Shandra's story: Woman from Indonesia recounts story of being sex trafficked in NYC, escape from captors
In 2001, young mom and banker, Shandra Woworuntu, wanted a taste of life in America.
“I love pizza, I love McDonald's, and I love KFC, and in fact I want to see Lady Liberty,” Woworuntu told News 12 New York.
Lady Liberty symbolizes freedom, but that’s not what she experienced when she arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport that June. Trying to escape political unrest in Indonesia, she was meant to travel to Chicago via New York City for a hotel job.
“Someone picked me up, he has a copy of my passport with my picture...I trusted him because he has my documentation. And I believe he will be the one who take me to Chicago,” she said.
Instead, he brought her to a hotel in Flushing, Queens, where the sex trafficking began. She was bought and sold multiple times – then she almost lost her life.
“[Another trafficker] said, take off your clothes...I refused, he was angry, he took the gun from his pocket and point it on my head,” she recalled.
She says her captors also controlled her with drugs and alcohol. Counting the days was futile.
“One, two, three and I lost count. My body was weak...from starvation, from the abuse, the pain,” she said.
Woworuntu was peddled around New York City and the tri-state area in local newspaper ads. One day, she had the idea to jimmy open a small window of a Brooklyn brothel.
“I couldn’t find screwdriver, what I found only spoon and fork. So I unscrewed that window with whatever I could...thankfully, I was a Girl Scout,” she joked.
Woworuntu took a leap of faith, but then called a number for help that her traffickers had given her. She ended up with another trafficker and escaped again. Soon after, she met a good Samaritan who called the FBI. Almost a year after it began, her American dream gone bad was over. Three of Woworuntu’s traffickers were convicted. She eventually was connected to Safe Horizon, an organization that helps trafficking victims. She recently reunited with her case worker, Ileana Taylor.
“I will do everything I can in my capacity to continue...to make the world better...you changed my life and now my turn to help other people,” she tearfully told Taylor.
And Woworuntu is making good on that promise. She has spoken on human trafficking all over the world and has even advised President Barack Obama on the topic. Through her own organization, she says she has recently connected with 40 New York City migrants who are being sex and labor trafficked.
“Women are selling candy in the subway station...with the baby behind their back...those people receive a box of candy and they have to sell it. After a day they have to give back the left over and the money that they made,” she said.
EXTRA VIDEO: More on candy sellers
Safe Horizon also told News 12 they are working on roughly six migrant human trafficking cases. Olivia Wilson is with the New York City Mayor’s Office to End Domestic and Gender-Based Violence. She didn’t confirm any migrant cases, but agrees immigrants are vulnerable to trafficking.
“If you do suspect that you might be a bystander to a trafficking situation, you should realize that the person you are seeing might be in a great deal of danger, or might be monitored by someone,” Wilson told News 12 New York.
She says it’s best not to approach. She says if you’re able to build a connection with them over time, you can point them toward the many resources available to trafficking victims in the city. One of them is the Manhattan Family Justice Center, which Wilson helps oversee. They offer free and confidential services for all New Yorkers, regardless of immigration status. As for Woworuntu, she wants immigrants to receive a list of resources when they arrive in the states.
“They have to go to ESL classes, they have to go to job training, do they know about this...mostly they don’t know,” she said.
Resources about human trafficking and services for survivors
If you or anyone you know is experiencing domestic and gender-based violence, including all forms of human trafficking and exploitation please share the below:
- Call NYC’s 24-hour Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-621-4673 (HOPE)
- Visit one of the NYC Family Justice Centers for free and confidential help. Call 311 and ask for the nearest Family Justice Center.
- Go to the NYC HOPE Resource Directory (nyc.gov/NYCHOPE) for community-based resources on domestic and gender-based violence, including all forms of human trafficking and exploitation, stalking, intimate partner and family violence, sexual assault, and elder abuse.
- Call NYC’s 24-hour Crime Victims Hotline at 1-866-689-4357 (HELP)
- Call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 / TTY 711 or text 233733 (BEFREE).
- Download and share ENDGBV’s Understanding Human Trafficking pamphlet.
- Download and share the NYC Human Trafficking Resource Guide
- Share resources to help New Yorkers understand their rights about working in New York City and staying safe from sex trafficking which are also available in all required NYC languages here.