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Enslaved in Palo Alto 

A domestic worker from Kenya has accused her employer -- a prominent African journalist -- of human trafficking

Wednesday, Feb 18 2004
Alice B. grew up in Bungoma, Kenya, a district near the border of Uganda with a distant view of the jagged, extinct volcano Mount Elgon. Surrounded by rolling hills and verdant, grassy fields, her hometown has soccer teams, Girl Scout troops, and 4-H Clubs, but its residents eke out a humble living. The AIDS epidemic has left a growing number of Bungoma's children orphaned: Gaunt and glassy-eyed, they sleep in alleyways, beg for change, and get high on glue.

Alice, who asked that her last name not be used, is among the more fortunate in Bungoma in that her family is merely poor. As do most people in the district, she grew up in a house made of mud, with a thatched-grass roof and dung spread on the floor to keep away the fleas. Running water, paved roads, and electricity are unheard-of. Like most children, Alice didn't begin wearing shoes until high school.

Her father, who died in 1996, worked in a sugar factory four hours away from Bungoma and visited home every few months. The family tended a small plot of land, raising sugar cane and corn, though the harvest never yielded enough to survive on; Alice remembers chewing sugar cane to stave off hunger. To keep her children from starving, Alice's mother left the girl in charge and took baby-sitting and housecleaning jobs in Kitale, about 60 miles away, earning around $12 a month.

The third eldest of seven children, Alice dedicated herself to supporting her mother and her younger siblings. Education seemed the clearest road to a better life, and she dreamed of becoming a nurse. In the eighth grade, Alice won a scholarship for poor families to a nearby boarding school. But her high school education would come in fits and starts, and she skipped 10th grade when her father refused to bribe an official for scholarship money. She was only able to finish high school when a cousin from Nairobi offered to help her pay the fees. Without money for more bribery, college was impossible.

At 21, Alice had a baby (she declines to speak about the father), and with few viable jobs in Bungoma, she moved to Nairobi to find work while her daughter and family remained behind. Like many poor young women, she found a job as a baby-sitter for an affluent family. But after three months, her employer moved, and Alice took a job in 2000 as a domestic worker under Wanja Njuguna-Githinji, a prominent journalist whose work focuses on women's issues.

At her new job as a "housegirl," Alice says, she spent her days cleaning, baby-sitting, and cooking meals for the writer and her husband, a member of the Kenyan military.

"In Kenya, it was OK," Alice says of their initial work arrangement. "She leaves everything for me to do. If I finish, then I have free time. On Sundays, I was off duty." Every three months, she could take a week off to visit her daughter in Bungoma.

Njuguna-Githinji, a writer and editor at Kenya's largest press organization, the Nation Media Group, was just beginning to garner international attention for her work. A senior prison officer who had worked for Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi's government for 13 years before becoming a journalist, she was awarded CNN's African Journalist of the Year Award -- considered the African Pulitzer -- in 2000 for her coverage of domestic violence against upper-class Kenyan women. The award included a $10,000 cash prize, a laptop, a cell phone, and five weeks of training at Time's London office. She would go on to write and report several articles for the magazine's European edition.

In 2002, after Alice had worked for Njuguna-Githinji for about two years, the writer learned that she had been selected for a coveted John S. Knight Fellowship for journalists, which would allow her to spend an all-expenses-paid year studying at Stanford University while receiving a yearly stipend of about $55,000, plus an additional $6,000 for child care. A few months before she was to leave for the United States, Njuguna-Githinji asked Alice to move with her.

Alice was hesitant. "I didn't want to, because I didn't know about America and I didn't want to leave my child [for a year]," she says.

But Njuguna-Githinji promised Alice an opportunity she couldn't resist: better pay, easier work, and a chance to continue her education in her off hours. "She said, 'Come with me for one year. I will help you with school. America is advanced and life is better. We will bring your child if we stay more than one year,'" Alice recalls. Njuguna-Githinji helped Alice get a passport and a B-1 visa for domestic workers.

In August 2002, Alice boarded a plane for San Francisco International Airport. "I was hoping to come to America to make more money than what I was making in Kenya, to help with my daughter and family," Alice says. "When I was coming to America, I was excited."

But Alice, a shy, soft-spoken 26-year-old with wide eyes and a round, distinctive face, says the conditions of her employment were not the same as what she had agreed to. She asserts that Njuguna-Githinji, who is now at Harvard University as a Mason Fellow in public policy, promised her a six-day workweek of six hours a day at $6 to $6.75 an hour. Though Alice has never been given a copy, Njuguna-Githinji presented an employment contract to the U.S. Embassy -- a requirement of the visa that allowed Alice to work in the United States temporarily.

But the promises, Alice says, disappeared once they set foot on American soil. In a civil lawsuit filed in Santa Clara County in July 2003, she alleges that she was only paid between $50 and $120 a month, receiving a total of $370 for five months' labor. Court documents also say that Alice was expected to clean the house every day, cook all the meals, and tend to Njuguna-Githinji's son at any hour of the day or night. She was required to do laundry by hand, though the apartment had a washer and dryer. She rarely got a day off, and was told not to speak to anyone for fear of deportation. In addition to the long hours and paltry pay, Alice alleges in court filings that she was constantly insulted, berated, and even threatened by Njuguna-Githinji.

Alice says she knew that what was happening to her wasn't right, but she felt chained to her job. In court documents, she says that Njuguna-Githinji had confiscated her travel documents and warned Alice that immigration officials would deport her if she strayed too far from the apartment; Alice also told me that Njuguna-Githinji had convinced her she couldn't wire money home. And though it wasn't part of the original arrangement, Alice was now expected to repay Njuguna-Githinji the cost of the airplane ticket from Kenya.

Njuguna-Githinji has denied all of Alice's allegations. "Wanja didn't threaten or mistreat Alice," says William Abrams, a Stanford professor and an attorney with Pillsbury Winthrop, who is taking on the case pro bono.

Alice didn't have a name for her problem, but according to United Nations protocol and United States law, the conditions she describes would make her a victim of human trafficking. Though the media tends to fixate on the more salacious stories of people trafficked into sex slavery (as evidenced by the controversial Jan. 25 New York Times Magazine story "Sex Slaves on Main Street"), those cases, while horrendous, constitute only part of this international problem; instances involving people like Alice, brought to this country to labor under false pretenses, remain a woefully overlooked and misunderstood crisis. Her claims are particularly poignant given Njuguna-Githinji's record of working on behalf of Kenyan women.

With the help of pro bono attorneys, Alice has filed for asylum and a special visa for trafficking victims, both of which are still pending. The civil suit she filed against Njuguna-Githinji (which does not specifically mention trafficking) seeks more than $25,000 in damages on claims of such harbingers of trafficking as peonage and involuntary servitude, fraud, false imprisonment, and violating California labor laws. Until her case is resolved, Alice lives on charity -- unable to work, unable to go home.

What some international experts have called "the human rights issue of the 21st century," trafficking typically involves a worker -- farm laborer, seamstress, domestic staffer, prostitute -- who has been deceived about the terms of a job abroad, and who is then forced to work against her will through, as federal law states, "the use of force, fraud, coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery."

"Trafficking is not about chains and whips; it also has to do with psychological imprisonment -- as well as physical and sexual abuse," says Joy Zarembka of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies, which offers legal and social service help to trafficking victims. "Using threats to keep [domestic workers] enslaved in the home has been an incredibly successful tactic. People are threatened or spoken to in a way that makes them feel compelled to work because they believe there will be negative consequences if they don't."

Alice says she was deceived about her pay and work hours when she moved to the Bay Area. And yet, because of alleged verbal abuse and physical threats from her employer, and because, she claims, her visa and passport had been confiscated, Alice -- whom I met with twice in the presence of her attorneys -- says she was not free to leave.

Situations like hers have been documented for years. "In [domestic worker] cases, workers' isolation is so extreme and the culture of fear created by their employers ... is so great that the workers believe they will suffer serious harm if they leave their jobs, and have no choice but to remain in and continue laboring in abusive conditions," Human Rights Watch researcher Carol Pier wrote in her 2001 report Hidden in the Home: Abuse of Domestic Workers With Special Visas in the United States.

Accurate statistics on trafficking are almost impossible to obtain because it remains such an underground problem and because the issue is not limited to one country or region. The U.S. government estimates that 800,000 to 900,000 people are trafficked to and from nations all over the globe every year, with approximately 18,000 to 20,000 people trafficked into the United States annually.

Though the true size and scope of the problem are unknown, what is clear is that American legal and social service organizations across the country handle more labor trafficking cases than sex trafficking cases. The Freedom Network (USA), a coalition of 20 groups that work with trafficking victims, sees primarily labor-related cases. In Northern California, Mie Lewis of the Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Task Force says a majority of the region's trafficking cases -- she has seen dozens in her law office alone -- involve forced labor of domestic workers.

Identifying and prosecuting cases of such domestics, who toil behind the closed doors of private homes, is a challenge. The workers' isolation makes it difficult for them to access outside help and corroborate their stories for authorities. "Domestic worker cases -- they're like this dirty secret," says Jenny Stanger of Los Angeles' Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking. "They're working in the private sphere, where you are least likely to detect slavery. I think it's an enormous problem; I think there are a lot of them out there."

"In many of these cases, it's one person's word against the other," adds Dr. Mohamed Mattar of Johns Hopkins University's Protection Project, a research institute dedicated to human trafficking. "In many cases of domestic servants, we're talking about [accusations made against] high-profile people, because who can afford domestics except somebody like a diplomat? So they could try to shift the credibility question to the domestic. But we believe that the servant should be allowed to testify, and his testimony should be viewed as credible, too, absolutely."

Njuguna-Githinji's attorneys, for example, say that Alice's story is a distortion of the truth. "There were some instances where full wages either under state or federal labor laws were not paid, inadvertently," says Peter Nohle, one of Njuguna-Githinji's attorneys. "As far as the remainder of any of the claims, claims that are not purely a failure to pay full wages, Wanja adamantly denies those -- the allegations of involuntary servitude, peonage, the false imprisonment claim."

"Wanja is a journalist of significant reputation, including a reputation for courage for reporting related to human rights," says Abrams, another attorney representing Njuguna-Githinji. "She has stood for and fought for human rights her entire life. ... This [lawsuit] is just an outrageous and unjust attack on her integrity." (Njuguna-Githinji's attorneys advised the writer not to speak with SF Weekly.)

Advocates, academics, government officials, and attorneys who routinely handle trafficking cases acknowledge that it's possible for people to lie about having been trafficked as a way of remaining in the country. A number of experts interviewed by SF Weekly, however, say they have yet to encounter such a case. These experts also say people would achieve very little by fabricating such charges, since applying for a visa or government assistance involves a rigorous process.

"They have nothing to gain," says Mie Lewis. "The only thing they would gain is getting themselves fired and deported. ... This conspiracy theory about poor and legally unsophisticated domestic servants making stuff up and tricking everybody -- the NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], the prosecutors, the professional immigration adjudicators -- is pretty far out."

Palo Alto, Calif., is a long way from Bungoma, Kenya -- geographically and otherwise. Paved roads, tree-lined sidewalks, palatial homes made of stone and stucco: For Alice, everything in the Peninsula town was foreign. Her first impression of her new and temporary home was that everyone was wealthy.

The change was more than scenic. Soon after their arrival Njuguna-Githinji announced a set of rules. According to court documents, Alice worked an average of 16 hours a day as a domestic servant and nanny for Njuguna-Githinji. In an interview with SF Weekly, Alice said that she would cook breakfast for Njuguna-Githinji and her son, following a weekly menu that her boss had drafted, and at night, she'd sleep in the same room as the 2-year-old. (According to court documents, Alice was expected to tend to him at any hour.)

Alice also said that three days a week, she took the boy to school about a mile away, which she did by carrying him on her back, then baby-sat him after she fetched him from school. Alice claims that she was told not to speak to anyone because, according to Njuguna-Githinji, anybody could be an FBI agent ready to deport Alice. (The lawsuit also alleges that Njuguna-Githinji told Alice -- erroneously -- that she could not venture far from the apartment because her visa did not allow her to go anywhere without her boss.)

For the rest of the day, legal documents say, Alice was to clean the apartment, do all the cooking, either wipe down the exterior of Njuguna-Githinji's car by hand or wash it with water, and hand-wash her boss' clothes and bed linens. (Alice claimed in an interview that her employer didn't want her to use the washer and dryer in the apartment because "[Njuguna-Githinji] was paying me to do the work.")

Njuguna-Githinji's attorneys dispute the description of work alleged by Alice in her civil complaint.

Alice's relationship with Njuguna-Githinji had clearly soured, though she wasn't sure why. "When we reach here, she really changed," Alice says. "In Kenya, she talked to me sometimes. We reach here, she would just command me to do something: 'You have to do this.' 'Why haven't you done this?'

"I used to fear her, and even if I feel I have a question, I didn't ask her. ... I was not free with her like before."

Out of fear, Alice didn't complain, not even at the end of the first month, when Njuguna-Githinji gave her only $100 in pay -- $800 less than her employer had promised, and significantly less than California law requires.

"[Njuguna-Githinji] said, 'You should not complain; this is enough for you,'" Alice recalls.

As the months passed and Alice became trapped in a web of drudgery, the confident and outspoken Njuguna-Githinji blossomed into a noted member of the local community. Having published articles about the importance of female government leadership in Kenya and exposés on police brutality, she seemed vocally committed to social justice. She gave talks titled "Issues That Affect Women in Africa" for Stanford and UC Berkeley audiences and moderated a panel discussion on African oil exploration and its effect on human rights for Stanford's 2003 Africa Week. She also took part in a "Careers in Journalism" workshop for the university's Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, for which her work was described as involving "reporting on women and children in war."

A willing hostess, Njuguna-Githinji occasionally invited guests -- African students of the university or other Knight Fellows -- to her apartment for dinner. During these parties, Alice cooked; she says she was instructed not to speak to the visitors and to remain in the kitchen until they had left. If Njuguna-Githinji expected friends to visit her during the day, she instructed Alice to take her son to a nearby park and to stay there until after the visitors were supposed to leave.

Njuguna-Githinji's attorneys, however, say Alice was not isolated from the community and that the domestic worker was free to come and go. "Alice was never restricted in her travel," Abrams says. "She has never been restricted in her activities. She worked for other people and did baby-sitting for them. She attended social activities with Wanja. People met her." (Alice's attorneys say that Alice did frequently attend social events with Njuguna-Githinji, though she was always working as a baby-sitter to Njuguna-Githinji's son and other Knight Fellows' children. They also say that on some occasions, Knight Fellows asked Njuguna-Githinji if Alice could baby-sit their children in their homes, and Njuguna-Githinji agreed.)

A number of journalists who know Njuguna-Githinji through the 2002 Knight Fellowship say that they never saw evidence that Alice was mistreated, and that they are shocked that Alice would try to sue Njuguna-Githinji, whom they describe as ambitious, courageous, and caring.

"The way [Njuguna-Githinji is] characterized in the lawsuit is totally out of character," says Andy Maykuth, an African correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer. "The allegations about things like long hours ... sure, [Alice] did work long hours, because Wanja was working long hours. She was attending classes, doing a lot of speeches on campus, attending a lot of Knight Fellowship functions, so Alice was taking care of [Njuguna-Githinji's son] for a lot of that time.

"I'm not privy to their private lives, but we need to understand more about how a housekeeper in Africa would work ... what is considered normal there is different than what it would be here. It's a different world [in Kenya], and whatever arrangement they had over there may have been a normal relationship in Africa, but it may not have translated very well into America."

Knight Fellows also say that when they saw Alice, she tended to be quiet, pleasant, and smiling. "There was no indication or hint [of anything amiss]," says Jim Bettinger, director of the John S. Knight Fellowship. "I look back -- was there some sign that I could have missed? -- and I find nothing."

"She did have some freedom," adds Maykuth. "She was able to establish some sort of life [outside of work]."

By the fall, Alice found herself in a financial quandary. She claims that though she had come to the United States to make money to send home to her family, her employer had prevented her from doing so for months by telling Alice that she could not transfer the money by herself, but then refusing to help Alice do it. Without her remittances, Alice knew her family would starve. When Alice repeatedly asked to send money home, Njuguna-Githinji allegedly told her that she should not do so until after she had paid back the money for the plane ticket from Kenya. (Njuguna-Githinji's attorneys say their client has documents showing that she wired money to Alice's family on her employee's behalf.)

Alice finally summoned the courage to ask for a pay increase. Because she was afraid of Njuguna-Githinji, Alice left a note for her employer on her desk. When Njuguna-Githinji discovered it later that day, Alice claims, she flew into a rage. "She was so mad with me, so angry," she alleged in a recent interview. "She pushed me, and she started calling me bad names. She called me 'asshole' and 'the most stupid woman who left her own child to come and do baby-sitting.' She said, 'You don't even deserve to be in this country. I only did you a favor [by bringing you here],' and I don't appreciate it. She told me, 'You come from poor blood, from poverty, and you are all arrogant.'"

Njuguna-Githinji screamed insults and threatened Alice with violence until 1 a.m., court documents say. Another time, she allegedly told Alice that her husband would beat Alice's uncle in Kenya if her uncle ever went to the journalist's home in Nairobi again. (Alice says there was confusion about a sum of money that Njuguna-Githinji had promised her family.) She told Alice that she could return to Kenya if she wished -- as long as she paid for her own ticket.

Alice went to see one of Njuguna-Githinji's friends, a neighbor and a former Knight Fellow, when her boss wasn't home. (When SF Weekly contacted the friend, who is now a reporter in Washington, D.C., he declined to comment for this story "for professional reasons.") She explained that she had been unable to send money to her mother and daughter in Kenya, and asked if there was another way to get funds to her family. He told Alice that she could send the money on her own, and drove her to a nearby Western Union one day when Njuguna-Githinji had left for the Stanford campus and her son was at school. When Alice's employer learned of the clandestine trip, Alice says, Njuguna-Githinji allegedly became angry and chastised Alice for not repaying her travel debt first.

The verbal abuse began to erode Alice's spirit. "I felt lonely and depressed," she says. "I didn't expect it. It was not what I had in mind. But I didn't know anyone to talk to."

She hoped to find solace at church. Njuguna-Githinji had recently begun giving Alice a few hours off on Sundays, during which she was expected to attend religious services. In November 2002, Alice walked to Mountain View to attend Mass at St. Joseph's Catholic Church. After the service, she waited until everyone else had left before approaching the priest.

"She seemed kind of fearful, desperate," says Father Bob Moran, who has been with the church for eight years. "She worked long hours, she claimed, and she was always on duty. She said they took her passport and she couldn't really go anywhere. It didn't seem right; she didn't seem to have that much freedom." Moran told Alice that he would get in touch with a nun he knew at Catholic Charities, to see if she could help.

Though she was unsure about what to do next, Alice says, she had slowly come to realize that things were very wrong. "One day when I was taking the child to school, I saw the bus and it was written, 'Home of the free,'" she recalls. "Also, my employer used to say that there is freedom in this country. So I was thinking, 'America is home of the free.'

"I didn't understand why there is freedom and I am not free. I am like a prisoner in the land of the free people."

The product of nearly two years of nuanced political wrangling, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 passed easily in Congress. The legislation -- the first to tackle the issue in the United States -- makes it easier to prosecute traffickers while also offering protection to victims under a newly created "T visa."

Conservatives saw the bill as a way to strengthen law enforcement and curb worldwide prostitution; liberals viewed it as an opportunity to provide relief to victims of human rights violations and address labor exploitation. A compromise was struck: While temporary immigration status, social services, and work authorization were made available to victims through the T visa, a large component of securing the visa would involve cooperating with law enforcement during its investigations and prosecutions.

Before the act was passed, abused, exploited, and trafficked domestic workers -- whose immigration status is linked to their employers' -- had nowhere to run. Even if they had an opportunity to escape, they might face deportation. But because of the T visa, they can now seek government protection. To apply, victims need to show evidence that they have been trafficked, that they are willing to cooperate with law enforcement, and that they would be harmed if they returned to their home country.

Congress placed a 5,000 annual cap on T visas, but the government has authorized only several hundred per year -- because, officials say, not many victims come forward. In 2003, for example, 750 people applied for T visas and 283 of them were approved.

Victim advocates, however, say that the law enforcement component prevents more people from presenting themselves. "Reporting trafficking is not like reporting a stolen car," says the International Human Rights Law Group's Ann Jordan, who worked with legislative staffers on the 2000 act. "Most of them don't have documents to be here. They could be in shock and not able to react immediately. Many of them are afraid about what will happen to them -- will they be deported, will there be protection?" Alice has expressed just such a fear, though she did eventually agree to report the alleged crime and cooperate with law enforcement.

The Bush administration has been vocal about its commitment to thwart human trafficking, but speeches by the president have tended to emphasize sex trafficking. "There's another humanitarian crisis spreading, yet hidden from view," Bush told the United Nations General Assembly in September 2003. "Each year, an estimated 800,000 to 900,000 human beings are bought, sold, or forced across the world's borders. Among them are hundreds of thousands of teenage girls, and others as young as 5, who fall victim to the sex trade."

Though there is universal agreement that sex trafficking deserves government attention, some victim advocates are worried that the administration's stance is too narrow. "We do have the concern that there are limited resources and that the Bush administration will focus those resources on trafficking in sex, and leave other kinds of trafficking for labor to local governments," adds Jordan.

With public attention fixated on sex trafficking cases, the response of local bureaus of federal law enforcement to non-sex trafficking cases has been uneven. In San Francisco, the two agencies charged with investigating these cases are giving short shrift to labor trafficking. "The FBI very rarely handles trafficking-of-people cases," says S.F. bureau spokesperson Patti Hansen, who had never heard of a T visa before I contacted her. "We focus on terrorism these days."

Sharon Rummery, local spokesperson for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, says the agency believes that sex trafficking is a larger problem than labor trafficking in the area. "We do mostly sex cases and not a lot of labor cases," she explains.

"We have gotten word that law enforcement is primarily interested in sex trafficking cases," adds the Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Task Force's Mie Lewis, whose firm, API Legal Outreach, is handling Alice's T visa and asylum claims. "This is a big problem, because slavery in any form has to be addressed and the perpetrators need to be held accountable. But the government is, in effect, closing its eyes to certain forms of slavery."

In December 2002, Wanja Njuguna-Githinji's father died. The journalist booked a flight to Kenya to attend the funeral, and told Alice that she and her son would be gone for a month. Before she left, Alice claims, Njuguna-Githinji warned her that a friend would be checking in on her, and told her that there would be $8 in a drawer for the month's food.

After her boss left, Alice searched the house, but couldn't find any money. For weeks, Alice relied on a good Samaritan, one of Njuguna-Githinji's acquaintances who lived nearby, to buy her food. Later that month, Alice remembered a conversation she'd had with Njuguna-Githinji's friend, the Washington, D.C., reporter, who had come to visit Njuguna-Githinji when the journalist was not home.

"[He] asked me, 'What do you always do? What do [you] do during [your] free time?'" Alice says. "I told them I don't have any free time. I told them what Wanja was paying me, and [he] said it was too little. [He] says, 'If you have a child, how do you help your child and at the same time use the money?' I say, 'It's hard, but I don't know. I don't know anything about this country.'"

During that conversation, the reporter told Alice about a day laborer's center in Mountain View where she might be able to earn extra money. So on a Saturday a few days before Njuguna-Githinji was to return, Alice walked to the center, where a staffer introduced her to John Rinaldi, a pro bono labor attorney.

As she sat trembling across from Rinaldi, Alice tried to explain her situation. When he asked her if she wanted to escape, she told him that she was too afraid to leave. He gave her his cell phone number and told her to call him any time. After Alice left, Rinaldi consulted the notes he had taken during the conversation, and when he got back to his office, he called the acquaintance who had been bringing Alice food.

Rinaldi recalls, "I spoke with this fellow -- and he's not going to gain by talking about this -- [and] he said, 'You have no idea how powerful [Njuguna-Githinji] is.' He had visited the home and befriended Alice, and he said [to her], 'Look, you can't continue to live like this.' He corroborated what she had indicated to me. The way it came through, he was also fearful of the ramifications on him." (Repeated attempts to contact the neighbor, whose name SF Weekly has agreed not to publish, were unsuccessful.)

Rinaldi then did an Internet search on Wanja Njuguna-Githinji and came across the CNN Web site announcing her as the media organization's African Journalist of the Year.

"I thought about the ramifications of this for the lady -- and for Alice," he says. "Knowing what [Alice] is going up against, you weigh that. Why else would this person come here, to this humble place, and tell us what she's going through? The power difference between those two was not lost on me."

A few days later, Alice called Rinaldi. "She was concerned for herself and her family," he says. "I told her ... 'You can be protected here. We can acknowledge that [Njuguna-Githinji] has all this power and she is in a position of strength, but it doesn't mean that you have to suffer or continue to suffer. You don't have to endure this.'"

Rinaldi gave her a phone number for a local domestic violence shelter that had agreed to take Alice in. (There is only one shelter for trafficking victims in this country, recently opened in Los Angeles.)

"I had doubts about whether I'd hear from or see her again," Rinaldi says. "I didn't know that I had gotten through to her that she could be protected. I didn't know that she believed it."

Njuguna-Githinji returned a few days later, with even stricter rules. "I was thinking that when she came back she would change and be the way she was in Kenya," Alice says. "It wasn't. When she come from home, it got worse. She didn't even greet me, and she had been gone for one month. I thought it would be hard to stay there again."

Alice called Nalini Shekar, the director of the domestic violence shelter whose name Rinaldi had given her. After a few conversations with Shekar, Alice was ready to leave.

On Jan. 8, 2003, she got out. She waited until Njuguna-Githinji had left for the university, and took the child to school. Returning quickly to the house, she put some clothes in a plastic trash bag and nervously called Shekar, who picked up Alice and took the young woman to a Bay Area domestic violence shelter. Alice rotated through a number of shelters for a year before recently moving to temporary housing.

At Alice's new dormitory-style apartment, she shares a kitchen with everyone on her floor. To buy groceries, she uses gift cards for local supermarkets that she has received from charities. Her clothes are donated. Whenever Alice receives a cash donation, she sends about half of it home to her mother, who still believes Alice is working under Njuguna-Githinji, because Alice hasn't had the heart to tell her mother about her troubles in the United States. She can't work legally in this country, and she hasn't seen her daughter, now 5, since she left Kenya in August 2002.

Shekar helped Alice sign up for computer classes at community centers. "She is nonstop," the director says. "She will come in and eat and go back to class. She is really determined."

When she's not in a classroom, Alice visits the local library or the flea market -- and sometimes she just sits. Her civil lawsuit against Njuguna-Githinji is pending; in court documents, her former boss has denied all of the allegations. Njuguna-Githinji has also filed a countersuit against Alice alleging that Alice stole $950 before she left Njuguna-Githinji's apartment. (Alice denies taking any money from Njuguna-Githinji.)

Those who met Alice before she fled Njuguna-Githinji's house are surprised that a woman who was once fearful and shaking has become emboldened enough to file a civil suit in a public court.

"It took enormous courage for Alice to come forward and assert her rights against a powerful and influential woman," says Nancy Harris, an attorney with Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, who is handling Alice's case pro bono, along with Kathleen Kim of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights. "We're confident that ... a jury will agree with us that Alice was terribly mistreated in violation of California and federal law."

Alice, who still speaks in a near-whisper when addressing strangers, admits it is not in her nature to openly tell others about her problems.

"I used to be shy, and [when] life was really hard, I used to be patient most of the time," she says. "If there is a hard thing, like going without food, living without my mother ..."

She lowers her head and begins to cry so silently that it is not clear, at first, that she is upset.

"It's difficult," she continues, after pausing for a few minutes. "It's frustrating, too. It's really hard. Sometimes I feel a stress, but I always think it is better if it doesn't happen to other people. The only reason I'm doing it is because the person that I came with is a person who ... was doing the same thing that she is fighting against."

About The Author

Bernice Yeung


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  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"