Like a typical teen, Shyima Hall forgets to make her bed and groans when it’s time to do her two chores—vacuuming the floor and cleaning the fishbowl. In the Orange County, California, home she shares with her adoptive parents and five brothers and sisters, the petite 18-year-old lounges on the couch, talking on her cell phone. She wears low-rise jeans, and her nails are painted pink. Last May she went to her prom in a silky gown, her long dark hair worn up with a gardenia. She juggles a packed schedule—part-time job, homework, weekend camp—as if she’s making up for lost time. And she is. A year ago Shyima, who was born in Alexandria, Egypt, closed a chapter in her life she wishes had never been written. It began in 2000, when her impoverished parents sold her to a wealthy couple in Cairo. When the pair moved to the United States, they arranged for the ten-year-old to be brought illegally into the country, where she worked, day and night, in the family’s posh home.
She’d never been to school, and her prospects were bleak. Still, Shyima wasn’t without hope. “There was happiness there,” she told a courtroom years later. “I had people that cared for me.”
When she was eight, she went to live with Abdel-Nasser Youssef Ibrahim and his wife, Amal Ahmed Ewis-Abd Motelib, then in their 30s. Shyima’s older sister had worked as a maid for them, but the couple fired her, claiming she’d stolen cash. As part of a deal the couple made with her still-destitute parents, Shyima was forced to replace her.
Two years later, Ibrahim and Motelib decided to move with their five children to the United States to start an import-export business. Shyima didn’t want to go. Ibrahim, she says today, “told me I had no choice in the matter.” She remembers standing outside the kitchen, overhearing her employers talk with her parents. “I heard them negotiate, and then my parents gave me away for $30 a month to these people,” she says.
Shyima was brought into the United States on an illegally obtained six-month visitor’s visa and settled into the couple’s two-story Mediterranean-style house in a gated community in Irvine. When she wasn’t working, she was banished to an 8-by-12-foot section of the garage with no windows, no air-conditioning or heat. Shyima says the family sometimes locked her in. Her furnishings: a dirty mattress, a floor lamp, and a small table. Shyima kept her clothes in her suitcase. Each day she rose at six with the couple’s six-year-old twin boys. She took orders from everyone, including the twins’ three sisters, 11, 13, and 15. She cooked, served meals, did the dishes, made beds, changed sheets, helped with laundry, ironed, dusted, vacuumed, swept, mopped, and washed the patios, and was often still doing chores at midnight. One day, when Shyima tried to do her own laundry, Motelib stopped her. “She told me I couldn’t put my things in the washing machine because they were dirtier than theirs.” From then on, Shyima washed her clothes in a plastic bucket she kept by her mattress and hung them outside to dry on a metal rack, next to the garbage cans.
Motelib and Ibrahim both hit Shyima, but the isolation and verbal abuse were worse. “They called me stupid girl and a nothing,” she says. “They made me feel less than them.”
She ate alone and wasn’t allowed to attend school or leave the house without Motelib or Ibrahim escorting her. The couple warned her against telling anyone about her situation. “They threatened that the police would take me away because I was an illegal,” Shyima says.
Though she never admitted longing for her mother, she cried openly in front of Motelib and Ibrahim when she came down with a bad flu. “They saw me suffering and didn’t care,” she says. “I still had to do my chores. They wouldn’t even get medicine for me.”
At night, exhausted and lonely, she stared into the darkness. Ibrahim had taken her passport, and she feared she would be held prisoner forever. When Shyima turned 12, there was no celebration. She spent her birthday doing housework.