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.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, human trafficking is now the fastest-growing criminal industry in the world. As many as 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders annually; the United States is a popular destination, with as many as 17,500 people brought in each year and exploited for sex or labor. Shyima, no stranger to hardship, fell into the latter category. One of 11 children born to desperately poor parents, she grew up in a small one-bathroom house shared by three families. She and her parents and siblings slept in one room on blankets laid out on the floor. Her father was often gone for weeks at a time. “When he was home,” says Shyima, “he beat us.”
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.