Born into poverty in a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world, Maritza* grew up in a community surrounded by violence and corruption. Pervasive organized crime had a vice grip on shop owners, schools, and even the police. Hard working and smart, Maritza worked to help support her family while she attended school to fulfill her dreams of becoming a nurse.
Life wasn’t easy, but she was happy. All that changed in a matter of minutes.
Her nightmare began during lunch with a friend one afternoon. A group of dangerous men entered the diner and sat down with the two girls; worse, her friend seemed to know them. The men quickly became aggressive. Familiar with the tactics gangs use to threaten and extort, Maritza’s instincts kicked in. She quickly removed her phone’s SIM card and destroyed it, preventing the men from finding her family’s contact information.
Moments later, Maritza was forced into a car at gunpoint by their ringleader. He threatened to kill her if she wasn’t quiet. When her “friend” was suddenly released, Maritza knew she had been set up. They drove for seven hours to an isolated home where she was confined to a small room and guarded by an armed man who was told to kill her if she tried to escape.
Her kidnapper raped her every night, threatening to find and punish her family if she struggled. One day, he ordered Maritza’s guard to take her to get her birth certificate so they could arrange for her to “travel.” Her kidnappers were human traffickers. They intended to sell her.
On the way back to the city, Maritza begged the guard to let her go. In a moment of compassion, he dropped her off at a bus station with a dire warning: they’ll kill you if they find you.
Maritza immediately took a bus back to her home city, but arranged to meet her family in a safe place in case she had been followed. Unfortunately, their reunion was brief.
Her family knew that if Maritza was discovered by the traffickers, they would all be killed. She had to leave the country immediately. Still, the decision was not an easy one to make. Her family had very little money and the journey was incredibly dangerous. The idea of being separated, potentially for years, was heartbreaking.
Desperate to protect Maritza, her mother made arrangements for her only daughter to flee to the United States, where she would be cared for by her uncle.
Remarkably, Maritza survived the trip and was eventually reunited with her uncle in Houston. She found her way to Tahirih Justice Center and continued to fight for her safety. With help from Tahirih and its pro bono team, Maritza was granted legal protection in 2016.
Today, she is safe. With the support of her loving uncle and his wife, Maritza is on track to graduate from high school. She plans to fulfill her childhood dream of attending college to become a nurse, and hopes to dedicate her life to helping others.
Maritza is Tahirih Houston’s 5th Annual Gala Courageous Voice Honoree. On September 17, 2016, join us to pay tribute to the courageous women and girls who refuse to be victims of violence. Funds raised at the “A Mother’s Life, A Child’s Future” gala go directly to helping more brave women and girls like Maritza.