Now a U.S. citizen, the former child slave opens up about her harrowing real-life story, as detailed in her book, Hidden Girl, and her subsequent life in the U.S.
Human trafficking survivor-activist Shyima Hall
Tavis: Some sobering stats that tell, I think, a grim story. Twenty-one million people worldwide are modern-day slaves, victims of forced labor, 43,000 in this country, the USA, alone.
One of those enslaved and now free, thankfully, to tell her story is Shyima Hall, whose autobiography is called “Hidden Girl: The True Story of a Modern Day Child Slave.” Shyima, good to have you on this program.
Shyima Hall: Thank you for having me.
Tavis: I’m glad you’re free.
Hall: Thank you.
Tavis: We talked on my radio show, my public radio show, and I was so taken by our conversation I thought we would continue this a bit here on public television.
So I want to have you go back through this again, but give me some sense of how you found yourself being sold into slavery in the first place.
Hall: It really all started with my older sister. I am a seven of 11 kids, and she worked for a family in Egypt as a maid, by choice. She ended up pretty much stealing money from them, and they gave my parents the choice of either just either we put her in jail or you give us somebody else in replacement, and somebody younger, so we can teach her our way, and she does it exactly how we want it.
Tavis: So it was either prosecute your older sister for theft or replace her with somebody to pay off this debt.
Hall: Exactly. Exactly.
Tavis: So you end up being put up by your parents as the replacement for your older sister to pay off this debt.
Tavis: All right. Give me some sense of this family that you were basically given as a barter arrangement to. Tell me about this family that you were living with and working for.
Hall: I lived with them in Egypt for two years. They were a very wealthy family; pretty much they can do anything they want. But they also had the heart of letting you know that you work for them and they’re above you – cruel, pretty much, of how they are.
They didn’t care for anybody else’s rights other than their owns, and I lived with them here in the U.S. for two years as well.
Tavis: Yeah. So two years you lived with them in Egypt.
Tavis: You were what age when you were basically, again, turned over to be their slave?
Hall: Eight years old.
Tavis: How many?
Hall: Eight years old.
Tavis: You were eight years old then, as I said. So you stayed there for two years, so you’re about 10. How did you end up here in the States from Egypt?
Hall: Well I didn’t finish off the debt yet, so they told my parents they needed, they’re leaving, so they’re going to take me with them. They arranged everything and I came over with, not with them, with another guy, who took me with him to pretty much act like he was my dad so it would be okay for me to come to the U.S.
Tavis: So they snuck you in, basically.
Hall: Pretty much, yeah.
Hall: On a two-month visa. Then I came and I worked for them here in –
Tavis: In Southern California?
Tavis: Yeah. It’s one thing for your parents – and when we say your parents, we mean your mom and your dad, signed off on you being their slave in Egypt.
Tavis: It’s one thing for your parents to put you up as the repayment, or the payoff of a debt. It’s another thing, though, for your parents to let you leave the country with this family.
Hall: I thought about it so many times. The only way for me to take it is they had 11 kids, and said why not one, one to go.
Tavis: One could go, as if you weren’t going to be missed?
Hall: Pretty much.
Tavis: Yeah. Of the 11 kids that they had, your one sister stole the money and so she’s off on the run somewhere, I guess. But that leaves 10 other kids.
Tavis: Have you ever thought about why of those 10 kids you were the one that your parents offered up to pay the debt off?
Hall: When she went and they told her what happened, I was the one that was with her with one more younger than me. She was the baby of the 11, maybe less than a year. So it was easy for her to be like, “Oh, here you go.”
Tavis: So your – I got it. So your mother went to their home to hear the story of what had happened –
Tavis: – and what the deal, what the proposal was. You were with your mother at that time.
Tavis: So kind of like wrong place, wrong time.
Hall: Pretty much.
Hall: Pretty much.
Tavis: All right, so you’re with this family two years in Egypt. You then are snuck into the country to be their slave to pay off this debt here in Southern California. Tell me about where you’re living here in Southern California and what you were doing specifically for this family as their maid, or slave.
Hall: I lived with them here in the U.S. in a beautiful home in a beautiful neighborhood.
Tavis: In L.A., Orange County?
Hall: In it’s Anaheim, I guess, Orange County, Anaheim.
Tavis: Orange County, okay. And they had five kids, mom and dad, and my job was to get up, get the two twins ready for school, get their clothes, lunches, everything, as well for all the other three girls.
Two of them were, one of them was in college, one was in high school, so they were a little bit older, but I still did the same thing – get them ready, get their –
Tavis: But you’re a kid yourself, you’re 10 years old. You’re 10, and you’re taking care of other kids?
Hall: That’s not how they really saw me. They saw me, I was their maid and I worked for them. I didn’t see myself as a kid, honestly, either, so I didn’t stop to think about it that way.
Tavis: Yeah. So how did they treat you? They’re wealthy; they’re taking good care of their own five kids.
Hall: Of course.
Tavis: You’re their slave, their maid. How’d they treat you?
Hall: It was pretty bad. They let you know that you work for us and you don’t speak, you don’t say anything. Whatever we tell you, you do it, and you do it right then and there, and there’s nothing else you can do about it.
Tavis: What were your living conditions in this gorgeous house that they lived in?
Hall: In the beautiful home, I slept in a garage in a storage room, pretty much, where all the luggage was. I had my bed there. There was no light, no air, no window, nothing, and that’s where they put me.
Tavis: Right. I want to fast-forward on because my time is running here and I want to encourage people to read your book. There’ve been a number of journalists who’ve been writing about this issue for years, trying to get the nation’s attention to focus more on the fact that there are too many children who are enslaved.
Again, in case you just tuned in, 43,000 of these modern-day slaves living in this country. People just like Shyima.
So you were there for a couple of years, and tell me what happens. How do you get rescued, how does it get out that you’re there, how do you get discovered and get found out?
Hall: There was a neighbor called in and said, “Hey, there’s a child that’s always there, always seems to be cleaning around the house, and doesn’t go to school.” One day it just so happened the door knocked and they came in, and it was –
Tavis: Who’s “they?”
Hall: The cops.
Tavis: The cops, yeah.
Hall: Social service I believe was there too. They pretty much fought him the whole time, the dad. I was wasn’t allowed to open the door, so he opened the door.
Tavis: So you were not allowed to open the door.
Tavis: Because they knew you were illegal, essentially.
Hall: Of course. Oh, of course. They let you know too, that you are not allowed to or the cops will take you and beat you up.
Tavis: That’s what they told you, to put the fear into you –
Tavis: – that if you answered the door, the cops would take you.
Tavis: But on this day, the cops come a’knocking –
Hall: Knocking –
Tavis: – he answers the door –
Hall: Definitely, and then he, I hear yelling. All of a sudden the door closes again. Less than five minutes, they come back in with a warrant and they pretty much dragged me out of the house.
They put an Arabic speaker on the phone and said, “Hey, it’s okay, these people are here to help you.” Honestly, it was, to me it wasn’t a help, it was I was scared.
I didn’t know. These are all the things they tell you if it happens, what would happen to you.
Tavis: But they were there to help you.
Hall: At the time, I didn’t think so.
Tavis: Yeah, you didn’t know that, yeah.
Hall: Yeah, definitely.
Tavis: But they were.
Hall: They were, they definitely were.
Tavis: And they helped you.
Hall: They sure did.
Tavis: Yeah, and you eventually got out.
Hall: Definitely, I got out.
Tavis: I guess the questions on my mind, and I suspect everybody watching right now, is when you finally got out, at some point, obviously, contact was made back with your parents in Egypt.
I’m just assuming that your parents were just on cloud nine and they were grateful that you’d been discovered and found, and you were on your way back home to Egypt.
But I know that ain’t how the story ends, because you’re here in Los Angeles. So what happened when they got in touch with your parents back in Egypt?
Hall: They pretty much told me how ungrateful I was, and how unthankful I was for –
Tavis: Your parents are telling you how ungrateful you are?
Hall: – for walking away. For walking away from the people that put a roof on top of my head.
Tavis: I see the tears in your eyes. How does that – you’ve written a book about this and you’ve gone on to establish your own life and your own career. How does it strike you after all this time that your parents pretty much sold you into slavery, kind of gave you away to pay off the family debt.
And that even after your being rescued and these persons, this family being brought to justice, you still, your parents still didn’t –
Hall: They didn’t see it that way. They saw it as a –
Tavis: Right behind you, there you go.
Hall: Thank you. They saw it as – that was an income to them, and I took that away from them. They didn’t see it as our daughter, part of us is in trouble, or unhappy, or been abused. They didn’t see it that way. They – I was the wrong; I was in the wrong to them.
Tavis: Yeah. How have you – I want to talk about your life now in just a second, but I’m trying to get a sense, Shyima, of how you have, how you’ve shored up, built up your own self-determination and self-respect, how you celebrate your own humanity.
Because you have a family that gives you away, that sells you into slavery, there’s another family that treats you like dirt, and even when you get out, you’re in this country with no friends, because you’ve been locked down in a house, in a garage, all these years.
You have no friends, you have no family here, the family you have in Egypt, pardon my English, ain’t worth going back to, because they gave you away, they sold you into – I’m just trying to get a sense of where does the, how did you navigate your way, how’d you work your way through feeling worthless and helpless?
Hall: It was a long trip, honestly. I went through my share of foster parents and share of therapies and all the happy medication they can put you on, but nothing really have helped me other than me saying this is what I want, I want to be somebody, I don’t want to be shut down.
Knowing that human traffic happens so much, it gives me more courage to stand up and to speak out for the people who don’t have a voice to. I was lucky enough to be saved. There’s a lot of people who are not, and I want to speak out for them.
Tavis: So is that what you want to do with your life? Is that your ultimate goal here with this book, “Hidden Girl,” was to tell your story and to help other people get their story out?
Hall: Definitely. I want to help the people that can’t speak, and to let people know that human traffic doesn’t happen, it’s not a history thing, because a lot of people’s like, “No, that’s back then, that happened back then. Nothing happens like this now.”
I want to let them know that this happens now, this happens today in our own country, and it’s time for us to turn the light on it.
Tavis: Are you a U.S. citizen now?
Hall: Yes, I sure am.
Tavis: You are?
Tavis: When did that happen? When did that happen and how did that feel?
Hall: It happened 2011. It felt amazing. I really wanted to become a U.S. citizen so I can become a cop.
Tavis: Oh, you want to be a cop?
Hall: Yeah, I want to be an ICE agent, actually.
Tavis: Right. I think I get it, but why do you want to be an ICE agent?
Hall: I want to be able to help and to be able to assist people just like I was been helped. I had a great mentor for this whole time from ICE. He was great to me and he helped me through all the stuff I’ve been through, and I want to be the same way, to be able to assist somebody else.
Tavis: The writing of this book, “Hidden Girl,” did it, was it therapeutic for you, did it help you process this stuff better, did it bring up horrible memories and nightmares, or did it do all of that?
Hall: It did every single word you said, honestly. It definitely did. I was actually pregnant when I did this. (Laughs) So it was even a little bit harder. But I think I’m healing as I’m doing this, and at the same time there’s a lot of unanswered questions for my parents that it always keeps going through my head, like why.
Tavis: What about your other siblings? I talked about, we talked earlier about your parents, and I’m not sure that I will ever quite understand how a parent, how two parents, sell their kids into slavery, and when she’s rescued they get mad at her for ruining a good situation.
I don’t know if I have the capacity to process that. But what about your other siblings? I love my mom and dad. I love them dearly and I’d hate to be separated from them, but I’ve got nine brothers and sisters, and I love my brothers and sisters.
So it’s one thing not to have a relationship with my parents, which I’m glad I have, but I don’t know how I would navigate my life without being able to hang out with my brothers and sisters . So how have you dealt with being estranged from your siblings?
Hall: I would love to meet them one day again. I’ve met them all, but that was when I was younger.
Tavis: If you saw them now, would you recognize them?
Hall: No, I wouldn’t, honestly. I don’t even remember their names. I would not know –
Tavis: You don’t even remember their names now.
Tavis: Because there were 11 of you. You’ve been just gone for so long that the names have kind of escaped you.
Hall: Just gone. I would not know how to react, honestly, and I lived my whole life without them or my parents, that I’m okay where I am. I have my own friends that are like sisters and brothers to me, that I’m okay to just have them, and I believe you make your own family, and I think I’ve made my own family.
Tavis: So you want to be an ICE agent, and you’ve become a U.S. citizen and you’re working toward becoming an ICE agent. So just give me a sense of how your life is these days.
You mentioned the baby and you mentioned your friends and the family that you’ve created here in the United States now. So just kind of give me a sense of what your life is like these days and how you stay – I know you’re staying busy on book tour right now, but give me some sense of your life these days, Shyima.
Hall: It’s a busy life. I love my boyfriend and my daughter, beautiful.
Tavis: I heard the baby – (laughter) I walked out – Shyima’s dressing room today happens to be across the hall from mine, and I talked to her, as I said earlier, on our radio show and I wanted to continue this on television.
So I had not met her before until today, but I also knew that she had a baby, and I walked out of my dressing room, I said, “Well she must be here,” because I heard this baby just having a good time across the hallway. So I haven’t met her yet, but I know your baby’s here.
Tavis: So yeah, you got a boyfriend, you got a baby, but how’s life? Are you happy now? Are you -?
Hall: I’m very, very happy, very satisfied, and I enjoy every moment of my life. I definitely do.
Tavis: Yeah. What happened to the family when the agents came to rescue you, the police showed up? They obviously were in violation of a number of laws – child endangerment and the list goes on and on and on, I suspect.
What happened to the family here? How much time they spend in jail, in prison?
Hall: She spent two years, as long as she had me in the U.S.
Tavis: The mother spent two years.
Tavis: They gave her two years because of the, again, to your point, she had you in slavery for two years here in this country.
Hall: (Unintelligible) yes.
Tavis: So they gave her two years.
Tavis: What about the father?
Hall: He got three years.
Tavis: He got three years.
Hall: The laws were a little different back then. I was the first case for Orange County, so the laws are a little different now, a little harsher. So, but back then it was just more of like they plead guilty, they got the minimum, and that was it.
Tavis: What do you make of that? How do you process the fact that they enslaved you in Egypt, they snuck you into the country, they enslaved you here, had you sleeping in a garage with no light, no heat, no air, no anything, and then she ends up getting like two years.
Hall: Two years.
Tavis: He only gets three years. How’d you process that light sentencing?
Hall: At the time, honestly, I was kind of just glad. Like there’s an example of this, and I got to see them get put in handcuffs. So that was amazing to me as well.
But I’m glad that the laws changed now for other survivors. I’m okay that I was an example. There’s nothing else the government would have done, honestly, if they plead guilty. I don’t think it was fair, but they plead guilty in the end.
Tavis: Yeah. This is obviously not your fault. You were a child, and this damage was done to you by adults. But has there been any, have you wrestled with feelings of embarrassment, feelings of guilt?
Your parents tried to make you feel guilty. Have you wrestled with feelings of embarrassment or feelings of guilt as you’ve tried to, as you’re healing, trying to navigate your way through this?
Hall: I will say yes, the embarrassment.
Tavis: What do you feel embarrassed – I don’t know why, but what do you feel embarrassed about?
Hall: Just the whole thing. Your own parents and no one really understand the situation, even if you tried to explain it to them, that those are my parents, that’s why I don’t have parents.
But I’m an adult now and I’m okay with it. But as a kid going through it, I was embarrassed. But as of right now, I’m an adult and I know how to deal with it better. I know how to explain myself, and I don’t really explain myself. I’m more of like this really happens. Not only to me; it happens to a lot of people. I’m okay of saying that.
Tavis: Yeah. What kind of response have you been getting to the book?
Hall: Great responses, great. A lot of people are very, very surprised that this happens in the U.S., so I’m glad, as much as I struggled of doing this, I’m glad I’ve done it.
Tavis: Your daughter’s name is?
Tavis: Athena. Love that. The goddess.
Tavis: Athena. Why’d you name her Athena?
Hall: The goddess of war and wisdom.
Tavis: Yeah, that’s why.
Hall: It was a great meaning to me.
Tavis: I like it. War and wisdom – I love it. Makes perfect sense. (Laughter) How much of this, how much of this will you tell Athena? I assume at some point she’ll know the whole story; she’ll be able to read one day and she’ll read it for herself.
But how do you expect that you will tell your daughter this, and when do you expect that that conversation years from now, do you ever envision how that conversation might happen with you and Athena?
Hall: I try to think about it just because I know kids are very smart now, and they grow up knowing a lot of things really fast. So I don’t see it happening like in two years or so, but maybe in four or five, for her to understand that our world is not perfect, and there’s wrong that happens to others. Definitely.
Tavis: I am curious as to how your experience being maltreated by your mother has impacted, influenced the way that you mother Athena. You must be really – I almost feel sorry for the baby. (Laughter)
You must be awfully overprotective. You must swarm her all the time. Maybe that’s why she was screaming in the hallway, “Tavis, come get me.” (Laughter) How has this experience influenced your being a mother?
Hall: Wow. I am very, very protective.
Tavis: I figured, yeah.
Hall: A lot of people don’t understand it for a long time until the book came out, and they were like, “Oh, okay, we get it.” She’s my world. I’m going to keep her close to me and I’m going to try to do everything in the world for her.
Like, I’m going to give her everything that I never had, and more. So I am very excited to be a mom. I love it, everything about it. Even through the sleeps and the terrible twos, I still love it. I still love it.
Tavis: Yeah. I know you’re not glad that you had to go through this experience, but I can only assume, given the response to the book, that you’re glad you did the book, and that you don’t have any regrets about telling your story.
Hall: No, I don’t. No. I’m very glad it happened, and I’m very glad I met the right people to get me to do this. So I’m very glad.
Tavis: Do you have any way of knowing, maybe not, but do you have any way of knowing whether or not the fact that this book has been written has gotten back to your family in Egypt?
Do they know that this book even exists? Do you have any way of knowing that?
Hall: I have no way of knowing that, no, honestly. No. I don’t keep in contact with them. I spoke to them in 2009, the last time, and that’s when they told me my biological father died.
Tavis: Your father’s passed away now?
Hall: That was really it. I really don’t have anything to say to them, or – nothing.
Tavis: Yeah. Life goes on.
Tavis: Life goes on.
Tavis: It’s a powerful story. Her name is Shyima Hall. The book is called “Hidden Girl: The True Story of a Modern Day Child Slave.” Shyima, I’m happy for you, and delighted to have you on this program, I wish under different circumstances.
But I’m really celebrating the work that you are doing now to raise higher on the national agenda this issue of human trafficking. So thanks for your story, thanks for coming on, and you take care of Athena.
Hall: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
Tavis: My pleasure. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
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