Dragged at gunpoint into a dark world of sexual slavery from Indonesia to the United States, Shandra Woworuntu knows the true meaning of survival.
After a lucky escape, fifteen years later, Shandra is now an advocate, agitating for legislative change and promoting support services for survivors of human trafficking.
Asia Calling’s Nicole Curby recently met Shandra at the Ubud Writers Festival in Bali and heard her amazing story.
Shandra Woworuntu is graceful and dignified.
As I wait for her, she is greeting dozens of people, who are telling her that they are humbled by her courage.
Shandra says she is driven to tell her story publicly. But that if I notice her fidgeting or stammering, it might be because she is having flashbacks, haunted by memories of a devastating chapter in her life.
From a wealthy family, Shanra Woworuntu received a good education, which led to a good career at a bank.
That is until the Asian Financial Crisis hit in 1997, massively devaluing the rupiah, and causing her job to be axed.
With a three-year-old daughter to support, Shandra looked further afield for work. That’s when she saw an ad in Kompas, a reputable Indonesian newspaper.
“And then I saw a newspaper ad for 6 months work US, Singapore, Malaysia, Japan,” she recalled.
“So I decided to go to US, because I know the power of US dollars, and the fact is, there are so many things that promise goodness and nice things, so America became my dreamland.”
Shandra went through all the legitimate channels, and left Indonesia with a plan to work in hospitality.
“I paid $3,000 USD as requirement for employment fee,” she said.
“I have paperwork. I went to the US embassy and I got my visa. I flew to the US. So arrival was smooth. Someone had my picture and recognized me. “Are you Shandra?” I said “yes!”
But as soon as she arrived, things quickly deviated from the plan, and became a nightmare.
“I didn’t go to Chicago as promised, he took me to somewhere, and I was exchanged with money,” remembers Shandra.
“I was exchanged with money again. I counted, it was 5 times. After that, at gunpoint -because I refused to open my clothes- he sent me to a brothel that was run by a lady trafficker. He said, mama san, a new girl. So I realized I was sold.”
Shandra continued, “I realized it was a disaster, I knew it was a big problem, I was sold in a brothel for prostitution. I couldn’t do anything because I was at gunpoint, and I saw security with a baseball bat, swinging around the bat, and it scared me.”
“Besides,” she went on, “I saw another little girl beaten by those people and she was bleeding, and I saw untreated wounds on her face, that made me so scared.
The nightmare just keep rolling.
“And that day, a few hours after my arrival I was sold to a sex buyer,” recalls Shandra.
“In the morning my trafficker took my passport and my return ticket, and also my belongings. They said I had to pay $30 000 USD to be free from that job. So every customer that I served will deduct $100 from the debt. So it means I have to serve 300 sex buyers.”
“So I think hard about the situation and I think they will not free me, they will not let me go.”
Days became night, and nights became day, all filled with the blinding lights of casinos, and the revolving doors of endless hotel rooms.
“Candy. My name was taken, so my name was changed to be Candy.”
Shandra doesn’t know exactly how long this continued.
Eventually, in desperation, she jumped out a bathroom window.
“I tried to escape many times. And then by jumping out from second floor bathroom window, I was alive. It was amazing. It was a miracle. I stayed away, I ran from that place. And I called this number.”
Seeking help from a contact she’d been given, Shandra was tricked. And soon she was back in the hands of organized crime, and at the brothel.
Shandra wasn’t free until she escaped for a second time. She went to the police and the Indonesian consulate seeking help.
But both turned her away, they didn’t believe her story.
She was living on the streets, telling her story to anyone who would listen
“Finally after weeks or months, I met a US navy in the park and he said he would help me. He called the FBI.”
The FBI verified her story, and closed down the brothel she had been at.
She was able to get her visa to stay legally in the country, so she moved into a shelter and started an English as a second language course, and went to school.
But Shandra was driven to work towards a world where what happened to her, would never happen again.
Shandra has an NGO called Mentari, based in New York and LA. Mentari works with survivors of human trafficking and sexual slavery.
“We empower them to get a job and reintegrate them to the community, we equip them with mentorship; how to open a bank account, how to shop, where do go, when we go to hospital what to do, like life survival, because most people brought to the US don’t know how to survive in the United States.”
Mentari also has links with partner organisations in Indonesia, where they are raising awareness of human trafficking, and supporting survivors.