Former slave tells story of modern-day bondage

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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Beatrice Fernando – who spent part of her life as a domestic slave in Beirut, Lebanon – told her story Monday night as part of ongoing programming organized by the University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice.

Fernando was joined by Katherine Chon ’02, co-founder of the Polaris Project, a non-governmental organization that works to aid victims of human trafficking and increase awareness of the issue. About 50 people came to the event in Smith-Buonanno 106.

The U.S. government currently estimates that 800,000 human beings are trafficked globally each year.

Chon said one critical voice for the Polaris Project to hear is that of a survivor, since “not many people come to that point.”

Fernando is one such survivor. Born in Sri Lanka, Fernando voluntarily traveled to Beirut when she was 23 years old under the pretense that she would be hired as a housemaid through an agency there. She was promised (but never received) 2,000 rupees – the equivalent of $20 – each month, an amount of money she said she had never even seen before.

Fernando said she felt she had to leave Sri Lanka because she had married young, had a baby, been separated from her husband and was living at home with her parents. There, she made the decision to sign up with the agency.

“As a child, I learned to hide from pain, to find comfort and solutions on my own,” Fernando said. She said she was taught not to share her problems with anyone else – not even her family – in order to maintain respect within her community.

Fernando said this lack of awareness is what kept her from realizing she was the victim of crime and taking steps to speak out about her experience.

“We shield ourselves from knowledge, rules and regulations, myths and superstitions,” Fernando said. “Twenty years I’ve been asleep.”

Fernando worked for several families in Beirut, where she was usually fed leftovers, such as chicken bones, or nothing at all. She said she realized just how bad things were when the woman employing her beat her with a brush after she caught her crying one morning.

The woman told Fernando if she ever caught her crying again, she would kill her.

From then on, the woman frequently beat Fernando’s head against a wall, locked her inside her fourth-floor apartment and told the guards outside to shoot Fernando if they caught her trying to escape.

“I knew, today or tomorrow, the death is coming,” Fernando said. She even began to question God, whom Fernando said had often been her only source of solace.

“I told him, ‘You show me a miracle! Until then, I won’t talk to you,'” she said. But nothing changed.

Fernando finally made her escape when she leapt from the fourth floor balcony of the apartment one morning. She prayed to God again for the first time right before she jumped.

“In case I died, I wanted God on my side,” Fernando said. “I said, ‘Father Lord, I don’t know if I am doing the right thing. If I’m not, please forgive me.'”

Fernando was in a coma for 21 days. During that time, nurses and doctors at the hospital later told her, she frequently shouted things like, “She’s going to kill me,” which alerted them to her dangerous situation. After a brief recovery period, Fernando was sent home to Sri Lanka and ultimately came to the United States with a friend to start a new life here with her son.

Fernando published a book about her experiences, titled “In Contempt of Fate,” in 2004, the same year she became involved with the American Anti-Slavery Group, which coordinates many of her talks nationwide today.

“They gave me the platform to be the voice,” Fernando said.

Still, Fernando said she has never addressed the topic of her life as a slave with her own mother.

“Building awareness is the way to go,” she said. Chon agreed, and saying though legislation can help increase the number of human traffickers prosecuted in the United States, it does not make a big enough difference by itself.

“It doesn’t matter where, when or to who (slavery happens),” Fernando said. “You are my brothers, my sisters, my mothers, my fathers, my aunts and uncles. We are all connected in the human spirit. Yesterday is gone – we cannot go back and fix it. All we have is right now.”

Chon said she was spurred to get involved in the fight against human trafficking when she was a student at Brown and read in the Providence Journal about six South Korean women who had been promised well-paying jobs and security in America but were ultimately forced into prostitution at a local massage parlor.

In the last two years, the Polaris Project has provided support services to over 75 victims of human trafficking, whom Chon said have been mostly women and children used as sex slaves. She said 17,500 human beings are trafficked into the United States each year and that human trafficking is the largest growing criminal activity in the world.

“This is something that is happening in our own neighborhoods, here in the U.S., and it’s something we need to be alerted to,” Chon said.

In his introduction, James Campbell, associate professor of history and chair of the slavery and justice committee, commended Chon and Fernando.

“There are ways in which we, too, live in a world in which there are gross injustices, including slavery,” he said.

“These two people are amongst my heroes,” he said, not just because they are willing to lament the existence of slavery in today’s world, but because they are acting “in specific, concrete ways to end it.”

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