Hidden Girl: The True Story of a Modern-Day Child Slave

BOOK: Hidden Girl: The True Story of a Modern-Day Child Slave
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To Mark Abend, for helping me navigate life in the United States, for his assistance in helping me raise awareness of basic human rights, and for his dedication to end slavery in our world.—S. H.


I would first like to thank ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and the caring people there for rescuing me. If not for them, I might still be held in bondage. Thank you to Lisa Wysocky (my coauthor), Sharlene Martin (my literary agent), Zareen Jaffery (our editor), and our publisher, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, for helping me tell my story. Last but never least, a big thank-you has to go to my loved ones—Athena, Daniel, Karla, Amber, Teresa, and PaNou—for the many times you showed me how much you love and care for me. I love you all.

—S. H.

Shyima Hall is a remarkable young woman who has overcome astonishing odds to become the strong, independent person she is today. I want to thank her for sharing her story intimately with me, and ultimately with you. Huge thanks to literary agent Sharlene Martin of Martin Literary Management, for always going the extra mile; to Special Agent Mark Abend for being diligent in confirming the details of Shyima’s life; and to Daniel Uquidez, Amber Bessix, Teresa Bessix, and Karla Pachacki, who were all extremely helpful. To Zareen Jaffery and everyone else at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers: This book would not have become a reality without you. Human trafficking in the United States (and worldwide) is a serious and growing problem. Through Shyima, I hope you become more aware of this terrible practice and will share her story with others.

—L. W.


Everyone has a defining moment
in his or her life. For some it is the day they get married or have a child. For others it comes when they finally reach a sought-after goal. My life, however, drastically changed course the day my parents sold me into slavery. I was eight years old.

Before that fateful day I was a normal child in a large family in a small town near Alexandria, Egypt. Growing up in a poor neighborhood in Egypt is nothing like life for kids in America. Like many who lived in the community I was raised in, our family was quite poor. I was the seventh of eleven children, many of whom were much older, and to this day I can’t recall the names of all of my brothers and sisters.

We moved many times when I was a child, but the last home I lived in with my family was our downtown second-story apartment. It was tiny, just two rooms that we shared with two other families, and there was not room during the day for everyone to be inside. At night our family slept together in a single room, and the two other families shared the second room. Our family slept on blankets on the floor, as we weren’t rich enough to have beds. There was one bathroom for everyone—including the people who lived in the other three units in the building.

I know my parents were happy once—I had seen photos of them laughing on the beach, and with their arms around each other, photos taken in the first years of their marriage. The parents I knew, though, didn’t speak to each other. Instead, they yelled. And I never once saw them hold hands or embrace.

My dad worked in residential construction, possibly as a bricklayer, but he was often absent from our home for weeks at a time. When Dad did show up, he acted in a way that I now know is abusive. He was a loud, angry, belligerent, unreasonable man who beat us whenever he was displeased, which was often. My father eventually spent more and more time at his mother’s, but this was not necessarily a bad thing, as life was calmer when he was not around.

Even though Dad beat us, there were good times with him too. A number of times he held me in his arms and told me how lucky he was to have me. It was during those times that I felt completely loved, and my own love for my dad would be strong.

But then he’d flaunt other women in front of us, and in front of my mother. Outside we’d see him flirting with women. Even as young as I was, I knew instinctively that was wrong. Plus, I could see the grim line of my mother’s mouth and the sadness in her eyes. Unfortunately, in our neighborhood there were any number of women who thought nothing of spending private time with another woman’s husband. Most of the men I saw acted just as my dad did. It is sad to me that that kind of behavior was accepted.

Every time my dad came home, I hoped he would be different, but he never was. I hated waking up in the morning to hear my parents fighting, and that’s why I was never too unhappy when he left to go back to his mother’s house.

I didn’t like my father’s mother, because she was as mean and bitter as he was. I did not know the rest of his family well enough to know if they were like that too. His family members did not like my mother and rarely came to see us. On the rare occasion when we visited his mother’s home, my grandmother asked him in front of us about other women that he spent time with, and she made it a point to tell us how awful our mother was, even when our mother was present. I never understood that, because my mother was our rock. She was the backbone of our family and was the person who made sure we had what few clothes and food that we did have.

I don’t know why my mother married my dad. Neither of their families approved of the match, but in the early years they had a good life near my mother’s family in Alexandria. They had a nice home, four children, and were in love. Then an earthquake hit, and everything they had was reduced to rubble.

My mom and dad did not have the mental strength to move on from that level of disaster, for they never got their lives back together after that. Life began to spiral downward, and by the time I came along on September 29, 1989, my family was living in poverty in a slum.

When I was young, my mother was constantly sick, tired, and pregnant. I was later diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), when I was in my teens, and I think my mother may have had it too, because genetics play a big part in who ends up with RA.

Rheumatoid arthritis is a long-term autoimmune disease that causes inflammation of the joints and surrounding tissues. Wrists, fingers, knees, feet, and ankles are most commonly affected, but RA can affect organs, too. The disease begins slowly, usually with minor joint pain, stiffness, and fatigue. Morning stiffness is common, and joints may feel warm, tender, and stiff when not used for a while. It is not an easy disease to live with, and it must have been even harder for my mother, who had few resources and who had to care for her many children.

In Egypt many children do not go to school. It is legal there for children to stop school and begin work when they are fourteen years old. Only families that need money force their children to begin working at that age, but the families that struggle the most don’t send their kids to school at all. We were one of those families. I never went to school and never learned to read or write. (I did both much later in life, after I was freed.) I had four younger siblings, and my role in the family was to care for them while my parents worked.

To my knowledge only one of my sisters ever attended school. She was the fourth child in our family, and my mother’s parents were raising her. Except during holidays, I never saw her. This sister led a completely different life from the rest of us. She even went to college, which was unheard of for people of our status in Egypt. I am not sure why this sister lived with our grandparents, but it might be because she was the youngest of my parents’ four children when the earthquake hit. Maybe my grandparents offered to take her temporarily to help out while my parents got back on their feet, and it turned into a more permanent arrangement.

The two oldest of my siblings were twin girls. One twin left early on to get married, and I never saw much of her after that. It was as if she’d jumped at her first opportunity to escape our family. The other twin, Zahra, was the wild child in our family. She was always getting into trouble, which may have been why my parents sent her to work for a wealthy family who lived several hours away.

When it came to my brothers, I’m not sure what they did. I know that some of my older brothers went to school, because they got up every morning, gathered their books, and walked to the school that was not too far from our house. At least I think that’s what they did most days. Other days they could have had jobs or have been carousing on a street corner somewhere. I wish I had thought to ask my brothers to teach me to read and write, but for whatever reason, that thought never came into my head.

My oldest brother, Hassan, was born between the twins and the sister who lived with our grandparents, and I know his name because it was the surname that I was born with. I was born Shyima El-Sayed Hassan, and my brother was Hassan Hassan. “El-Sayed” was my mother’s maiden name, and it was common practice in Egypt then to use the mother’s maiden name as a child’s middle name. I am sorry to say that while I can guess, I am not 100 percent sure about the names of my other siblings.

I do know that the two siblings who came between the sister who lived with our grandparents and me were boys. They were my brothers, but I didn’t like them much. I was too young to know much about Hassan, but these two boys were turning out to be much like our father. They were rude, loud, and demanding, but what I recall most about them was that when they paid any attention to me, the attention consisted of inappropriate touching.

No one had ever talked to me about not letting others touch my private parts. In fact, I wasn’t even sure it was wrong when my brothers did. I am not sure when it started, maybe when I was around five or six. The touches made me feel bad inside, and I avoided the boys whenever I could. I never knew if my mother knew what the boys were doing, but I think that she didn’t. I didn’t tell her, because I didn’t know it was wrong. Familial relationships were murky to me, and I didn’t know anything about appropriate boundaries.

BOOK: Hidden Girl: The True Story of a Modern-Day Child Slave
10.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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