Full Interview: Beatrice Fernando

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From the 89.7 WGBH investigative series Sexual and Human Trafficking in the Boston Area.

Q: Did you start the organization?

A: Yes. I wrote my book. I wrote it because my parents never knew what really happened in Lebanon. I kind of didn’t want to tell them. And so once I came here I just couldn’t keep it anymore because people had all these rumors going around and my family, siblings, they all cut me out of their life and I kind of raised myself alone.

So when I came here I felt the need to tell the story, the truth to my parents. The only way I knew how was to write it down. So I started writing it and while I was doing it I joined a writer’s group. Every month I would bring a chapter to read and they were saying, “Why do you want to hide this?”

They way they accepted me and they showed me it was nothing to be ashamed of...I was brave, I was strong and that I should tell it to the world so I can help other women to survive and share my strength. By the end of the book I was ready to go public.

Q: Where were you raised in Sri Lanka?

A: I was raised in Chilaw Mogambo. My parents moved from place to place because we never had a permanent home. Mostly I remember that my mother got land that the government distributed to people who did no place to live. So we moved there. We were in a rural area in Chilaw, way into the village. There is no transportation, no electricity, and you have to walk miles and miles to go to school. This is where I grew up, really. Then I got married in a rush because just wanted to get away from all that.

Q: How old were you?

A: I was 18. I, of course, ran away with a man. But then I came back home. I was too young. My husband just left me. So I raised my child with my parents. Actually my parents raised me and my child.

When you become a mother you get that awakening and I felt the need to make a living and provide for my son and also to lessen the burden on my parents so I started to look for a job. But at the time I had only done up to High School. I had no college education. Plus, even though we were poor, my father was a doctor. A homeopathic doctor. Back then, people did not believe in that. So he did not make enough to feed the family but we were respected in the community. So for me to take up a second-hand job was not acceptable because I’d already damaged their reputation by running away.

Q: You mean eloping.

A: Yes. Plus, marrying young is not acceptable back then. You have to finish your education and parents arrange your marriage. So that’s how it was back then.

Q: May I ask you how old you are?

A: I’m fifty-plus. So it’s way back then. So the life was very hard.

Q: Plus there was a war going on.

A: Yes. I was a teenager back when that started I remember hiding under the bed when the troops roaming the villages looking for teenagers…They would just take anyone, using the situation to destroy, rape...so it was a scary, very scary, moment.

Q: How did you end up overseas?

A: The first time I went was after my son was born. When my husband had gone and I had no way of living, I wanted to find a job. I did try in Sri Lanka, a typist job, office job, anything, but I did not have the qualifications for it.
Then I ran in to this person who told me that he could send me abroad to work as a housemaid. They painted a nice picture. Big money. Free room and board, air fare, everything. All the money is for me to keep. All I had to do was sign a two-year contract.

I thought it was legitimate. I told my parents and of course my parents didn’t like it. But I thought it’s happening outside the country so no on will know. It won’t be a disgrace because it’s happening outside the country. You don’t have to tell them that I was a housemaid. So I went to Lebanon. That’s how I ended up in the Middle East.

Q: Was it Beirut?

A: Yes.

Q: And when you arrived in Beirut which at the time and now was divided by green zone into a Muslim area and Christian area, which area did they send you to?

A: I am not sure of that. I didn’t have that kind of awareness at the time. I know the first family they put with was in the mountains.

When I first came in at the airport, the first thing he asked was for my passport. We were not told about all this. My gut feeling was that I should not give my passport to anybody because that is all my identity. But again, you are raised to respect your elders. So who am I to question him? I have to trust him, depend on him because he is the agent. He took the passport away and drove me to his office and right that moment there were other women just like me. He said just stand in line and people are coming to get you. And I was told before leaving Sri Lanka that I had already been placed with a family. But you go there and you are like goods. Standing in line for people to pick you. I remember standing there feeling so little and so afraid.

So I ended up with this man who was a farmer who took me into the mountains where I worked for three families, not one. I was not allowed to go out. I would write my letter, because my son is back home three years wondering what happened to his mom. And I wanted to let my parents know where I was so they could contact me. But my letters were never mailed. I had to give my letter to my boss. So a few weeks later once I was cleaning I found all the letters piled up in a drawer. So I asked them can I go to church? I’m a Christian, I want to go to church. So that’s when they took me with them. They took me to their church. I wanted to go to the Catholic Church because I heard that other women who work as housemaids gather there so I could pass on a letter to mail. So they never let me go.

But soon I was so homesick and said and not used to the work that I got sick. Three days later when I got up the woman said “pack your bags.” And then a taxi came and they I just put me in and I said, “Why are you sending me away? What did I do wrong? Where am I going?” They didn’t say anything. The man just said, “We don’t want you anymore.” Then I was trying to talk to the driver while he was taking me back. “Where are you taking me?” But he did not understand English and I did not speak Arabic.

Q: You spoke English, of course, being from Sri Lanka. He spoke only Arabic.

A: Yes. And I tried to tell him, I don’t know how, to get me to the agency.

Q: When he dropped you off in the middle of nowhere, what happened?

A: From there I was just with my bag. I was just walking down the street. The first thing that came to my mind was to find a policeman so they could take me to the right place. Then again, I was afraid too, because back home during that war, the police did all the corruption so I didn’t even know if I could trust them. So I was in between but in my heart I was praying, “Please, Jesus, now I need your help. Show me the way.”

There were people going home after work and I’m with a bag walking, don’t know where to go. People are looking at me but I try not to cry so I won’t make a scene and people will know I am in trouble. But then a woman passed by me, curious, and I looked away, I was afraid to trust anybody. But she happened to be a Sri Lankan who knew something was odd. She passed me and came back and asked me, “Are you in trouble?” I said “no,” because I didn’t know she was Sri Lankan. She said, “Don’t worry I am also from Sri Lanka. Are you from Sri Lanka?” That’s when I burst out and I told her what happened. She said, “My goodness, I hear these stories every day but I never believed it’s true.” She was living in a home of her own so she took me there. She said, “I know the agency. I know that agent. I knew his name and I told her. But they are closed now. Tomorrow is Saturday and Sunday and they are closed. So you can stay with me.”

So she kept me there and brought me to agency the following Monday. The same day, while I was just sitting there, this woman came in to the office looking for a housemaid. The minute I saw her I knew I did not want to go with her. She looked like a witch actually. Layers and layers of make-up. It’s so scary just looking at her. But the agent said that she’s very rich, that I’m lucky to go with her, that she wants me.

Q: You still didn’t have your passport?

A: No. I asked if I could go back. I asked can you send me back home? I don’t want to do this. He said, “Do you have the money to pay for the two years that you signed the contract for and for the air fare that we brought you and to go back?” That’s when I know this was not going to happen. Even if I has the money I was not going back. That’s when I realize that I would not be able to trust this man.

Because when I first came to the office, when he saw me, I asked him, “Weren’t you worried? Did you know that I was stranded, that they just dropped me in the middle of nowhere?” He looked at me in such a threatening way and said “Why bother about it now? You are okay. Nothing happened to you. So why talk about it?” So I end up with this other woman, which was a mansion in my world. The house was so huge. Each floor is one home. Three to four times the size of the home that I came from. And it was only I there to do all the work. And she showed me how to do the machines because I came from a village where we had no electricity, no TV, nothing. Two washing machines, vacuum cleaners...it’s like magic! She showed everything and of course I learned a few from the old home but the workload was huge.

But I thought, I was thrown out of one house, I don’t want to be thrown out of this one. If I am to continue two years I better take it and do my time and get home safe. So I focused on that. I thought, I came here to make the money so no matter how hard I will try my best, I will make this woman happy. So I tried, I really tried my best. I woke up so early. Tried to finish all the work in the list. Running around, won’t even stop to take a drink of water. But then on day passed, two days passed, I could not finish all the work. The vacuuming, the shampooing, the floors I have to wash...

Q: So this house was huge. Obviously you couldn’t finish your work. Were there other people in the house?

A: She had three kids. She claimed she had a husband but she said he was in Kuwait. That he would come during holidays. But I never saw him. Three kids.

 

Q: What did she do?

 

A: I don’t know. I don’t even know her name.

 

Q: Did you every have a chance to just go out on your own?

 

A: No, I was completely locked in. I didn’t even realize that in the beginning. Because she was so nice on our drive home. She was promising me that she would help to bring my husband over. Your child. You be good and I’ll do all this. I thought, yes, so at least I can write to them. I thought she was going to mail my letters. But the second day I asked her if she had any letters for me. She just snapped. “You came her to work! Don’t you dare talk about letters and home and writing home!” She just screamed. I was taken aback. I thought, what did I do wrong? Don’t I have the right to get my letters? And I can’t go alone, I don’t know where to go. So that day, I just started looking around for my passport. I thought, maybe she has my passport I looked around and did not find anything. And then I started to look around the area if I needed to run away. But the entire building was surrounded by a six-foot wall. And there were guards on the grounds with rifles. Because it was during Beirut War, in 1980. I have no way of escaping unless I have a real plan. So I thought I’d try to open the doors. They were locked. There’s only one entrance which will go to the elevator or the stairs and it was locked. I could not open it. So I started to look for keys.

Then she started to abuse me physically. So after that day she would come home, look under the bed, and say, “It’s not vacuumed.” She would just touch the wall and say, “It’s dusty.” I had no wiped them. Or a dying plant. I had not watered it. When she started to beat me I knew I was definitely in danger. I have seen servants being beat up and starved. But being in another country I was not ready to take it. I needed to go back home to my son. I didn’t want to be stranded there or die. The first time I tried to reach the phone. I thought I would call the agency or that friend who rescued me the first time. She gave me her number and some twenty dollars or something to keep in case I needed it. I went for the phone, the phone was locked. I even tried to unlock it but I could not. Every sign gave me a fear that I was locked in, no way out. So I wrote a note putting down my name, that friend’s name, and my agent’s name. And I wrote at the bottom, “I AM IN DANGER. PLEASE HELP ME.” So I carried this note around with me. I walk around this balcony to see the road that is beyond that six-foot wall, in my desperation thinking that if I throw this note or scream at them they will hear me.

 

Q: So you felt pretty lonely?

 

A: Of course. Very scared. Because I knew there was no way out. So I tried that. Walking around trying to throw it if I do find someone I thought I would scream at them and throw this out so they will have the information to find me.
Then one time I thought I would climb down the balcony. I took all my saris, tied them together, and put it one on the railing and put it down and thought I can climb down. So I woke up at night after everyone went to bed and I tried to climb down. But the minute I got off the railing I could not do it. I was so afraid. It was so way down. I tried to put my foot somewhere. There little bricks here, here, so I thought that with the rope I could step on those and climb down but I was so afraid I was going to fall and die.

 

Q: So how did you eventually get out?

 

A: Well one day she beat me so bad that I passed out. And when I came to that was the day when I hit the rock bottom of helplessness. I think that is a moment any victim will come to face and realize whether to go forward, or give up or kill yourself. And that was the time. I realized, “I’m going to die here. This woman is going to kill me. One day I will pass out and may never wake up. So what am I going to do? Let her kill me?”
So there is one thing I have not tried, which was a suicide. But I thought why wait to be killed if I can try to escape by taking that chance? So I made up my mind that I’m going to jump off the balcony but planning trying to stay alive. Minimum injuries and to run away somehow.
So I spent a lot of weeks thinking and coming to terms with it. I wrote two letters to my son and my family in case I end up dead so that they know what really happened. I thought if I die they will find the letters somehow. I hid it in my suitcase.
So one morning I got up. I came to the balcony and had planned out the safest place to jump and the closest to the guards so they will hear. They can come and help if they can. I prayed and asked God’s forgiveness as a Christian because it looked like a suicide. But in my heart it was not. I thought this is the leap of faith. I trusted in God. If you are reading the Bible you hear that if you have a mustard seed of faith God will come through for me.

 

Q: So you jumped?

 

A: I did jump.

 

Q: Was it night?

 

A: It was early morning. I woke up early morning. And my fingers were all swollen. She never gave me gloves when I used the chemicals so these are all blackened bruises on my body.

So that morning I just climbed over the railing. And I prayed to God and asked his forgiveness. I stand on the railing with my body pushed all the way back. I just jump backward like that. I just let go. Halfway falling down I heard myself scream and everything went black. I was unconscious when I hit the ground.

When I woke up it was 21 days later. I was in a hospital. I was paralyzed. Waist down. And there were three doctors standing by me who told me I would never walk again. But at the same time they told me, “You have to be happy because you are a miracle. You are a miracle because your spinal chord is broken. You cannot be alive. You are alive. You are a miracle so embrace that, be happy.” When I heard that word “miracle” I knew it was a miracle. Because after praying every second of each day, that night when I hit rock bottom I said, “This is my last prayer to you. I am not going to trust you again unless you show me a miracle.” I knew it was my challenge, that God has come through for me and I’m not going to be invalid. And I said, “Don’t worry doctor. I’m going to walk.”

 

Q: How long were you in the hospital?

 

A: I was 3 months there, no sign of walking, no sign at all. Then the woman threatened to bomb the hospital if they do not get me out of there. She was very powerful. When she threatened the hospital the agent came to me and said we are going to discharge you and here I was paralyzed, no signs at all. There was one physical therapist who was on my side who I told what really happened because I was afraid that the woman would come and kill me there or take me to her home again. Imagine I am bedridden and she takes me to her home?

So this woman took care of me. She said, “Don’t worry. I will make sure the agent takes you home or I will take you to my home until you are better and sent home.” So the agent took me and put me in a hotel without any help. Can you imagine that? I was placed in a room with no help. I cannot go to the bathroom. They left me there alone.

 

Q: How long?

 

A: I was there two weeks but it did not go that far alone because the hotel manager that same night, he came and he just sat on my bed on the side with a mocking smile. He was gonna hurt me. I got so scared! I said, “I am paralyzed…Please don’t hurt me, I’m paralyzed.” When he heard me it was like a shock. He said, “What did you say?!” Then I told him what happened and I said, “Can you please help me? I need somebody to get to the bathroom.” And he helped me. Everything changed. His intention. He got so sad. The next day he sent me the hotel maids to help me go to the bathroom, he sent me food and everything was provided. The agency, of course, they said they would send help, but no one ever came. Two weeks later they were able to send me home because I was able to contact my parents while I was in the hospital.

 

Q: Were you still paralyzed when they sent you home?

 

A: Yes. Board a plane as a regular passenger. I could not sit for one minute. By the time I left the hospital, I started to show signs, little movement they saw on my fingers. They put me on a physical therapy. So they tried to get me up with help. Because of that they left me at the airport with another woman, another housemaid who was going home, thinking that she can help me. But she could not bear my weight. So I said, “I can’t walk, someone has to pick me up. I can’t climb steps!” So I sat there, and the woman couldn’t help, so people are passing by me I started crying out. I said, “can somebody help me get to the plane?!” One guy was kind enough and I put my arms on him and I tried to drag myself and I slipped. Then the air hostess saw and they came and said, “do you need help?” And I said, “Yes, I’m Paralyzed. Please help me.” They were very nice, very kind. They lift me and put me on first class. And when I returned to the airport in Sri Lanka it was midnight and when they had me in a wheel chair there was no one there to receive me. They had never informed my parents that I was coming.

 

Q: Do know whatever happened to that woman?

 

A: No. My parents tried to punish her or close down the agency, do something. But no one- my word was not enough. My father even put the story in the paper, but that’s when all the gossip started. They created their own version and said I was a prostitute and I must have slept with the husband and that’s why she must have pushed me off the balcony. That’s the truth I never cleared. I let them believe what they want to believe.

 

Q: There is a thin line between labor trafficking and sexual trafficking. What’s your view on that?

 

A: I do believe those are entirely connected. The people you traffic as forced labor, they expect you to service your employers as sex slaves. I got lucky because this woman did not have a husband there living. Had there been a husband I would have been subjected to sex slavery. I know for a fact because in Sri Lanka, the women now, everyone wants to go abroad. Everybody believing in this big nice dream, and they don’t care what happens, and they don’t believe it’s a crime. They think it’s their luck or their chance. I know for a fact that when they sign up to take this job, they have to do a medical clearance to have medical clearance. And while they have these exams, they give the women an injection so they do not get pregnant. And why is that? Why would she get pregnant? Her husband is back home. So yes, there is very much a connection.

 

Q: How did you arrive in the United States, specifically where you live now?

 

A: I arrived here after I got better. I was able to walk and I fell in love with another man. His parents did not support our friendship because I have a back broken, I have a son, and I’m damaged goods. I told him, “If you want a life with me we need to get out.” Plus, I did not want to live back home because of the shame that came with the enslavement, and I didn’t want my son to grow up with that. I wanted to hide from all that had happened to me. So, we just applied as visitors. We just came here.

 

Q: How long have you been in this country?

 

A: 20 years.

 

Q: Did you arrive in New England?

 

A: I came to New York. Staten Island.

 

Q: In the context if your experience, do you think stories like yours happen a lot?

 

A: More than ever. It’s happening much much more now than before.

 

Q: Have you ever heard about this type of thing happening in NE or Mass?

 

A: I heard one story. The same Sri Lankan woman, she was in Middle East working for this family and she was brought here by a couple who went to Boston University or something? The couple was working and they had a kid. This woman was brought with them to this country, and she lived in the basement. There was a big article and the whole story was publicized. But yeah she was here and she was locked up in the basement. The nurse happened to see her and somehow they started talking and so finally they rescued her.

 

Q: When you hear that women have been brought from mainly Vietnam in this case but other countries too, and they’re working in a nail salon, does it surprise you?

 

A: It doesn’t surprise me because these people from third world countries don’t know what they’re getting into. In their mind, in their head, they are thinking this is the chance of a lifetime because they have been deceived. They come here, they come here to find a job or modeling. They think they are allegedly coming here to find a job. Not to prostitution, not to forced labor. They are trying to make a living. It’s not a surprise. What happens is once they come here, they take away their papers, their passports, their legal status. They call it helmet passport, which is a fake passport with your picture on it. So once you’re transported here, you’re nobody. Nobody can trace you because it’s not your ID. Then your hands are tied.  They threaten you, they rape you, they drug you. They force you to do whatever it is they want you to do. They say that if you do not do this you will be deported and you will go to jail because you are not legal anymore. First they say you are legal, then they say, no, you are not legal. Your only choice is to work for us, make your money then you can go back home.

 

Q: Have women been in touch with you when they hear about your story?

 

A: Yes. I have many victims now back home in Sri Lanka that I talk with. I talk to them and visit them and I get their stories and I try to help them. That’s what the organization is doing. To prevent them from going back.

 

Q: But Sri Lankans to your knowledge have never been forced into nail salons, have they?

 

A: Yes they have. I don’t know any personally but I hear stories. Through the job agencies they take up a job like housemaids, drivers, nannies. And they end up in forced labor or sexual slavery serving their masters and their children. There was a woman that I know that now is waiting to be a part of the program, the employer’s son who is the same age as her son, raped her. And once it’s done it’s going to keep happening over and over. The woman, the mother, won’t do anything about it. And if you get pregnant they put you in jail.

 

Q: Was that here?

 

A: It was Middle East. And here, we talk about all these people coming from other countries. They’re coming here because the market is here. So, who is running the market? They are not foreign people. The market is here!
What we need is to look into is the people creating that market It’s happening to the American children here! That’s the danger! What do you think is happening to all these runaways? They disappear. But you don’t find their bodies. Once they disappear, they run into these traffickers, run the risk of these traffickers. And they charm them, them promise them a home or show them love, and at the end they are forced, they are drugged, they become drug addicts, and they have no other way than to become a prostitute. They are like 11 years old, 13 years old. You see so many stories!

 

Q: Once you’ve gone through what you’ve gone through, it’s like you develop a kind of sixth sense. When you’ve gone in to nails salons in the areas, Lowell, Lawrence…

 

A: I always wonder when I look at them. Are they scared? Are they dressed properly? DO they look too young? Do they look drugged? These are the signs that I look for. Even in school when I go to speak, I tell them to look for these signs, even your friends. Always sleepy or tired or do not want to talk to you? Change of attitude, change of behavior. And teachers too, to see if they’re falling asleep in class, they are never doing their homework, they are never getting involved in extra activities, never staying home after school, don’t talk to people. These are signs that you need to look for because that could be that they were threatened, or they are in drugs, they are hooked up with these traffickers.

 

Q: Have you ever seen that in nail salon?

 

A: I do not. But it can be anywhere, like the people who come to your house, the maids. You never know. The people who come to fix your roof. You never know. It’s in your neighborhood. It’s everywhere.

Q: You made a good point about it not just happening to immigrant women.

 

A: Yup, it can happen to anyone. All you need is a dream. Young teenagers, what do they know? They want to become actresses, they want to model. Some traffickers have young boys that they recruit just to find young children. They hangout at the schools, the parks, wherever the young kids are and try to fall in love, pretend to fall in love. Once they do that, it’s easier for them to trick their head. Every teenager wants to runaway from home, they don’t like the restrictions their parents place on them, so they runaway. Once they runaway, they move the child to where they want. They’re drugged, they’re raped. They don’t want to come back then because they feel so ashamed of themselves.

 

Q: Beatrice, tell us more about your organization. When you got started and what you are trying to accomplish?

 

A: The name of the organization is the Nivasa Foundation. “Nivasa” means home. “Home” means “a



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