Nineteen years after arriving in the United States, then suffering abuse and slavery-like conditions as a domestic servant, Ima Matul Maisaroh made history Tuesday by becoming the first Indonesian to address a mass meeting where U.S. presidential candidates are selected.
Ima spoke about her experiences before thousands of people who had gathered to nominate former senator and secretary of state Hillary Clinton as candidate for president at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pa.
“Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that I would share a stage with so many leaders and visionaries,” Ima said after being introduced by U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
“I grew up in a poor village in Indonesia. When I was 17 years old, I was brought to Los Angeles with the promise of a job as a nanny. Instead, I spent the next three years in domestic servitude being abused,” she said.
After escaping, she went on to work for the organization that helped her recover, the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST). In December 2015, U.S. President Barack Obama appointed her to the United States Advisory Council on Human Trafficking, a new task force charged with helping the U.S. government formulate anti-trafficking policy.
“Human trafficking is not just happening overseas; it is happening right here in our backyard. Every day I hear stories just like my own. Still, I have hope,” Ima said.
“There's a growing awareness about the devastating impact of human trafficking. There's a growing embrace of survivors in our communities and businesses and churches. And there's a growing commitment to finding innovative solutions to make sure this generation of survivors will be the last.”
‘The scars are still visible’
In her native village of Kanigoro, in Malang Regency of East Java province, her parents – both farmers – spoke with quiet pride of the amazing life journey of their eldest daughter.
Turiyono (right) and Alimah show pictures of their daughter Ima Matul Maisaroh at their home in Malang, East Java, July 25, 2016. [Heny Rahayu/BenarNews]
Ima dropped out of high school due to an arranged marriage with a man 12 years her senior. The marriage ended quickly, her father, Turiyono, 65, told BenarNews during a recent visit to his home.
Five months later, in 1997, she registered to become an overseas domestic worker at an employment agency in the nearby city of Malang.
She was placed for training with a family in Malang where her boss offered her a position working for a cousin in the United States at a salary of $150 a month, Turiyono said. Ima chose to go, abandoning the path laid out for her by the employment agency.
“I sold grain to pay shelter and travel costs to America,” Turiyono said.
Once there Ima, who could not speak English, was abused by her employer, her parents said.
“The scars are still visible on parts of her body,” said her mother, Alimah, 52.
Eventually, American neighbors helped her escape.
"When I finally had the courage to escape my trafficker, I found a home at the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking. After I got the support I needed, I found the strength to organize survivors from across the country."
Turiyono sent her diploma from a local madrassa so Ima could continue her education.
Agustin Hariwati, the head of Khairudin High School, which Ima briefly attended, said his staff were still looking for her school records. Teachers there have concluded she spent less than a year at the school before getting married.
“In the 1990s, a lot of students dropped out because they had to work or get married. One of them was Ima,” he told BenarNews.
‘Working in America is hard’
Ima has married in the United States and has three children, according to Alimah. But she comes home to Indonesia from time to time.
“When she comes home she often tells her siblings and cousins not to test fate by going to America because they may experience the same kind of suffering she did. Working in America is hard, especially if you are unskilled,” she said.
Many people in Malang regency go overseas to find work to overcome economic hardship at home, local officials said. The Malang Manpower Office has no record of Ima travelling to the United States 19 years ago.
“There is almost no data about Indonesian laborers going to the United States. Indonesian does not have a migrant labor agreement with the U.S.,” said Sukardi, head of manpower placement and transmigration for Malang Regency.
In a July 25 statement, the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta confirmed that Ima had become a U.S. citizen and lives in Los Angeles.