Scott Bronstein, Amber Lyon and Alexandra Poolos
Newark, New Jersey (CNN) - They arrived in the United States from West Africa, young girls held against their will and forced to work for hours on end. This didn't happen hundreds of years ago.
Nicole's journey started in 2002, when she was barely 12, in her small village in western Ghana. She and about 20 other girls were held in plain sight, but always under the watchful eyes of their captors.
Related: Surviving slavery
"It was like being trapped, like being in a cage," said "Nicole," now 19. CNN agreed not to use her real name.
"I always have to behave, behave, behave, behave. No freedom at all."
The girls' families sent them to the United States after being assured they would receive a better education. But once they arrived, they were forced to work in hair braiding shops across the Newark area - just a short drive from New York City, right in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty.
The girls, who are now young women, have never spoken publicly before, until now.
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°.
Related: Held as slaves, now free
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.
Alexandra Poolos and Ismael Estrada
Jerri Hyde first sent Anderson an email in July. In it, she wrote that her sons Donald and Daniel had both served in Iraq. Dan, 23, worked as an explosives expert in the Marines, and Don, 25, had been in the Army. Both, Jerri wrote, now suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and weren't getting the help they needed.
"I am writing because I feel Mr. Cooper just might be the one to listen," Jerri wrote. "My sons are suffering PTSD after serving our country. And getting no help. I don't understand this."
Jerri's email arrived after visiting her younger son Dan in Texas.
When we first called her, Jerri told us that Dan's problems seemed minor when compared to his older brother Don’s, who had deserted the military almost six months ago after reenlisting for another tour of duty. Don didn't know what to do now that he deserted the army. Jerri didn't know where he was hiding, just that he was somewhere in their home state of Illinois. For three months, the family kept in touch, and then finally in late September, Don reached out and said he wanted to talk.
AC360° Editorial Producer
A new United Nations report says that modern-day slavery is on the rise. I have reported on trafficking in the past, and I was stunned to hear that the numbers are going up, despite increasing awareness of the problem. Worse, this is not a problem confined to the developing world. Slaves can be found everywhere, including small towns and big cities across the U.S. I spoke with a victims’ advocate and a journalist, who covers slavery and they introduced me to one young Ukrainian woman, who escaped enslavement in the Midwest.
As a teenager living in Ukraine, Katya had seen plenty of ads and movies promoting awareness about sex trafficking. Still, she never thought she would end up enslaved in an exotic nightclub in the Midwest, held by Russian traffickers who routinely beat and sexually abused her. She was forced to dance twelve hours a day, six days a week for no pay until she escaped a year later.
Anderson Cooper goes beyond the headlines to tell stories from many points of view, so you can make up your own mind about the news. Tune in weeknights at 8 and 10 ET on CNN.
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