A New American Dream

by Hugo Bravo

A human trafficking survivor becomes a voice for the voiceless.

For Harold D’Souza, the opportunity to come to the United States from his home country of India was like being awarded a ticket to heaven. 

“In 2003, when I told my friends and family that I would be going to the U.S., they said I was going to swarg, or paradise. They called me God’s chosen,” says Harold. 

Harold really did feel like “God’s chosen.” As a boy, Harold’s father was a farmer who wanted all his children to have a good education. Harold had more than exceeded those wishes, earning various degrees in human resources and labor, as well as a master’s in marketing. He was married to Dancy, and they had two sons, Bradly, and Rohan. At 37 years old, Harold also had a job as a manager for an electronics company. 

In India, Harold had received an offer to work as a manager in Ohio. The man who made the proposal said he had secured Harold an H–1B Visa, a special kind of visa that allows foreign nationals with special skills to work in the U.S. He assured Harold that he would earn substantially more in the United States than he could back home. 

“I came to the United States on four things: trust, faith, a promise, and to live my American Dream. But my wife perfectly summed up what later happened—we were shown the moon, but given the dust,” says Harold. 

There would be no high-salary job waiting for Harold in Ohio. Instead, he and Dancy would be forced to work long hours in a restaurant, for no pay, while living in a small apartment that lacked furniture and beds for their sons. For almost two years, the couple and their children would be degraded, threatened, and abused by the man who had promised the moon. 

“I felt like a failure. I had failed as a parent, a provider, a protector, and as a person. For many years I could not talk about what we had gone through,” says Harold. 

Today, Harold is the president of Eyes Open International, a non–profit organization focused on the education, protection, and empowerment of victims of labor trafficking. Through his organization, he has met with fellow advocates, governors, and U.S. Presidents. Actor Martin Sheen, whose own parents immigrated from Europe to Ohio in the 1930s, has talked to Harold about doing a documentary on him and other victims of labor trafficking. 

“I always say that in life, survivors are poor starters but strong finishers. I am grateful now to share my journey and how I turned all these terrible obstacles around with purpose, power, and prayer.” 

The trafficker’s techniques 

When Harold and his family arrived in Ohio, the man who had promised to fulfill his American Dream was there to greet him. He asked Harold if he had any cash on him; Harold said he had $1,000. 

“He said to me, ‘Harold, you cannot carry that much cash on you in America. It’s not safe!’ I agreed to give him my money and all our documentation,” says Harold. “Looking back on it, that was the first red flag. I wasn’t realizing that my trafficker was working to manipulate me, trick me, and track me.” 

Harold’s path followed all the steps and techniques that human traffickers use to control their victims and create fear in them. 

“First, the trafficker pays for your lodging, which is usually right above or very close to the place they want you to work. In labor trafficking, these are mostly restaurants, motels, salons, farms, and convenience stores,” says Harold. 

The trafficker refuses to pay a salary, and reminds the victims that they have no way to manage their earnings. “They will say, ‘Why would I give you a check? Where would you cash it?’ Instead, they promise to pay you when you return to your country,” says Harold. “That’s when they have you in their grip, and you never see that money.” 

“Labor traffickers use certain words and phrases that can be especially scary to foreign nationals,” says Harold. “These phrases keep them from fighting for their freedom. They say, ‘I will have you arrested, put in jail, put in handcuffs, or deported. 

“My trafficker never called me by my name. He would only say ‘Hey, illegal.’ What happens to your mind, body, and soul when you are called an illegal? You see yourself as the criminal, not the victim,” says Harold. 

Harold came to believe that he would never escape his situation. He remembers one night telling Dancy that he could see himself dying at the hands of his trafficker. As they talked, their youngest son Rohan played in the corner, facing a wall, but he had been listening to Harold talking about death. 

“Rohan then came to me and said, ‘Father, if you die, what will happen to me? Who will help me with my schoolwork?’ It was like hearing God talk to me. I knew then that if I died, my wife and sons would die too. That motivated me to live and to fight.” 

Staying to fight 

Harold and Dancy did not understand the concept of human trafficking or labor abuse, but they did know that not getting paid for the work they were doing was wrong. In 2004, Dancy confronted the trafficker in the kitchen of the restaurant and demanded that he pay the couple back wages. 

“He said that he was setting aside $2,000 a month and would give it to us ‘at a better time’. If we didn’t like it, he would call immigration and have us arrested,” says Harold. 

The chef in the restaurant had overheard the conversation. Having been in a similar situation for unpaid wages with a boss in the past, he knew where to go to get help. After the restaurant closed for the day, the chef secretly drove Harold and Dancy to the district’s federal Department of Labor. Even though the D’Souzas had no personal identification, they were still allowed to enter and state their case. An employee sat with them for two hours, taking notes as the couple explained their circumstances. “He looked shocked as he listened to us,” remembers Harold. 

A case was opened to get back wages. However, it was never officially treated as a trafficking incident, as there were no labor trafficking laws in Ohio at the time. 

“So many people offered to help me leave the state to get away, but I refused. I learned that a victim leaving the state benefits the trafficker, because upon leaving, that case is closed,” explains Harold. “I had to stay and fight, because I knew what he was doing was wrong.” 

Upon being served notice, the trafficker sold his restaurant and kicked Harold and his family out of their apartment. He brought in his lawyer to threaten Harold personally. 

“He tried to intimidate me for fifteen minutes, saying that he could take the weekend off and have me arrested by Monday. I told him that I just wanted his client to pay me my wages,” said Harold. 

“What wages? You don’t even know how much it is! Is it $1,000 or $2,000?” the lawyer snapped. Harold couldn’t tell if the lawyer was trying to mock him, or that he legitimately did not know what his client had been doing. 

After six months, Harold won his case, though Dancy’s case had to be handled separately, on account of their different visas. Due to the lack of labor trafficking laws in Ohio at the time, Harold’s trafficker was never prosecuted. 

“He went bankrupt due to all the charges,” explains Harold. “I did not understand how a man with a big house could go bankrupt. There were so many aspects of American life that had been shielded from me. For example, I was scared to go to the police to tell them I had been threatened. In India, you do not go to the police and expect them to help you. But the policeman who talked to me was so kind and understanding. I was touched by his humanity.” 

“I was also advised to go to counseling. Back home, when you go to counseling, you are being put away and never coming out. But here, I recommend counseling to every trafficking victim I meet.” 

Even after finding employment and getting his family completely removed from their past situation, it took Harold almost 12 years before he could truly feel free from his bondage. He says that victims who do not receive support or compassion never leave their own personal prison, even in freedom. “Trauma from human trafficking has no expiration date. If a survivor commits suicide to escape their own pain, it is not a true suicide. It’s a murder. That person has been killed by the trafficker, even years later,” says Harold. 

Empowered again 

“Your status, degrees, education, or nationality have no say in whether you become a victim of labor or sex trafficking,” says Harold. “When I talk to other victims, I tell them that I, Harold D’Souza, am a common man, a failure, and a sinner. I want them to hear my story and see that, if I can go from darkness to light, then they can have hope for themselves too.” 

The Salvation Army in Cincinnati helped provide the D’Souzas with long– term support and care. They also promote Harold’s role as a survivor and an outreach partner by finding him opportunities and engagements where he can share his story. 

“The Salvation Army learned about my life and the mistakes I made, and they never once judged me,” says Harold. “They follow the words of Mother Teresa, who said, ‘If you judge people, you have no time to love them.’ They walked with me as one does with a child, always taking baby steps and picking me up if I fell. Eventually, I laughed again, and I felt empowered again. They know that every survivor is a person who has hopes, dreams, and talent.” 

In 2015, President Barack Obama appointed Harold to the United States Advisory Council on Human Trafficking, a position he holds to this day. Four years later, he returned to the White House to meet President Donald Trump and his administration to discuss strategies to combat human trafficking. 

“Everyone has the power to fight for justice. People told me that nothing would ever happen to traffickers like mine. But in 2012, Ohio passed a law that would punish labor traffickers. I don’t believe in the word ‘impossible’ anymore,” says Harold. 

Paradise found 

Harold D’Souza has a new American dream; that through his advocacy work for Eyes Open International, he can be a voice for the voiceless who suffer as he once did. He knows that to truly take on the fight against labor trafficking, one must look farther than one’s own city or state. 

“The word international in Eyes Open International is there because America is the final destination for victims coming from source countries such as Mexico, India, Pakistan, and South Africa,” says Harold. 

Harold’s trafficker had convinced him that because he was a brown–skinned man, Americans would hate him. But Harold says that if it had not been for the kindness of the American people, he would have never found freedom. 

“It takes an entire village to raise a child. In my case, it took an entire village to save a family. That village includes police, the government, and faith–based organizations like The Salvation Army,” says Harold. 

When Harold returns to visit India, he’s sometimes asked if America is still a paradise for “God’s chosen.” 

“I say ‘yes, it is a paradise and it is a powerful country,’” says Harold. “I still believe that, even after what happened to me, because I survived. God had a plan for me here.” 

A larger perspective 

Though labor trafficking makes up the largest number of human trafficking cases worldwide, it can still be hard to identify exactly what it looks like. It can impact U.S. citizens as well as immigrants, and most of the time it impacts men who are perceived by society as immune to being victims. “Even with training, our brains are wired to look for trafficking victims in a specific way and demographic,” says Erin Meyer, an anti–human trafficking program manager for The Salvation Army in Cincinnati, Ohio. 

“The targeting involved in labor trafficking is more subtle than other forms of trafficking,” says Meyer. “For example, places like brothels cater to buyers. Massage parlors advertise on the internet and with big, glowing signs outside their doors. It’s in your face. But labor trafficking is insular. Finding it requires detective work and strong cooperation with law enforcement.” 

“In labor trafficking, a person might be allowed to go to the hospital if sick or injured, but that’s it. They’re not having constant run–ins with police, because it is not technically a crime to work for someone in their home or farm. Situations like Harold D’Souza’s are even harder to spot. No one is going into the kitchen of their local restaurant to look for people who are working there against their will,” says Meyer. 

Advocates for a solution to labor trafficking debate whether the definition should be broadened to include the recruitment of young people into street gangs, and even the exploitation of people incarcerated in prisons. Says Meyer: “What those two things have in common with labor trafficking is that in both cases, all your decisions are made for you by someone else, and you are not allowed to leave on your own free will.” 

Read more from the latest issue of SAconnects.