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Shyima Hall: My Escape from Slavery

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Shyima Hall is really looking forward to catching this year’s crop of Oscar-nominated films. “I love movies – watching other people’s lives,” she says. “I’ve heard Captain Phillips is amazing.” But there is one Best Picture contender that may not make her must-see list. Sitting for an interview in the modest Banning, Calif., home she shares with her boyfriend and their 19-month-old daughter, she fights back tears as she explains. “I want to see 12 Years a Slave … but I’m scared it will bring up all those feelings again.”

The miracle, given her history, is that Hollywood’s depiction of 19th-century slavery’s brutality would tempt her even a little. Born into poverty in Egypt, Hall, now 24, was sold by her parents to a wealthy family when she was 8. She spent four years – two in Cairo, two in the gated community in Southern California where her captors moved – toiling up to 20 hours a day for the couple she refers to as “the Mom” and “the Dad,” doing the cooking, cleaning and childcare for their five children while enduring what she describes as unrelenting physical and emotional abuse. (Her captors ultimately pleaded guilty to holding a person in involuntary servitude and other charges and spent time in prison.) Rescued after an anonymous tip to child services in 2002, she bounced from foster home to foster home yet managed to attend three years of community college, become a U.S. citizen and fashion a life for herself that she now calls “heaven.”

And if all that weren’t testimony enough to her astonishing resilience, Hall is determined not to forget her past but to use it to shine a light on human trafficking and child enslavement, crimes that are far more widespread than is commonly known (see box). She has written a memoir, Hidden Girl, and she speaks out at human trafficking conferences. “Shyima’s a fighter – she’s doing so much to raise awareness,” says Mark Abend, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent who befriended her soon after her rescue. “I want people to know this can happen,” Shyima says. “Slavery is not in the history book. It’s right next to you.”

Shyima’s story begins in the slums outside Alexandria. Though she says she “felt loved,” she and her 10 brothers and sisters lived in fear of being beaten by their father, a construction worker. Charged with tending to her three adored younger siblings while their mother did odd jobs, Shyima never attended school, but, she says, “I was happy.”

Then, in 1998, an older sister who worked as a maid was accused of stealing money from her wealthy employers, Abdel Nasser Eid Youssef Ibrahim and his wife, Amal Ahmed Ewis-Abd El Motelib. Shyima’s mother traveled with Shyima to the couple’s mansion and listened as Motelib threatened to “send my sister to jail” unless her mother made a deal. “We want someone younger,” she told Shyima’s mother, “someone we can teach to work the way we want.” Shyima watched as her mother “agreed then and there.” The last thing she told her sobbing daughter before leaving was, “This is for the good of the family.”

The next two years were a blur of nonstop work, pain and crushing loneliness. Ibrahim would “smack me with his fist” if he was displeased; Motelib called Shyima “stupid slave,” and the children “knew what I was and reminded me of it all the time.” She had a picture of her younger siblings and would run her fingers over it at night, missing them desperately. “I’d call my mother, crying my eyes out, saying, ‘When can I leave?’ But she’d always say, ‘You need to pay off your sister’s debt.'”

The nightmare worsened when the family moved to Irvine, Calif., in 2000. Though their American home was smaller, there was no staff of paid servants as there had been in Cairo, so Shyima was responsible for it all. She awoke at 5:30 each day and got the younger children, twins three years younger and a girl close to her age, off to school. Then she cleaned the house, always fearing Motelib would find a speck of dirt and shriek, “Are you blind? This is your job.” She ate just one meal a day – leftovers from the family’s dinner – and slept on a bare mattress, locked in a rat- and spider-infested garage without heat, air-conditioning or lighting. She had few clothes and had to wash them by hand after the day Motelib discovered her using the family’s dryer. “Your clothes are never to touch ours,” Shyima remembers her screaming. “This bucket is what you wash your clothes in, behind the house.”

Looking back, Shyima isn’t sure what kept her going through that dark time. She felt betrayed by her parents, who she now believes were motivated by money and a desire to restore the family’s honor after her sister’s theft. She was angry at God. “I would yell at him at night,” she says. And she was too terrified to try escaping. “The Mom and the Dad would tell me, ‘If you walk out, the cops are going to get you and beat you, and you’ll never see your family again,’ ” she recalls. And seeing her family, her siblings in particular, “was all I thought about.”

The day a group of police, social workers and immigration agents stormed through the Irvine house’s front door, pushing Ibrahim out of the way and grabbing Shyima, she didn’t feel relief. “I was scared,” she says. “The last thing [Ibrahim] said to me as they took me away was in Arabic: ‘Don’t tell them you work for us. Say you’re here for a visit.’ ”

In between interviews with social workers, Shyima, who had never been to a doctor or dentist, had an X-ray and learned that her right arm was fractured. “I had no idea,” she says. Not long afterward, she spoke to her father, who was furious at her for “leaving the family that had put a roof over my head.” For the first time in her life, Shyima dared to yell back. “You were supposed to respect your parents, but I was so angry. He told me to return to Egypt, and I refused.”

Shuttling among foster homes in the years that followed, she learned English, went to school (“I’d hear people say, ‘Why can’t she read? She’s a teenager'”) and found emotional solace in ICE agent Abend, who became “a father figure. I don’t think I would have made it without him.” Her enslavers were sentenced to two to three years in prison. The Mom was deported back to Egypt after serving her sentence; the Dad may still be living in Southern California. (“They feel tremendous remorse,” the mother’s attorney tells PEOPLE.) At the sentencing, Shyima stood up and asked the judge if she could address the court. “She was so articulate,” recalls ICE spokeswoman Virginia Rice. “She said simply, ‘You stole my childhood.’ ”

It has taken Shyima, who spent years in therapy, more than a decade to heal her wounds. “I had so much anger, especially toward my parents,” she says. “I just didn’t understand how they could have done this. But for me to be happy, I have to forgive.”

Now working as an assistant manager at a luggage store, she hopes to go back to school and become an ICE agent. Her father died in 2009, and she doesn’t know if her mother is still alive, but she would someday like to see the siblings whose memory kept her going for so long. “I can’t even remember all of their names,” she says sadly.

It’s another small person who sustains her these days. She and boyfriend Daniel Eurquidez, a store manager at the mall where she works, have shared a home since 2011 and both dote on daughter Athena. “Holding her in my arms, I couldn’t imagine giving her up – not even to save the world,” Shyima says, her eyes alight. “I have my beautiful daughter and my boyfriend. It was a hard road, but I’m 100 percent okay.”