Shandra Woworunti, an Indonesian woman who survived a nightmarish life as a sex slave in the United States, was recently honored not only for escaping her captors, but also launching a non-profit to help other sex trafficking survivors.
Her story begins in the late 1990s after Asia was hit with a devastating financial crisis that failed major currency markets in the region.
In an interview with PIX11, Woworunti revealed that she was then a financial analyst and 21-year-old single mother to a baby daughter when she lost her job due to the crisis in 1998. To provide a better future for her, she sought opportunities outside the country.
An advertisement for a six-month seasonal job as a waitress in the U.S. caught her attention in 2001. She pursued the ad with the idea that she would be working in the hotel industry.
The then 24-year-old recounted that a man named Johnny Wong picked her up at the Kennedy Airport in Queens, and brought her to the Sheraton Hotel near Main Street in Flushing where he sold her to a man in exchange for a thick envelope of cash.
Woworunti would later find herself with two other young women in the attic of a house in Bayside, Queens where a man ordered them to remove all their clothes to reportedly check if they have any skin disease. When Woworunti tried to refuse, the man threatened her with a gun.
After the terrifying ordeal, she was then brought to a new location where the man would tell another woman that there was a new girl ready to work.
“I saw the security with a baseball bat,” Woworunti recalled during her interview with the station. “I saw a little girl, 12 or 13 years old, beaten by another bouncer.”
Woworunti soon found herself sold to “black, Asian and white” patrons.
“Every 45 minutes, I was sold for $120 to $350,” she was quoted as saying.
She revealed that she was trafficked in Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan. “Up and down I-95. I used to get trafficked to Foxwoods Casinos,” she added.
— Shandra Woworuntu (@shandraVoH) November 25, 2017
Later in the year, Woworunti decided to plan an escape after learning that her handlers were planning to transfer her to Boston. She said she climbed up the window ledge of a second floor bathroom at a house in Sunset Park, Brooklyn and made a jump. Another girl, aged 15, decided to follow her and jump in a bid for freedom as well. They both grabbed a cab to Manhattan and checked in at a hotel using the money they saved up on the side.
According to Woworunti, she tried to contact a woman they’d met named Yvonne, but a man answered. For a month, that man paid their bills, but eventually became angry when Woworunti said she wasn’t looking for a boyfriend.
The man then threatened to call the trafficker identified as Johnny Wong, forcing Woworunti to flee again. One day, a U.S. Navy sailor found her living on the streets and contacted the FBI. Soon after Woworunti told investigators everything she knew about the trafficking operation, the FBI raided the house she’d escaped from in Sunset Park.
She soon ended up living in and out of shelters until she got a job at a cafeteria with the help of Catholic Charities. In 2004, she was finally reunited with her daughter who was then already 8 years old. She also got married and birthed a son, but the marriage ended in divorce as she revealed the man had been abusive.
Years later, Woworunti would found Mentari, an organization dedicated to helping trafficking survivors get back on their feet. Woworunti, who is now 41, was recently named a National Honoree of L’Oreal Woman Of Worth of 2017 for her work in the non-profit.
In her interview with PIX11, she stressed that New Yorkers need to be on the lookout for women, and even some men, who are being trafficked in places such as apartments, houses and massage parlors.
She lamented, “People walk around the neighborhood, on the sidewalk, but they don’t pay attention.”
Feature Image via Twitter / shandraVoH