Former Trafficking Victim Describes Her Ordeal and Rescue
Ali, a young woman who fell into a life of drug addiction and prostitution in Philadelphia, describes the hold sex traffickers have on their victims and how she was ultimately able to escape the life with the help of a deputy sheriff on an FBI task force.
Ali: I think when I was first on the streets, I still kind of separated myself from everybody else that was down there and looked at myself as, like, unique, that like, “I’m not as bad off as these people. I’m not as dirty as these people. I haven’t done certain things yet. I haven’t been arrested yet. I’ll be fine.”
Text slide: Ali grew up in a stable home in a middle-class Philadelphia suburb
Text slide: Despite an education that includes a master's degree, Ali experimented with heroin, became addicted, and found herself living on the streets in a notorious Philadelphia neighborhood called Kensington.
William Johnson, deputy sheriff, Philadelphia Sheriff's Office: Kensington Avenue runs under an elevated train. They call it the El. So, it’s kind of like a hallway almost, where it’s the stores and there’s the train platform. So, there’s no sunlight. There’s nothing like that. It’s inner-city. There’s trash. There’s everything you can think of. It’s abandoned buildings. Abandoned factories. Abandoned houses.
And then there’s the heroin. On every street corner down there, there’s dealers. You can't go anywhere without running into dealers.
Text slide: William Johnson, a deputy with the Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office, works on an FBI task force aimed at combatting human trafficking and crimes against children.
Ali: It went from trying it probably to within a month to needing to do it every single day. So, when I moved down there, it was very bad. It wasn’t about the thrill of getting high. It was like “I need this” or “I feel like I’m going to die” because I’m getting that sick.
Johnson: That’s one of the tools that pimps use to keep these girls under control and keep them in the working status. Because they need the drugs. They need the money to get the drugs. So that’s a big key factor in their control over these girls.
Ali: In the beginning, it’s easy for them to manipulate you when you have nothing, and they are literally providing you with everything, and they have that control over you. It kind of became just like giving into them because I felt obligated to do certain things with them in order for them to keep providing for me. If they would physically abusive towards you, then they would remind you that they were like your primary source of income, your primary place to have a roof over your head, to feed you. So even though that part of it was there, it’s kind of like you were willing to sacrifice, I was willing to sacrifice enduring that because without that person I thought I had nothing.
Text slide: Johnson remembers the first time he saw Ali in Kensington.
Johnson: We ran into her and she just didn't fit. She didn't belong. She was clean. That’s a big thing. And she was dressed nice. And that didn't fit. And then after we talked to her, she was educated. It all didn't jive.
Ali: He probably first met me when I had just gotten out there and I wasn’t as bad off or as beaten up as I was years later when he found me again.
Johnson: The second time, it’s like, alright, you’re back down here. What’s going on? And the progression started where she just kept getting worse and worse and worse and deeper into Kensington where she couldn't get out.
Ali: It’s honestly like a war zone is how I would describe Kensington. I normalized it so much. But most of what goes on there is drugs, prostitution, and violence. It’s crazy when I think about it now because it’s no way for a person to live.
Johnson: Finally, at some point, her mom actually reached out to me and wanted me to see if I could find her. They wanted to get her help and get her off the street and out of what she was doing and where she was.
Ali: I had alienated myself from them for so long. Lied to them, stole from them, had them searching for me for months, putting out missing person’s reports for me. There had been warrants out for my arrest because I had failed to appear in court for months. Like, I was running from the police and Detective Johnson was on the warrant unit at that time.
I remember I was walking down a one-way street this way and I see a truck go this way and for a split second I thought about running. He got out of the car and he handcuffed me, and he literally called my mom on the phone, to say, like, we found your daughter.
So that day that he arrested me, it’s kind of like, I had that moment of clarity, where I realized that I was going to be in trouble, because I was going to be in jail. But I also had that sense of relief that was a little scary, because I knew that it was over. I knew that the way that I was living and my days on the streets and years of living that way was ending. So, as scared as I was, it was almost relieving in a sense to know, like, even if this is forced, my life doesn’t have to be like this anymore.
Looking back, like that day, he saved my life in the sense that he had not gotten me then, like, I don’t think I would have made it off of the streets alive had I continued to stay out there.
Johnson: I don't look at it like that—like I saved her life. Now, sitting back after she said it, yeah. But that’s what I was supposed to do. That was my job. That’s what the task force—everybody—was here to do. That’s what we’re supposed to do is help these girls get off the street.
Text slide: Today, Ali works at a treatment center helping others work through their addictions.
Ali: Whether its addiction or prostitution or human trafficking, it doesn’t discriminate against any socioeconomic status or any background. Even me, in the beginning, thought I come from a good family, an educated family, a good area. Like, this could never happen to me. Like, I was one of those naïve, ignorant people that didn't think it could happen to me, as though I was above other people. But it can happen to anybody. You don’t have to come from a bad home or live in the inner city where that stuff might be misconceived as being more prevalent. It happens everywhere. It can happen to anybody.
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