Evelyn Chumbow of Cameroon – What happens to dreams deferred?
Imagine you were born in Cameroon in the 1980’s and you and your siblings were raised by your mom on her own. Imagine your uncle arranged for you to go the US when you were nine years in the pretence it was for you to get a better life. Imagine you get there and find that you were brought to become a house maid. What would become of you, a little African girl, far away from your country?
Today, I am inspired by Evelyn Chumbow of Cameroon. Evelyn was born in November 1985 in the coastal city of Douala, Cameroon’s economic capital. Evelyn’s mom practically raised her six kids on her own as her husband was an alcoholic who was almost never home. She tried her best but could not manage the burden alone and eventually sent Evelyn to live with an uncle.
One day, her uncle announced that she was going to be adopted by a Cameroonian woman living in the US, Theresa Mubang, so she could get a better life. The little girl was ecstatic at the idea of going to live in the country she so admired though the series she saw on TV, ‘The Cosby Show’, ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel Air’, ‘Beverly 90210’. She secretly dreamed of meeting Will Smith.
Her encounter with Mrs Mubang was strange but the little girl did not understand right away what was going on.
“I remember, my uncle was sitting right there, and Mrs Mubang asked, ‘is she old enough for the job?’ I’m thinking, ‘what job?’ She turned me around, she opened my mouth, she looked at me to see if I was strong enough to do whatever job I was coming to America to do. Obviously, I passed the test”.
She was nine when she moved to Silver Spring in Maryland, not knowing that her life would be nothing as she had dreamed of. Instead of treating her like her child, Mrs Mubang used the nine years old girl as a house maid. Evelyn worked long hours, often without being allowed to eat anything. She didn’t have the right to sleep in the house; instead, Evelyn slept on the garage floor. The few belongings she had brought from Africa were kept in a box in the garage where she slept.
“Every time I would ask to go to school, my trafficker said I couldn’t go because I was too stupid. I would go days and weeks at a time without eating. Sometimes I would have to stand throughout the whole night. Other times, my trafficker would beat me until she was too tired to continue. She would call me ‘fat’, ‘ugly’, and ‘dirty’, so dirty that I wasn’t allowed to sleep on a bed and had to sleep on the floor.”
Years later, Evelyn would find out that she had been brought to the US illegally. Mrs had brought five kids on the same visa, each time doctoring the paperwork so the customs and immigration authorities wouldn’t know it was a different kid. She would also find out that her uncle had sold her to the trafficker for 2000 US dollars!
Evelyn stayed in that house till she was 17. Eight long years of a slave’s life, a lonely life. She cooked, cleaned the big house and took care of the children. The family’s son hated her for no reason, and he would make up lies about her just to get her in trouble, which he did, and she was beaten almost every day as a result of those lies. Hunger was at times unbearable and Evelyn found herself stealing food when she was sent shopping. Needless to say, that she was never sent to school and was never taken to the family doctor.
The abuse was not just physical; the little girl was sexually abused throughout her years as a victim of modern-day slavery.
At the age of 17 and with the help of a cousin she had reconnected with in the US, Evelyn found the strength to escape this hell and found refuge in a Catholic church. With the help of the church, she went to the authorities to report what happened to her.
The FBI investigated the matter and charges was filed against her trafficker. Thanks to Evelyn’s testimonial and other proofs gathered during the investigation, Theresa Mubang was sentenced to 17 years in prison for human trafficking.
Life after her years of servitude in the Maryland house still held many challenges for the young girl. She was 17, on her own in a country where she knew no one. Not having a place to stay, the teenager was placed in a foster home.
“I lived in a low-income neighbourhood and was surrounded by bad influences, including drug dealers, prostitutes, and gang members. Since I was too old to go to high school, I went to a public charter school. I was happy for the opportunity to get an education, but I hated the environment because many other students were gang members and drug dealers. However, I refused to let that environment get the best of me.”
Evelyn completed her GED, the equivalent of a high school diploma for people who did not complete a regular high school education. In 2008, after she obtained her GED, Evelyn enrolled in the Community College of Baltimore County where she graduated with an Associate’s degree two years later.
Determined to pursue a career where she could fight to free other slaves, she pursued a Bachelor in Homeland Security at the University of Maryland.
“I have faced many challenges as a survivor, including health and financial challenges, and overcoming the fact that I spent nine years with no access to any kind of education. Eventually, though, I also found amazing opportunities to travel and speak with policymakers and NGOs about human trafficking. While these experiences were personally rewarding, helped me develop as a leader, put me in contact with interesting people, and taught me useful skills, they usually did not help me pay the bills.”
During her studies, Evelyn became a fierce advocate for other victims of modern-day slavery, attending any conference and event where she can lend her voice to the voiceless.
In 2014, the young lady was invited to speak at the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s Trust Conference to speak about her experience. In her address, she boldly told the participant that it was only compassion that was needed to heal the victims, they needed to be able to be active members of society, get jobs and build lives like everyone else. She talked about the dangers faced by former slaves who became the preys of sex traffickers, ruthless people who took advantage that they could not get any job on the marketplace.
Her voice was heard in the days that followed the conference, Evelyn received an internship from one of the participants to the conference, the law firm Baker & McKenzie law firm.
During her internship, she continued her advocacy on behalf of trafficking survivors, to the point that the law firm offered her a permanent position in their Washington DC offices and, under her leadership, joined forces with the Thomson Reuters Foundation and the ICE Foundation to develop a program to help survivors get training, support, mentoring and professional development that will prepare them to embark upon successful professional careers and fulfil their potential!
Evelyn was invited to join the boards of Free the Slaves and The Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center. God works in mysterious ways!
Hold on tight to your sit when I tell you what happened next. Would you believe that the young Cameroonian’s voice was heard all the way…to the White House? In 2015, Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States of America, appointed Evelyn to the United States Advisory Council on Human Trafficking. In her capacity as a member of the Council, Evelyn works directly with the President’s Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons!
Evelyn returned to her home country in her capacity as a member of the Whitehouse Advisory Council and met with authorities to try and raise awareness about this problem that affects more millions in the world. She was frustrated to see that her visit made little impact however, she is conscious that this is a marathon rather than a sprint.
The young lady continues her fight not only against human trafficking, but also to raise awareness about the lack of personal and career support for trafficking survivors. Another milestone was in 2016, when Evelyn was invited to testify before the US Senate Foreign Relations Commission as the American Congress had just passed the bill HR 4058 entitled ‘Preventing Sex Trafficking and Improving Opportunities for Youth in Foster Care’. During her intervention, Evelyn insisted that the law should be expended to include children trafficked for labour, in addition to the children trafficked for sex.
Privately, she continues to work on her own healing, which she knows might take her a lifetime. Fortunately, she has the support of a loving husband, with whom she has a young boy, but even now, she still struggles to explain to them what her life in captivity was like.
“When I left my trafficker, I was talking to trees and still insisted on sleeping on the floor. I have physical scars that I carry with me, scars that I have to explain to my husband and young son. I also have many emotional scars. Survivors need psychological services. If I had the money to go to therapy, I would go. Accessing services is hard. Finding long-term care is hard. Our lives were taken away from us and we need help getting back into everyday life. Some of us are able to do it, but some are not able. It’s important for us to have long term care for the trauma that we’ve gone through.”
Evelyn dreams that one day, she will see a slave free world.
“I dream of that world every day. If I could pick up a newspaper and see no poverty, no slavery, and no selfish government leaders, I would be overjoyed. I dream of a world with more true leaders who are willing to give up everything for the good they believe in; a world where people care, and where there is peace, unity, and generosity. I hope to see that world one day.”
Unfortunately, we are still a long way from her dream world. According to the International Labour Organization, there are an estimated 40.3 million human trafficking victims worldwide and the trafficking industry is estimated to be worth 150 billion dollars.
Right Your Legacy, Evelyn! We are so proud of you!