Chicago: Reversal of fortune for former sex slave

LEGAL BATTLE | She finally wins clearance to stay in this country

April 1, 2008

BY ANNIE SWEENEY Crime Reporter  

For four years, she has told her story over and over, reliving every dehumanizing detail.

Today, the petite woman who was forced onto the international sex slave pipeline and escaped to Chicago can’t stop smiling. A U.S. Immigration judge has ruled she can stay in the country.

“Wow,” she said, pumping her arms in the air like Rocky as she describes the tearful phone call from her attorney, Dawn Connelly, and an even more emotional one home to her mother.

“Only God gives back to them all the good they did for me,” the woman said of Connelly and her team of attorneys, Adisa Krupalija and Stephanie Poulos. “The words are not enough.”

The woman, who lives in Chicago, agreed to tell her story and allowed the Chicago Sun-Times to attend her immigration hearing on the condition her name and personal details are withheld.

The ruling has been called “ground-breaking” because the woman was never trafficked into the United States. She wound up in Chicago because a Good Samaritan who stepped forward to help her had friends here, and they were willing to take her in.

Her argument to stay, supported by immigration-rights organizations and experts, was that as a trafficked woman she is at great risk of retribution or being forced back into sex work by the offenders. Furthermore, she is from a country that has a poor record of protecting trafficked women, according to an expert who testified on her behalf.

In fact, the men who forced her into the sex work have threatened her family, even physically attacking one of them, according to court records.

“. . . The evidence has established that women who have been trafficked for prostitution in [her home country] is a group that is socially visible or recognizable,” U.S. Immigration Judge O. John Brahos said in his ruling. “She faces a reasonable possibility of future persecution.”

Mary Meg McCarthy, director of the National Immigrant Justice Center, celebrated Brahos’ ruling for its strong message.

“Under our laws you are entitled to a safe haven,” McCarthy said. “We offer refuge for people who have been repressed. . . . We stand up as a country that embraces the recognition of individuals’ dignity no matter what is happening.”

Seeks to become nurse

The woman left her home in Eastern Europe in 2002 after being offered a baby-sitting job in Italy. But once there, she was told she’d have to work as a prostitute.

When she resisted, she was beaten, raped and the men threatened her family. Finally, she relented.

After a brief, yet dehumanizing, time on the street, she walked into a small store and met a man from her hometown. Together, the two plotted her escape. He secured a fake passport and put her on a plane to Chicago.

The woman testified before Brahos in early December. She was steady and firm, but deeply pained by what she was forced to do.

“Representing her was the most meaningful thing I have done as a lawyer,” said Connelly, who took the case pro bono. “It’s been an unbelievably long process but . . . she got the freedom she deserved,.”

Since arriving in Chicago, the woman has gotten a job and an apartment and built a small group of friends.

But without legal status, she could not secure student loans to attend school and become a nurse. Even in court as she sensed that Brahos was sympathizing, she held herself back from hoping too much.

“It’s a feeling like you want to be happy, like it will take a second,” she said. “But you’re not sure it’s going to take longer.”

Last week, sitting in a sun-filled coffee house, everything seemed possible. She blew kisses through the window pane to a small child playing on the street. She was free of a six-inch think binder of paperwork on her case she had often carried.

She plans to stay in Chicago and take some nursing classes. And she’s going to start each day looking forward, she said, for her family, her friends and mostly for herself.

“To show who I am,” she said. “To myself.”

http://www.suntimes.com/news/metro/870611,CST-NWS-stay01.article

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