By Traci Tamura and Thelma Gutierrez
The pursuit of the American Dream was what brought Soo (not her real name) to the United States from South Korea. It was 2001, when she befriended a group of people who offered her the chance to invest in a business opportunity in California. Soo jumped at the chance to live and work in the U.S. Shortly after Soo arrived in the States she realized that her friends were operating prostitution-related massage parlors. They took her ID and passport after bringing her up to San Francisco, where they told her she owed them $15,000. Her dream was slowly turning into a nightmare. She was left at a massage parlor and forced to prostitute herself to pay off the debt. The pain of having to sell her body against her will, and the treatment she received from clients, are still fresh in her mind. "They would like to choke me and people pulled my hair and hurt me. When I scream nobody hears and nobody comes," Soo remembers.
Soo tried to refuse prostituting her body but without her legal documents or English language skills, and not knowing where she was, she was vulnerable to their threats of being reported to the authorities and sent to jail. So she says she complied and was even beaten into submission if she tried to flee or seek help from the patrons. Soo and 30 other women were forced to work around 20 hours a day selling their bodies for the repayment of debts. If they didn't, there was a price to be paid. "In the beginning, I said no all the time and I got beaten a lot. Even with all of my bruises I still had to work. Sometimes, I would plead to my customers, even though I don't speak English. I'd try my best but I'd just plead with my customers. But they would just tell my manager and then I'd get into more trouble."
It's been five years since Soo was able to escape from her situation with the help of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, but the memories are just as vivid as if it was yesterday. When we sat down to talk to her about her experience, the anguish and pain are evident. The reason Soo decided to come forward and tell her story was to help others in her situation and give them hope that there is help out there. And her message to the men who are customers of these types of establishments: think of the women you are dealing with. "We are humans. We are not animals. I want to tell them we are not machines. It's so hard for me to live my life. It's very hard to live. Please think of us as your child. Just once think of us as your child."
Soo is still pursuing the American Dream but it's been altered now. The trauma she suffered being forced into sex slavery has taken its toll on her emotionally. Everyday continues to be a challenge for Soo, but she finds solace in her tiny apartment filled with rescue cats and dreams of having her own pet grooming business someday. For now, she is thankful for her freedom but is still held hostage to the memories.