Evelyn Chumbow: A Survivor of Modern-Day Slavery

Evelyn Chumbow Interview

ACAMS Today sat down for an interview with Evelyn Chumbow, a child labor trafficking survivor dedicated to anti-trafficking activism and a public speaker who has focused her life’s work on ending modern-day slavery, a crime impacting some 40 million victims globally. Chumbow is currently the director of Operations and Survivor Leadership for the Human Trafficking Legal Center. She also serves as an advisor to human trafficking (HT) nongovernmental organizations, hoping to leverage her experience as a former child slave to end HT throughout the world.

Chumbow was brought to the U.S. from Cameroon at the age of nine and was forced to cook, clean and care for her trafficker’s children. She was never paid for her work, and any hope that she might escape was undermined by the constant beatings she received from her trafficker. After years of captivity, she finally escaped, and her trafficker was sentenced to 17 years in prison. Today, Chumbow works tirelessly to raise awareness and advocate for other survivors. She strongly believes in the need for professional development for survivors and dedicates her time volunteering at the grassroots level to guide communities on how to create employment opportunities for trafficking survivors.

Chumbow has been invited to brief several government agencies about HT from a survivor’s perspective, including the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, the State Department and the Department of Justice. She was appointed by President Barack Obama to serve on the U.S. Council on Human Trafficking to his administration. Chumbow was an invited speaker at the 2019 Paris Peace Forum and the 2014 Thomson Reuters Foundation Trust Women Conference. In 2016, she traveled to Cameroon to brief the Freedom for All conference on best practices for supporting trafficking survivors returning home from the Middle East, with an emphasis on creating opportunities for employment.

ACAMS Today (AT): How were you approached by traffickers in Cameroon?

Evelyn Chumbow (EC): I was born in Cameroon, specifically the English part of Cameroon. I went to school, my mom had a restaurant, and my dad had a job, but unfortunately, they were separated and I had to go live with my uncle. My uncle worked for a wealthy Cameroonian.

My trafficker was a woman who was raised in the U.S., and my uncle worked for her. She told everyone I was coming to America and, in that part of the world, America was the land of opportunity: Better schools, better money. I was fascinated by television shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Beverly Hills, 90210 and The Bill Cosby Show. I grew up watching those shows, thinking that America was like what was depicted, so when I was told that I was coming to America, I was excited. I didn't even care with whom I was coming to stay.

I was eight or nine years old when I was trafficked. My uncle was like a father figure. My uncle told me to be good to this woman, saying, “She’s going to be like a mother to you. Just listen and do whatever.” And in our culture, we’re supposed to respect our elders. Everyone there was celebrating my going to America. When people think of trafficking, they always think of sex trafficking, but I was trafficked for domestic servitude.

AT: What was your experience at the airport when you and six children were trafficked from Cameroon to the U.K.?

EC: I gave the flight attendant whatever document my uncle gave me. My trafficker was very beautiful, but she didn’t seem very nice. She came and picked me up when I arrived in London and we stayed there for a month. I didn’t know I was not in the U.S. They were trying to change my papers. They used one passport to bring six of us into the U.S. I came with another girl’s name who looked a lot like me and had also been trafficked.

I landed in the D.C. area and stayed at a nice apartment. My trafficker’s fiancé was a medical doctor, and she worked for a company called Locksmith. She was pretty, had money and was pregnant. She had a massive house in Cameroon, and there were many boys and girls from the village working in that house, cleaning the car or sweeping the yard. I remember the sadness in their eyes and I can’t help but think of slavery. A lot of people don’t want to use the term modern-day slavery, but that’s how I see my story. I remember my trafficker asked my uncle, “Isn’t she a little too young for the job?” And I thought, “What job? I’m going to America. I’m going to meet Will Smith and hang out with the people I see on TV.” I did not know I was coming for a job. My uncle replied, “No, no. She’s just small for her age. She’s very hardworking.”

AT: How did you escape from your HT captors?

EC: In Cameroon, the first child is responsible for their siblings. My brother was away for college, and when he returned, he asked about me. When he heard that I was sent to America with a stranger, he was upset. He called me and just hearing his voice gave me hope again. I will never forget that call. I couldn’t say much because my captor was next to me, and all I did was cry. I don’t know what my brother did to come to America, but he came. By the time he came, I was in the foster care system.

AT: Was your brother able to gain custody of you and remove you from the foster care system and, if so, how?

EC: No, he wasn’t. I had to wait to emancipate at age 21 and go live with him as he just arrived in the U.S. and couldn’t take care of me.

AT: What type of training do you give law enforcement (LE) on how to identify labor trafficking?

EC: I use my story to teach LE. When I escaped, an FBI agent accused me of lying. His name was Bruce. He thought I was lying when I told my story because I wanted a green card. Back then, I didn’t know what a green card was, and I was scared. Having a translator trained to understand the issue will help, especially when dealing with children.

I always tell LE they should train to understand the issue. Do not be so quick to deport a foreigner without listening to their story or without a proper investigation. Interrogations will not get them to tell the truth. You do not know who you will deport them back to. If you were trafficked, you would not have documentation. You cannot talk about migration without talking about trafficking.

AT: What kind of financial activity can banks look for to detect HT?

EC:1) Identification: Proper identification is important because sometimes our real name may not be the one on the identification card, but the banker will not know that if we can’t talk.
2) Time alone: Sometimes people go to the bank with their captors to open a bank account. You are opening the bank account, but the other person is answering all the questions. That is a red flag. It would be nice to have only the person opening the account there.
3) Training: It would be good for banks to get training to differentiate the perpetrator from the victim. Listen to the survivors. Make sure you are trauma-informed.

Banks should have loans for survivors. I wanted to get a job at a bank, but when they did a background check, they discovered that I had another name, and that my credit was ruined. This was all done by my trafficker. It is hard for us to move on and leave our past behind. The root cause of trafficking is poverty. Once we are out of the trafficking situation and we’re still struggling financially, survivors will ask ourselves, “What is the point?”

AT: How can anti-financial crime (AFC) professionals better address financial activity from labor trafficking?

EC: If we truly address labor trafficking, we are all guilty because of the products that we consume. It is hard to talk about it because we are guilty of consuming products that are being made by people who are not getting paid and, in some cases, by children. This is why it is important to know your product and understand the demand and the supply chain.

Banks really do play a big role in fighting HT. I encourage financial institutions (FIs) to get training to understand the situation better and help HT victims.

AT: How can FIs include survivor leadership efforts in their anti-money laundering programs?

EC: Working on the policies regarding how they can include sex and labor trafficking within their respective institutions. Debt repair is also important. Learn to forgive survivors’ bad credit, which will help them with their financial stability. One of the reasons victims end up in poverty is because of their bad credit.

Also, housing is a big issue in our sector because we cannot afford decent living due to our credit history. Creating policies that will help survivors with credit repair will help us a lot because we did not put ourselves in this position. We want to be able to find job opportunities as well.

AT: You mentioned during your presentation at the Assembly Hollywood that there is a restitution program for HT victims. Can you tell us about the program and how victims can access it?

EC: There is not much of a program. The restitution for my case was mandated by the court. If there was a program that could help me collect my money, I would have paid my student loan. Survivors struggle to find decent jobs because their credit scores are ruined. This is why I created the Harriet Tubman Fellowship.1

AT: Can you expand a little bit more on the Harriet Tubman Fellowship?

EC: If someone had invested in me financially, I would have become the president of my country, but many survivors like me struggle with financial support; that’s why I decided to be a part of The Harriet Tubman Fellowship. The fellowship focuses solely on forced labor victims. Survivors receive a $10,000 award and a $500 monthly stipend for two years, in-person communications and policy advocacy training in Washington, D.C., and access to mentoring, coaching and career development. The goal is to help survivors with the education of their choosing to prepare them for management-level positions.

AT: How else can AFC professionals help to prevent HT?

EC: Start by listening to those sharing their stories and get training from the survivors. We can help you identify the red flags. I say listen to us and invite us to provide the training.

Interviewed by: Karla Monterrosa-Yancey, CAMS, editor-in-chief, ACAMS , kmonterrosa@acams.org

Monica Mendez, CAMS, senior international editor, ACAMS, mmendez@acams.org

  1. If you would like to donate to the Harriet Tubman Fellowship, please visit:https://htlegalcenter.org/our-work/harriet-tubman-fellowship/.

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