Phuong Anh: New Houstonian Tells Of Her Time As Near-Slave
Earlier this week a tearful Anh told her story of resilience and survival to an utterly engrossed group gathered at a private home in the Galleria area by the Coalition to Abolish Modern-day Slavery in Asia (CAMSA).
"We were poor, we just wanted to work and here we are being beaten to death," Anh said through an interpreter. When Anh made it to Jordan she learned there was a reason she wasn't allowed to read her contract before signing it while still in Vietnam. For ten days of arduous and grueling sewing work, she and her coworkers were paid $10.
Although she was the newest arrival to the workroom, Anh bravely led a strike. "Immediately they took our food and water, cut off the electricity and confined us," she said. "I called Vietnam for help from the government and we were told to do as we were told."
Calling for help in Jordan proved hope-shattering. "When the [Jordanian] police finally arrived they were shouting and screaming at us. They struck us with their batons and shot fire extinguishers at us," she said. "I ran to the room with our beds and saw my friend being beaten by an officer while still on her top bunk. I saw she was bleeding from her mouth."
Somehow Anh reached the same government official back in Vietnam and shouted into the phone that police officers were killing them but the woman coolly told her it was her fault, "She told me, "I told you to go back to work, why are you calling me to complain?"
The 276 women grew even more despaired as they shared stories and realized every single one of their passports and other identifying documents had been confiscated upon arrival.
"One day we broke through a window trying to escape and we saw police officers chatting with our bosses. We still went for it but they corralled us in no time."
Anh recalls they were so hungry they eventually found ways to sneak out and sell anything they could get their hands on in exchange for food. "I'm so embarrassed to admit that we sold tampons to get food," she said.
Help finally came in the way of an article written by a reporter who has since been blacklisted by the Vietnamese government. The reporter, a sister of one of Anhs coworkers, was their way of reaching someone who would care, someone who would not agree with their supervisors or with Vietnamese government officials that these were humane conditions for anyone.
The article reached Dr. Thang Nguen of BPSOS (formerly Boat People SOS) and he contacted his network in Jordan to help them. "He gave us $3,000, but there were 276 of us, so we used it to buy ramen noodles," Anh said.
The money also went towards porridge for the woman that was beaten while in bed but despite all their efforts she didn't survive.
When Vietnamese officials finally visited them in Jordan they questioned and beat Anh for taking Dr. Nguyen's donation and ordered the women to return to Vietnam. Anh wanted out of Jordan but knew that to go back to Vietnam would be to put herself at risk of retaliation from the work agency, or even, the government.
"Dr. Thang gave me an additional $3,000 and told me to put the money in one pocket and my passport on the other [of her pants]. I walked around with an empty purse."
Under the watchful eyes of the Vietnamese delegation escaping from the airport in Jordan was impossible, but she would try again once in Thailand.
"I snuck into a restroom. I couldn't read the doors so I didn't know if it was the women's or the men's restroom."
And in a time when, due to to fear of repercussions or simple apathy or indifference most people would look the other way, the gentleman that she found in the men's restroom believed her and escorted her as she made her way through and out of the airport.
Outside Anh found her other savior, Dr. Nguyen, there waiting for her. She would remain in Thailand for two and half years while Nguyen reached out to the U.S. State Department for assistance in securing Anhs safety and eventual political asylum by the States.
Nguyen said the work of CAMSA goes beyond the rescue of individual victims and that their wish is for their advocacy work to lead to awareness for the need and creation of policy that would allow traffickers to be prosecuted and convicted in Vietnam.
"Although Vietnam has consistently denied it, Vietnam is a source country of labor trafficking, but unlike other Asian countries, the government is in full complicity with the labor traffickers," he said
He said if Vietnam fails to improve in two years, they face the possibility that the US will impose trade sanctions.
At the end of the night, Anh asked those present to consider donating to CAMSA so they can help CAMSA rescue women like her and the eight women recently rescued from sex work in Malaysia's capital, Kuala Lumpur.
Phuong Anh has been in Houston for two months. She walks daily to HCC for English classes and hopes to find work soon since she has no source of income besides what assistance CAMSA can give her.