Nov. 13, By Tara Law
A Corona woman who escaped sexual slavery has won an award for her work with survivors of human trafficking.
Shandra Woworuntu, 41, has been named a L’Oreal Paris Women of Worth honoree in recognition of her work as an advocate and a mentor for survivors of human trafficking. The nonprofit organization she founded, Mentari Human Trafficking Survivor Empowerment Program, helps train, find work and provide counsel to survivors.
Woworuntu and nine other women were selected out of 6,000 nominees to receive the award and a $10,000 grant. A national honoree will be determined by an online vote and announced on Nov. 29. The winner will receive an additional $25,000 grant. To vote, click here.
Wororuntu’s dedication to helping former victims of sex trafficking stems from her own tortured journey. She was lured to the US from Indonesia when she was 24 by men who promised her a glamorous job in New York. Upon her arrival she discovered that she had become part of an international sex trafficking ring where she would be pimped out for sex.
After a period of abuse, she managed to escape and, years later, was able set up an organization that helps sex-trafficking victims get back on their feet and lead better lives. She has also become a leader in the fight against human trafficking and lectures university students around the world on the subject.
Woworuntu’s entry into the world of sex trafficking began in 2001 when she spotted an employment ad in an Indonesian newspaper for a hotel worker. The position appealed to her since work was scarce and Indonesia was undergoing political upheaval. She also had a young daughter to take care of.
The ad said the pay would be $5,000 a month for six months of work, and the job would be in the United States. She said she thought it was a legitimate ad since it had been placed in several newspapers.
“I didn’t think it was too good to be true,” Woworuntu said. “I was thinking, this is America!”
She took the six-month job and left her daughter with her mother.
When she arrived at JFK Airport, Woworuntu said that she was greeted by a man carrying her picture and a copy of her passport. She believed that he would take her to her employer.
She was one of several women who were then transported to a hotel parking lot in Queens, where she was asked to switch vehicles. Finally, she arrived at a non-descript house somewhere in the borough.
Her captors demanded that she remove her clothes. She initially refused, but complied after they beat another woman in front of her.
In the months that followed, Woworuntu’s captors verbally, sexually and physically abused her and forced her into prostitution. Her captors would hold a hunting knife to her throat if she resisted, which makes her tremble thinking about to this day.
Woworuntu eventually escaped. She pried open a bathroom window on the second floor of a Sunset Park, Brooklyn, house with a fork and fled.
“It was so high,” she said. “And then I jumped.”
She spent weeks homeless after her escape, and slept in parks, on the subway and on the Staten Island Ferry.
She was weeping on a park bench in Williamsburg when a U.S. Navy sailor approached her.
“I was crying, because I was so hungry. I didn’t have anything. He came up to me and said, ‘you ok?’” said Woworuntu.
The sailor referred her to the FBI.
The FBI launched an investigation that led to the arrest of several of her captors, who were part of an organized crime group.
“It was a big case for New York City [at the time],” Woworuntu said.
Woworuntu was unable to return to Indonesia afterward since members of the sex trafficking ring were looking for her. The U.S. government helped bring her daughter to the U.S., and they were reunited in 2004.
The FBI referred Woworuntu to an organization called Safe Horizon, which provided her with shelter and helped her get her immigration papers in order. She took ESL classes to improve her English, and got a job working in a cafeteria for Catholic Charities.
Having a job was the key to her independence and survival, and despite the reoccurring nightmares of her time as a sex slave, she fought hard to stay employed.
“It’s not easy to keep a job, because sometimes I cried a lot and in the morning, I couldn’t go work because my eyes were swollen,” Woworuntu said. “I got flashbacks. I cannot hear noises.”
She had several jobs in quick succession before taking nursing courses online and becoming a nurse.
As her life began to stabilize, she began to seek out others with experiences similar to her own.
In 2004, she began to search mosques, churches and group meetings for others who had been exploited or trafficked. She sheltered people in her home who had escaped.
“I helped many people to get out from their own situations,” Woworuntu said. “They would escape, and they would stay in my house. And I would get them a job.”
She taught many women how to cook and clean in order for them to find employment.
In 2008, she started a company, SMW Catering, where she would employ and train women who were victims of domestic violence or sex trafficking.
“It was the start,” Woworuntu said. “So many people want to learn [how to cook].”
In December 2014, she founded Mentari in Manhattan, which teaches students how to cook and provides ancillary services. To date, roughly 200 students have enrolled in the non-profit’s cooking program. Of the 98 who have already graduated, all but one has found employment.
Mentari, which provides counseling and other services, also tries to reach out to current victims of sex trafficking. For example, the group hands out packages of feminine hygiene products at massage parlors that include descriptions of trafficking and how victims should get help.
She said that she won’t be able to rest as long as there are other trafficking victims in captivity.
If you would like to report trafficking, or if you believe that you have been trafficked, a hotline is accessible at 1 (888) 373-7888. The line is available 24/7 and in 200 languages.