How a Berkeley Track Star and Her Mom Survived Sex Trafficking

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Human TraffickingRehabilitation & LiberationSurvivor Stories

Deshae Wise is now a rising track star at the University of California Berkeley, and as a freshman is already among the top runners in the country. But her childhood wasn’t easy — her mother, Rebecca, was severely beaten and sex trafficked for six years.

As a young girl, Deshae knew something was wrong. Her and her mother always seemed to be running, but she wasn’t sure why. Finally, when Deshae was 12, her mother pulled into a driveway and poured out the details of her abuse. Deshae began to sob, asking “Why would you stay? Why wouldn’t you leave for me?”

Deshae slowly learned why it was so hard for her mother to escape from sex trafficking. It all began when her mother was 18 — Deshae was only 1 at the time — and living in Oregon. She met a handsome, charismatic man named Khaled (not his real name). The pair fell in love, and after six months he asked Rebecca to move with him to Las Vegas.

Yet, as Sports Illustrated explains, this is when things took a turn for the worst:

Less than 24 hours after arriving in Vegas, she says, things quickly turned. Khaled told Rebecca he wanted to take her out on the town. “Get dressed up,” she remembers him saying.

Deshae stayed with Khaled’s brother, but instead of heading to the strip, Khaled drove him and Rebecca to a dead-end street anchored by a deserted strip mall. Khaled, she says, turned to her and explained with a seriousness on his face: He needed money for the apartment, for Deshae’s food. . . . And Rebecca had to pay him. Now.

Khaled, she says, pointed to a door with a security camera above it and told her to enter. Inside she found a smoke-filled room with three desks pushed next to one another, a woman seated behind each. It was all too clear, too real. She was at an escort service, and Khaled expected her to sign herself up. No way. She was shocked, confused, and terrified.

Back in the car, Khaled slapped her across the face. Rebecca was suddenly terrified. She was in a new city. . . she didn’t know her address yet. . . and she didn’t know where her daughter was. The rest unfolded in a blur of fear and confusion. At some point there was a phone call from a “local” in the Green Valley area, 15 minutes away. Khaled drove to a townhouse, dropped Rebecca off and parked nearby.

Rebecca knocked on the door and was greeted, to her surprise, by an attractive male in his 20s—she remembers him looking like a grown-up high school quarterback, with wavy black hair. Inside, she started reluctantly to mime a lap dance, but after a few minutes the man grew frustrated. He grabbed Rebecca by the waist, pulled her skirt up and, without her consent, had sex with her.

Rebecca froze. Before she knew it, she was walking out the door, adjusting her skirt.

Back in the car, she remembers Khaled asking, “How much did we make?” Three hundred-twenty dollars. “You’ll do better next time,” he said. And then: “You didn’t have sex for this, right?” Ashamed, Rebecca shook her head. No. She looked out the window and cried.

Back at the apartment they shared, Rebecca found her daughter safe and sound. But still: She was alone in Vegas. She clung desperately, naïvely to the hope that she would repay Khaled and then. . . . maybe they’d be back on track. But that never happened. Instead, Rebecca became a victim of human trafficking, coerced into prostitution.

Khaled was a “Romeo” — a term used to describe traffickers that use romance to lure their victims. But now that Rebecca was isolated, he threatened that she would find Deshae on a street corner one day if she didn’t meet her quota.

After two years, Khaled traded Rebecca to another trafficker in Las Vegas, a man named Kevin. He too, beat Deshae’s mother. As Deshae grew older she felt something was wrong, but she stayed quiet. When Rebecca told her goodnight, Deshae says she recalls that “She would be dressed up really nice. I just assumed she worked at a fast-food restaurant. I didn’t know what else she could be doing. I just assumed.”

Finally, one night the feds surrounded Kevin’s house as part of a tax-evasion investigation. Rebecca and Deshae went out the back door and climbed over the fence into a neighbor’s yard.

But while this seems like an opportunity to escape, Rebecca says she felt like she still had no choice but to stay with Kevin. As Elizabeth Hopper, a clinical psychologist, points outs, traffickers control their victims through many means: “There’s the realistic stuff, like: How would I get a job? Or what is society going to think of me?

While Kevin was finally charged with tax evasion and sentenced to 24 months in jail, he was never charged with human trafficking.

At last, right before Kevin was due to start his jail term, he flew to California to visit his mother. Rebecca and Deshae made a run for it, boarding a plane and meeting Rebecca’s aunt in Oregon. Kevin called demanding to know where they were, but Rebecca didn’t answer — she knew he would be in jail soon. She and Deshae could finally breathe — they were free.

Today, Rebecca runs a non-profit, the Rebecca Bender Initiative, that helps survivors and works to combat future trafficking by educating law enforcement officials. She’s also written a self-help book for survivors, Road to Redemption.

For Deshae, she says she does not dwell on the darkness. Rather, as she has come to know the full story of what happened to her mother, she says she began to use it as fuel. In one school assignment, she wrote, “A fire started in me to beat the odds even further.”

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Dena Ellis
2 years ago

Happy you were able to leave and tell your mom to keep inspiring