AC360° Editorial Producer
Editor's Note: For more on this story, don't miss a special "AC360°" series, "American Slaves: Hiding in Plain Sight," tonight at 10 ET on CNN.
(CNN) - It all started with a random phone call early last summer.
Bridgette Carr, a leading attorney on trafficking cases, and I had worked together previously, and I wanted to see whether she was working on any interesting cases. Experts like Carr say that there are more slaves now than ever before. Worldwide, currently there are an estimated 12.3 million people enslaved. But last year, across the globe, only some 49,000 were rescued.
Carr hesitated for a moment on the phone before describing a case that involved dozens of young girls enslaved in Newark hair braiding salons that had taken three years to prosecute. Like many attorneys and activists who work with slavery victims, Carr is extremely protective of her clients. But she felt it was important to see how interested they might be in talking with AC360°.
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The response was startling. Two of the girls, who chose not to reveal their real names, said they wanted to talk, as long as we could protect their identities and locations. The young women were very clear about their reasons for talking: Both felt it was important for Americans to know that slavery is happening in front of their very eyes.
“I just want to help other people who might be in the same situation as I was,” “Jacqueline” told me over the phone, describing the years of abuse, back-breaking work in salons, withheld meals and loss of hope that she would ever be free. “What happened to me years ago still hurts me in so many ways…but slavery is around us. And you have to recognize it. When you see a little girl doing something and they are too young for it, [you] should do something. I think of all the people who asked me how young I was, and they just believed me. They could have done something. They could have saved me.”
“Nicole” echoed the same disbelief that after years of braiding hair everyday, no one went to the authorities or questioned their made up stories of not being underage. She said that everyday she hoped a customer or one of the many owners, who had unwittingly hired them not realizing their wages were being confiscated, would notice something was wrong. “At first when the police got us, I realized that we weren’t the first,” Nicole said. “It felt like this was hidden to people in the U.S. We were there for so long. It [took] forever for us to be rescued.”
Despite their conviction that Americans should hear their stories, both girls were frightened to talk to us. The head trafficker had been sentenced to 27 years in prison, but still Nicole and Jacqueline didn’t want their locations disclosed. The closer we got to the taping date, the more anxious they became. At one point, both pulled out, saying that they would only do the interview if their faces were concealed. “I have had victims’ cars bombed for this kind of stuff,” Carr told me over the phone.
Eventually, Nicole agreed to take the risk and appear on-camera. Jacqueline felt the danger was too high. When we met both of the young women, however, they told their stories bravely and eloquently. “The traffickers, they took my childhood from me, my teen-hood. They took it from me,” Nicole said. “They took everything away from me.”
In the process of reporting, another victim named Zena came forward. She took us on a tour of the Newark neighborhood, showing us the apartments were she had been enslaved and the salons where she had worked seven days a week, sometimes 14 hours a day. “Sometimes I cry,” she said. “It's not - it was not easy living in this house. I was just stuck, and I was in prison.”
The most inspiring part of these interviews was the resilience and courage each of the survivors showed. All three of the girls have moved on with their lives - securing jobs and making plans for college.
Despite the fact that all three lived a nightmare for years, each is determined not to allow the traffickers to steal their dreams. “I have found my dreams again,” Jacqueline told us. “I just want to help other people who might be in the same situation as I was. I realize now I can do something with my life. I am smart. All the years that she took from me, I am getting them back. I have told my story before, and each time it makes me stronger. I know that every obstacle that comes my way, I know I can overcome them.”