A hush fell over the crowd as Master of Ceremonies, Angela Kinsey, welcomed Courageous Voice Honoree, Annie Martinez,* and her pro bono attorney, Maria Segarra, to the stage at San Francisco’s Inaugural Gala on March 8, 2018.
In the moments that followed, Segarra told Annie’s story of tremendous suffering, but also of great triumph.
At age 10, Annie was forced to become a domestic worker. In high school, her mother died after a tragic accident, her body never recovered. Her father – an alcoholic – shouldered Annie with the burden of caring for her six siblings.
Later, she was abused at the hands of her husband.
At age 34, Annie thought she was finally being offered a lifeline. The chance to do what every mother feels they must do – provide for her children by working for a family in the United States. Annie accepted the offer and was soon on her way.
But this is when her nightmare really began. Working for this family, Annie never had a day off, she worked 12-16 hours each day, and she was made to sleep in a shed in the backyard. It was so cold, she used a portable heater. But when her traffickers’ utility bills increased, they took the heater away and Annie was left to use a hair dryer for warmth.
“The years went on. Annie was forbidden to leave the house. Her traffickers intimidated her with stories of domestic workers who had tried to leave their homes and were arrested. Annie was trapped, and her health was deteriorating.”
As luck would have it, a woman would find Annie and listen to her story. On the evening after Thanksgiving, she was to pack her things, head out the back gate of the family home, past a large pine tree, and meet a police car that would take her to safety.
“Tonight we stand with Annie, the survivor. A woman of strength who has overcome more than I can fathom. Ladies and gentlemen … Annie.”
As Annie walked across the stage to rousing applause, she and Segarra shared a long embrace. Together, these women secured Annie’s freedom and access to the life of safety and dignity that she deserves.
Annie began with thanking her family, her attorneys, and the Tahirih Justice Center. She then addressed the crowd. “Thank you to everyone who is here tonight. You are changing lives. You are helping women like me feel free. I believe in miracles and divine intervention. I believe in dreams and prayer. I believe it was written in the stars that I found the Tahirih Justice Center.”
Annie asked the crowd to recall the symbol of Tahirih – a bird with equal wings, representing the freedom to fly – and shared that she believes it was several birds who helped her along her journey to freedom.
She told of a bird who perched outside her window at the traffickers’ home. It woke her up every morning, and as it sang, Annie prayed for her freedom.
She told of one fall season while she was working in the garden. She saw a bird fly into a pine tree. It was just weeks later that Annie was ready to be rescued, and when she thought of where to hide her belongings before the police arrived, she remembered that bird in the pine tree. It was lucky that she chose to hide her belongings beneath the pine tree and not in the garage, because her trafficker left in his car early that evening and she would have been caught. That bird, she believes, helped guide her to freedom.
Since her escape, Annie has found comfort in art therapy. She often draws birds, because they represent freedom and hope and they helped guide her to where she is now.
“It has been 3 years since I was rescued. I have come a long way from my past. I am moving into my own apartment soon, I am starting art courses, and I am learning how to drive. I am no longer a caged bird. I am free.”
*Name changed to protect client privacy and safety.