September 23, 2019

Two years a domestic slave: One woman’s story

Kanthi Salgadu lay shivering on the cold, hard floor of a West Los Angeles manse, locked in the room where she was made to sleep. She had no bed, just the meager comfort of two blankets that barely kept her warm. She was frightened in the dark, and her mind leapt like a hungry cat toward the sound of other voices; she could hear them elsewhere in the house — the clinking of glasses, the thunderous laughter, the sound of merriment bouncing off the walls. She knew others were eating the food she had made, sitting at the table she had set, and that after they left, she’d clean up their mess. 

But the guests who were now feasting on her food would never so much as glimpse her. And if anyone cared to compliment the chef, the woman of the house would answer, “Thank you.” 

Because Salgadu was invisible, a bronze-skinned ghost imprisoned in a private dungeon. She was there to work, to care, but never to be cared for. And so she lay there on the floor weeping and waiting for the sound of the key in the lock, for the hand washing of dishes, for the million further tasks, for the children to wake, for the daylight she dreaded, for her day of redemption. 

A Buddhist since childhood, Salgadu prayed. 

“I said, ‘God, why do I deserve this?’ ” Salgadu recalled of the four years a family of Singaporean traffickers held her captive as a nanny and housekeeper, first in Singapore and then in Los Angeles. “I didn’t do anything bad,” she continued, almost as a confession. But she was still punished. Even now, 14 years after she was rescued from slavery, Salgadu’s voice still quavers with doubt — the residual curse of surviving oppression.  

And yet, like the Israelites who fled Egypt, her trauma eventually became a gateway to a better life. 

“I feel like God gave me so much opportunity,” Salgadu told me a few weeks ago when we met at the Jewish Journal offices. Our meeting was arranged by CAST, the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking, a local nonprofit that assists former slaves with their re-entry into civilian life. Since its founding in 1998, CAST has provided legal and social services to nearly 800 survivors of trafficking and organized political advocacy opportunities to push for policy reform. According to CAST, an estimated 12.3 million people are currently enslaved globally, most of them women and children.

The location of CAST’s office is secret. Before its staff would agree to send Salgadu for an interview, they insisted she come with an escort. Salgadu arrived wearing confident pink, though the boldness of the color belied her gentle manner. As she spoke, her wavy black hair cascaded past her shoulders in luminous ribbons; her eyes flashed with pain, tears and triumph as she told her story. 

Salgadu grew up in the city of Kurunegala, a capital of the Northwestern province of Sri Lanka. At 17, she was a bright and bookish high-school student, the prized child of her family, with plans to attend college. “My dad would always say, if you have a house or money, people can take [that] away from you. But if you have a good education, nobody can take [that] away from you,” she said. 

But not everyone in her family had the opportunity to become educated. Her older sister, Sriyani, barely made it to high school; at 15, she became pregnant and got married. Their mother never made it past fifth grade. Salgadu’s mother was also very ill and had been in and out of hospitals throughout her childhood. Responsibility fell to their father, a locally respected builder who made enough money to manage the family’s living expenses and afford medical care.

“He worked tirelessly,” Salgadu said in clear but broken English, “almost every day. He didn’t ever rest.” 

Her father could afford the basics but wasn’t able to save. “We didn’t buy clothes every day,” Salgadu recalled, “but we had enough. It was not so difficult life.”

But in October 1995, as Salgadu was anticipating college, her father fell ill. Weakened by heart disease, he was forced to give up his job and his $400 monthly salary. With ailing parents and no income, the family fell into desperate straits. “We didn’t even have a dollar to go to doctor,” Salgadu recalled. Once self-sufficient, Salgadu’s family was suddenly reduced to borrowing rice from neighbors and living off fruit from the garden. “Sometimes we didn’t have money to pay for electricity,” she said. 

With no government safety net, Salgadu had no choice but to postpone college and look for work — a nearly impossible task for a teenage girl with her background. Out of desperation, she turned to local garment factories, notorious for low wages and poor working conditions, hoping to make at least a fraction of her father’s salary. But she was unsuccessful. “I couldn’t find anything,” she recalled. “At that time, I didn’t have any work experience, only a high school diploma.”

“But the most difficult,” she added, “was my parents were sick and suffering, and I couldn’t help.”

Salgadu contacted a cousin in Singapore who had helped other women find work as nannies. She was then directed to a nearby “employment agency” that vowed to set her up as a nanny in another country. When Salgadu asked how much it would cost, the agency instructed her to provide funds for expediting a passport, she said. There was no formal contract, just the faint promise that she would soon be making 150 Singapore dollars (about $120 U.S.) per month to send back home.

In April 1996, Salgadu left Sri Lanka for Singapore with nothing but a passport, a change of clothes and a small family photo album. “My parents didn’t want me to go,” she said, “but I told them they had no choice; I wanted to support them, and I wanted them to be well and live [a] long life.” 

Salgadu soon found herself working for a wealthy, middle-aged Singapore couple, along with their live-in son and his wife, both in their 30s. Salgadu said they also had a small child and a baby on the way. She believes the family owned a department store. Salgadu did not disclose their names. 

Her workday began at 4 a.m. First she made morning tea. Then she washed the two cars, a black and a red Mercedes. Then she returned to the kitchen to cook breakfast and lunch. Between meals, she would care for the children while their mother worked as a nurse, even as their grandmother, Salgadu’s boss, stayed home. Then she would clean: eight bedrooms, eight bathrooms, a living room and two dining rooms (one for family dinners and one for parties), she said. Some days, she’d clean the curtains and wash the windows. Laundry was expected to be done by hand, as the family wore mostly designer clothes of fine fabrics. 

Around 6 or 7 p.m., Salgadu would cook dinner. At 9 or 10 p.m., she would serve it. Once the family had eaten and the dining room was spotless, she was allowed to eat what she had cooked. On nights when they hosted parties, there was more work, but usually Salgadu was in bed by midnight.

“On Sundays, I’d do all my work and then go to [the Buddhist] temple,” she said of her time off. “I was allowed to leave for a few hours — not every week, but at least once a month.”

At the end of the first month, she was paid. But instead of the 150 Singapore dollars she was expecting, she received only 50 Singapore dollars ($40 U.S.). When she asked her employer why, she was told that the rest went to the agency for arranging the position. For the next six months, she received only $40 per month but didn’t dare complain. “That was enough for my parents to get medication and food,” Salgadu said.

The situation was far from ideal, but she said she didn’t plan to stay long. If she put in a few years’ hard work, she thought she could save enough money to return home. But in the spring of 1998, her plans were dashed when her employer announced that she and her husband would be traveling to the United States — to Los Angeles — to visit their daughter. They expected Salgadu to travel with them.

Salgadu resisted. If anything happened to her parents while she was away, it would be too difficult and too expensive to return to Sri Lanka. But her employer insisted, assuring her that the trip would take only two weeks. In distress, Salgadu called the agency for support. “They said [they] couldn’t do anything, because my employer bought me. They said, ‘They paid a lot of money for you. They’ve been a customer for over 20 years, and if you don’t do what they say, we will cancel your working permit.’ ” Salgadu claims the agency also threatened to report her to the authorities in Singapore. 

But even as her feeling of foreboding increased, Salgadu resolved that this was the only way to help her parents. She relented, and her employer took her to the U.S. Embassy in Singapore to obtain a travel visa. When the interviewing officer asked about her employment conditions, Salgadu said she lied.

“I was so scared and [my employer] was right next to me.”

The officer approved her travel. “That was the last time I saw my passport,” Salgadu said.

She arrived in Los Angeles in March 1998. At the airport, as she collected the family’s ample luggage, Salgadu was instructed that during the two weeks of their visit she would tend to their daughter’s home the same way she had tended to theirs back in Singapore. She would also care for their daughter’s two small children — a girl, 4, and a boy, 7. Salgadu had no idea of the torments that awaited her.

After two weeks, Salgadu’s employers — the middle-aged couple from Singapore — announced that they would be traveling to Niagara Falls and Canada. Salgadu was ordered to stay behind and continue working for their daughter. “[They said] ‘Just listen to her and make her happy and do what she wants,’ ” Salgadu recalled. The couple promised they would be back to collect her at the end of their trip. 

Two weeks went by. 

Then another two weeks.

Then another. And another. … 

Salgadu finally asked if she could send a letter to her family. Her new boss agreed, but added an ominous instruction: “Tell [your family], do not put your name in the address. It has to be my name,” Salgadu said the woman told her. 

For four months, Salgadu heard nothing from her original employers. Day after day, she inquired as to their whereabouts, to no avail. Finally, she said the daughter told her, “Don’t ask me this question you’re always asking me! You don’t have nothing to do? Go clean the window, go clean the car.”

The daughter told Salgadu that her parents had “things to do” back in Singapore and had left the country. They would not return. Salgadu had no passport, no money, no friends. She was a prisoner in the house where she worked, forbidden from answering the door, the phone, and given no time off. She was paid no wages. 

“I was so sad,” she said of the increasingly bleak circumstances. “I got my first letter from Sri Lanka [that summer], and it said my dad had passed away. So I was crying, and I told her I wanted to go home and see my mother. She was so mean to me. She said, ‘I don’t want to hear you crying. I have a lot of things to do, and we spent a lot of money to bring you here, and I need a housekeeper, and I cannot just let you go.’ ”

I cannot just let you go …

Salgadu pleaded for money to send home. “I [kept] asking, ‘I want to send money, I have to help my family, that’s the reason I left my country.’ ” 

But her keeper grew increasingly impatient with Salgadu’s pleas. And one day, she violently lashed out at her. “I was in the kitchen putting away the dishes, and I was so sad,” Salgadu recalled. “[I told her] that my mom keeps writing me letters, and I don’t know what to tell her. I told her, ‘I’m ready to go home.’ And then she got really upset with me and started hitting me. She started throwing plates and cups at me, and my finger was cut. I was bleeding so badly, the skin was hanging out. I tried to sit down on the floor because I felt dizzy. She said, ‘You’re wasting time. Go finish cleaning. Nobody wants to hear you crying!’ I told her, ‘I’m bleeding.’ She said, ‘Do I look like I care about that?’ ” 

Salgadu said the woman’s two young children tried to comfort her. “They tried to stop me crying,” she recalled. “They were telling me, ‘Don’t worry, if your father died, he’s going to be watching you.’ ”

At this point in the interview, Salgadu’s eyes well up with tears. It has been 15 years since these traumas took place, but her memories remain raw and painful. She tells me how her trafficker held her mother’s letters hostage, making her beg for them. 

I ask Salgadu how she responded to the woman’s cruelty. Did she ever lash out? Did she try to run away? 

The daily degradations wore away at her will, she said. Rather than resist, she simply became resigned. Besides, she thought, if she escaped, where would she go? She had no contacts in the United States and no money. “I didn’t even know like, what is 911, or where is the embassy where I could ask for help,” she said. Even the guests who visited the house or who might have surmised her existence had never actually seen her. She was always locked in her room when others came, no more than an apparition. 

“At that time, I felt so numb,” she said.   

For 26 months, she lived that way — without recourse, without dignity, without hope. 

Finally, on the morning of May 11, 2000, a group of strangers knocked at the door. It was U.S. Immigration.

For two days, four immigration officers stalked the house, ringing the doorbell, day and night. But inside, Salgadu’s traffickers ignored them. When Salgadu asked her trafficker who it was, the woman replied that it was the U.S. Census. But Salgadu sensed something amiss. 

On May 12, the officers returned one more time. The traffickers scrambled to hide Salgadu before answering the door. Then they instructed her to put on one of the woman’s fine dresses and pretend she was a visiting niece. 

“My body was shaking. I was so worried. The immigration agent said his name, showed me the badge, but I had no idea what was immigration. He asked me, ‘Do you have your passport?’ I said, ‘No I don’t have it, but my boss have it.’ Then she said not to call her boss,” Salgadu recalled, laughing at the irony. “Then she bring me a cup of tea, [but] I was shaking so much I spilled the tea on the table.”

The immigration officer told Salgadu she did not have to stay in that house, that she could leave with the officers that day. “I didn’t know who he [was], but to hear that I don’t have to be there, I was so relieved,” she said.

It turned out that a neighbor had called immigration to report the family. Salgadu was brought downtown, questioned and placed in the care of the Good Shepherd Center, a homeless shelter for women and children, where she was given food and a place to sleep. It was the first night in two years that she slept in a bed — and the first time in four years that she was allowed to sleep through the night. 

Over the following weeks, people from CAST came daily to meet with her, assigning her a case manager for legal proceedings and to help her transition into American life. 

Although the laws at the time were not sufficient to fully prosecute her traffickers, a lawyer did procure for her nominal back wages in exchange for signing a nondisclosure agreement.

Salgadu’s debriefing process was long and arduous, and she told me it took three weeks before she finally confessed to CAST that she was not, in fact, her trafficker’s niece, as she had told immigration, but rather their indentured servant. A month later, Salgadu was connected to other survivors of trafficking and was shocked to discover she was not alone. 

“I saw that it’s not only me, [and that] it could be worse,” Salgadu said. “Some other survivors were raped, [some were enslaved] for more than 14 years. I couldn’t believe it, but it’s the truth. I’m not the first or the last, but with my experience maybe I can [do something to] change it.” 

Now 37, Salgadu is a certified nurse’s assistant with her own apartment and car, and a community of friends. She now makes more money per month than her father did, and has enough left over to send to her sister in Sri Lanka, which has helped put her nieces and nephews through school. 

In 2007, as Salgadu’s mother lay on her deathbed, Salgadu was easily able to buy a ticket to Sri Lanka and say goodbye. She has since turned the letters her mother sent her in captivity into the play, “Letters From My Mother,” which was performed by East West Players in Los Angeles. She said she hopes to publish it, and that she still dreams of one day attending college.

At the end of our interview, I tell Salgadu about the holiday of Passover, and how it commemorates the Exodus from Egypt. I explain the story of the Hebrew slaves, the evil Pharaoh and how God rescued the Israelites from bondage, leading them, with Moses as their guide, to the Promised Land. 

For Salgadu, Los Angeles has been both prison and Promised Land, in the end becoming a place of great possibility and transformation. 

“I believe in God and that he’s watching,” Salgadu told me. “I have freedom, and I can make my own choices. So I try to do good with my story, share [it] with other people so they can learn, and I try not to go back and be stuck in that place …”

The narrow place. 

“The pain is never going to heal completely,” she said. “But my voice and my case [can help ensure] it will not happen to somebody else. I still want to give back what I have. Nobody can stop me.”