Behind the obscured windows of a small, seemingly benign massage and acupuncture shop near the Wantagh train station, Lien was forced to service a revolving door of men, for a price, she says. Across the Island, Samirah tells how she was a servant in a prosperous North Shore community, compelled to work because of severe beatings at the hands of her multimillionaire slave masters.
Each endured their servitude for five years, with little hope—that is, until Lien found her savior in the legal system she first believed sought to deport her. Samirah, the runaway domestic slave, fled to the Syosset Dunkin’ Donuts asking for help on May 13.
Two women, two parts of Long Island. Both were modern-day slaves, exploited for the two motives of human trafficking: sex and labor.
Lien, whose name has been changed because she is still in hiding, regained her freedom after repeated prostitution arrests led her to a cop who saw her for what she was: a sex trafficking victim coerced to work in a clandestine brothel under threats of violence and deportation. Samirah, as she is identified in court documents, was a housekeeper who was never paid but was instead physically abused, making her a labor trafficking victim.
Wearing only pants and a towel, Samirah, the disheveled Indonesian woman, found asylum inside the doughnut shop early in the morning on Mother’s Day, after the 26-year-old manager, Adrian Mohammed, saw her lingering in front of the Jericho Turnpike store. He says she was “very confused and bewildered,” visibly struggling to have her plea heard. She muttered only one word in English: “master.” The bruises and scars she bore spoke to him louder than language: This woman in tears needed the police.
“This is something you learn about in school, indentured servants,” Mohammed says with lingering disbelief, re-enacting how the petite woman showed him her burns, pinch marks and how she was slapped.
Having endured inexplicable torture—forced to eat two dozen hot peppers, made to take 10 consecutive icy baths, ordered to run up and down stairs repeatedly—there was no telling what final breaking point drove Samirah to escape.
“Anything goes, inside the home,” says Aijen Poo, director of Bronx-based Domestic Workers United, which advocates for women like Samirah and the woman she was confined with, Nona. “In most cases, those involved have endured a great deal of injustice,” says the advocate, who has helped exploited domestic workers sue for back pay and is lobbying for a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights law.
Samirah’s story shocked LI and the world, with the alleged abuse taking place behind the opulent closed doors of a Gold Coast mansion.
“I feel bad that something like this is going on right now,” says the Good Samaritan, Mohammed. “Especially in such an upscale area.”
But, shock and desirable address aside, such crimes are more common than many realize.
HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT
Lien, Samirah and Nona are among the estimated 17,000 trafficking victims brought to America each year—males and females alike, although most are women and girls averaging 13 years of age, anti-trafficking advocates say. Traffickers often recruit from abroad by force or with a bait-and-switch scheme, although trafficking is not to be confused with human smuggling, the systematic illegal crossing of national borders, which a trafficking victim may or may not engage in willingly. They become trafficking victims after promises of lucrative work and freedom turn into enslavement, through fear of deportation, physical threats and/or violence.
Detective John Birbiglia of the Nassau County Police Department’s Vice Squad is no stranger to human trafficking. In 2005, he helped convince Lien, the Wantagh Chinese woman who was one of about 70 women he arrested for prostitution that year, to testify against her captors.
“I’m the guy, me and my partner, who has to go in there and lay down on that [while undercover],” Birbiglia says, referring to the semen-stained massage tables at the brothels hiding in many Island towns. He says that many establishments are listed in Newsday in “licensed massage” and “entertainment guide” classified ads.
The scene outside such businesses is usually the same—blinds fully closed, no sign identifying the shop or an outdated sign, often police benevolent association stickers adorn the windows as if they actually supported the local police. Inside, the seeming respectability of the front dissolves.
After placing a phone call to a number listed in a mysteriously vague ad, and receiving an address for what turned out to be a typically nameless storefront massage parlor on Merrick Road in Bellmore, this visitor found a rather depressing scene. On this chilly spring evening, the two Asian women inside peered suspiciously through a crack in the blinds after the bell was rung. The dimly lit, even almost inviting, two-room brothel was decorated with beads and incense coupled with tranquil music, nearly eclipsing the shady vibe. The world-weary masseuses were all business.
One woman, the shorter of the two grim-faced, middle-aged workers, gestured from behind a counter, as the other asked, “Half hour or hour?” without asking for money upfront.
What usually comes next is a substandard $40 half-hour massage that’s paid for upfront. It is during the massage, however, when the real negotiations take place. Depending on the language skills of the masseuse, the sexual menu is either explained verbally or through pantomime.
The rest is up to the customer.
This was Lien’s world.
Lien, 38, dainty with short hair, was not always as strong as she appears today, says the detective, who also lectures civic groups on how to spot trafficking in the community. Her days at the Wantagh massage parlor were dehumanizing. The shop, nestled between two bustling bars on Railroad Avenue, still bore the former owner’s sign—Body Care Center Day Spa—with an inaccurate address on the window, to throw off investigators.