Tebby Kaisara looked like any other student walking around campus at Indiana University with a backpack on her shoulder.
But she wasn’t a student. Kaisara had been trafficked to the campus from Botswana, subjected to forced labor by an Indiana University graduate student. She suffered as a domestic servant for 18 months, during which time she cleaned the student’s apartment, took care of the woman’s children, did laundry, ran errands, cooked meals, and bought groceries.
She was never paid for any of this work. Incredibly, it all took place in Indiana University student housing on campus.
The Indy Star explains how Kaisara was trafficked:
Tebby Kaisara’s ordeal as a modern-day slave in America began with a promise. She was living with a cousin in Gaborone, Botswana, when a neighbor made an incredible offer. If she would leave Botswana for the United States, Kaisara could work in a daycare center and attend school in St. Louis. For a desperate 19-year-old with few good options in her homeland, it sounded like a dream.
The neighbor even offered to find Kaisara a sponsor family, coach her on how to answer questions on the visa application and book the flights. All Tebby had to do was to get on the plane.
It wasn’t until she was above the Atlantic that Kaisara noticed something strange. The final destination on her ticket wasn’t St. Louis. It was Indianapolis.
“I had never even heard of Indiana,” Kaisara says. “I started getting scared. What’s going on?”
When her flight arrived in Chicago an immigration officer noticed the discrepancy and pulled her aside. But when she called the number she was given as her contact in America, the person who answered already had a story prepared. Kaisara’s sponsor family was on vacation in Indianapolis, and she was to meet them there.
After finally arriving in Indianapolis she managed to find a shared ride to Bloomington, where she met the woman who she thought was going to help her enroll in school. She was also from Africa and had two children.
“She said I can take your documents to school so you can enroll,” Kaisara says. “I got excited and I gave her my passport.”
Yet after the children went to bed the conversation changed; the woman said she had no money to put Kaisara in school, telling her “You’re here to be my nanny.”
For months the manipulation continued. She was told not to talk to anyone, locked in a room as punishment, and denied food and medicine. The graduate student had a cover story too — Kaisara was her “sister” in case anyone asked.
As her health deteriorated, Kaisara noticed a painful cyst growing on her side. She asked to see a doctor, but the woman refused. “I told her I had talked to a lawyer and ‘They told me you are lying. Give me my passport or I am going to call the police’,” she recalls.
After surgery to remove the cyst, she returned to the woman’s apartment but she, apparently frightened by Kaisara’s threat to call the police, told her she could not stay. Kaisara was now free, but she had nowhere to go.
She decided to go to a local wig shop owned by Lisa Stieglitz. “She came to my salon to buy hair with this scary lady who wouldn’t let her talk,” Stieglitz said. “Red flags would go up all the time, but I wasn’t able to ask her questions.”
When Kaisara showed up at her shop, she burst into tears. Stieglitz decided on the spot that she needed to help, offering to let Kaisara stay in an apartment her son was trying to sublet and pulling together donations from friends.
They also got in touch with the FBI, who interviewed Kaisara and showed her photos of suspected Botswanan traffickers operating in the U.S. Unfortunately, her case never led to any charges; the graduate student and other suspected traffickers have all returned to Africa.
Today Kaisara works at a hospital in Bloomington and has secured a special visa for human trafficking victims, earning a green card and working towards US citizenship. She says she often cannot sleep from the trauma, but she refuses to live in the past.
“I feel like I have created so much happiness in my life instead of the negative parts. It has helped me heal,” she says.
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