the children to school and took her to the Holland & Knight law offices. Mann called the school to say Siraj wasn't going to pick up the children and Juma, the mother, to tell her Siraj wasn't returning. (The Globe was unable to contact Siraj or the couple who employed her.)

Siraj could legally work only for the family she had just left. A part of TVOS Network's job was staying in touch with Immigration Customs Enforcement, says Mann, ''so that she didn't get a visit from ICE in the middle of the night because she had left her sponsors."

At the shelter, TVOS Network put Siraj in touch with a financial adviser, who helped her figure out what to do with her settlement. Siraj received art therapy and counseling to build up the young woman who was mentally broken down by her experiences.

Says Bhandary, ''We had to do a lot of empowerment."