Rehana Bibi thought her employment in America would begin with a trip to Disneyland and end with a well-paying job as a maid for the Virginia relatives of a prominent Pakistani family.
She never went to California. Instead, she said, after arriving in 2013, she spent the next five years effectively trapped in a Loudoun County home, working constantly. She said she was paid a total of about $25,000.
“I have not seen anybody in my life, not even in Pakistan … treat anyone like that,” she said in an interview through an Urdu translator. She recalled at one point telling her husband, who remained in Pakistan, that she was considering suicide: “I told him if I stay any longer, my dead body is going to come out.”
Bibi, 46, has now filed a lawsuit accusing the Yahya family, whose home and children she cared for, and their Pakistani relatives, who she says arranged her employment, of engaging in human trafficking. The case in federal court in Alexandria seeks back pay and damages; it is in its early stages.
In a court filing, the Yahyas called the allegations “as reprehensible as they are false.”
Even if they were true, their attorney Earl Mayfield wrote in court papers, the conditions Bibi described would not amount to human trafficking.
“Taking the allegations in the light most favorable to her, Ms. Bibi was oppressed, not trapped,” he told the court.
Mayfield notes that Bibi “was able to leave the first time she tried” and argues that “enduring unpleasant working conditions does not make someone a victim of trafficking or false imprisonment.”
The Pakistani relatives, Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman and his wife, did not respond to requests for comment by publication time. Shakil-ur-Rahman is the founder of a media conglomerate; he was recently jailed for eight months in a case decried by press freedom advocates. According to the complaint, Bibi was hired by Shakil-ur-Rahman as a servant for his sister-in-law’s family.
Bibi says during her time with the Yahyas, she cooked, cleaned and cared for three children. She said she was on call to assist an elderly relative who rang a bell for help day and night. She said they told her she could shower only once a week because any more was a waste of hot water. And they forbade her from eating meat, saying she was too fat, according to the complaint.
Bibi said she asked to go home to Pakistan when two of her daughters got married but was refused, she said; she couldn’t even watch the weddings on the family’s iPad. She slept on a mattress on the basement floor and kept her belongings in her suitcase, according to the complaint; for the first two years, she says, she was in a storage room infested with insects.
The Yahyas referred questions to Mayfield, who offered a blanket denial for those allegations but would not discuss specifics.
“The only mention of any physical act whatsoever is an allegation that the Yahyas’ pre-teen son struck Ms. Bibi twice in the course of five years, for which he was scolded by Mr. Yahya,” Mayfield said in court documents. “That does not remotely come close to serious harm.”
Moreover, Mayfield says that Bibi’s employment contract was with his clients’ relatives in Pakistan and that her room and board should be considered part of the payment.
Bibi maintains that she was confined because she spoke almost no English and was told she was in the country illegally. The visa she came to the country on was good for only one year. She says the family almost never let her out alone and warned her that if she went to the police, she would be arrested.
“Maybe they don’t want me to find out what type of support and help” was available, Bibi said.
She says she also worried that if she left the family, her husband would bear the consequences.
“Having isolated her, they successfully intimidated her into acquiescing in her apparent fate, about which they assured her that she could do nothing,” attorney Vic Glasberg wrote in the complaint.
Mayfield said that if the Yahyas did warn Bibi about the potential consequences of getting caught overstaying her visa, it wouldn’t count as a threat because it was the truth.
Martina Vandenberg, the founder and president of the Human Trafficking Legal Center, disputes that interpretation of the law.
“Threats of deportation are one of the most common forms of coercion we see,” she said. “You don’t get to engineer the vulnerability and then exploit the vulnerability.”
Allegations of labor trafficking such as Bibi’s are not unusual, according to advocates. They say labor trafficking is more prevalent than sex trafficking, though less likely to be prosecuted.
“It’s not at all an uncommon phenomenon, particularly in the D.C. area,” said Janie Chuang, a law professor at American University who studies human trafficking. “When people use the threat of legal process to keep people in exploitative situations, that’s a hallmark of trafficking. You don’t have to have something that looks like chattel slavery to have it amount to trafficking.”
In the 2018 fiscal year, she noted, the Department of Justice brought 213 sex trafficking prosecutions but only 17 labor trafficking cases.
“Investigators frequently view forced labor cases as just a bad working situation and don’t take the allegations very seriously,” Vandenberg said.
“Fully aware of that disparity, advocates really rely on civil litigation as the vehicle to getting accountability for nonsexual labor trafficking cases,” Chuang said.
After five years working for the Yahyas, Bibi befriended an Urdu-speaking woman who convinced her to leave and seek help. Attorneys for Bibi asked that the name of this woman and the details of their meeting be obscured to preserve her anonymity.
Bibi said she confided in her new friend that she was thinking of killing herself. But she had also found her passport while cleaning and was starting to consider escape. The woman told her to “be brave.”
With the friend’s help, Bibi snuck out in the early morning of Dec. 7, 2018. On Google, her friend found the Tahirih Justice Center, a Falls Church, Va., nonprofit that helps immigrant women fleeing violence.
Bibi says she now is seeking to stay in the United States out of fear that the conflict over her employment would make life difficult for her if she returned to her native country. Tahirih is helping her apply for permanent U.S. residency as a victim of human trafficking.
Approval of those visas plummeted under the Trump administration, and since 2018, immigrants who apply for them are at risk of deportation during the process.
“Policies have come out in the last few years that have really continued to chip away at the legal protections that are available for immigrant survivors,” said Sasha Bershad, an attorney with Tahirih. While President Joe Biden has pledged to reverse many of those policies, she expects that process will take years.
The friend helped Bibi find a place to live in Prince William County, Va., as she awaits word on her request for legal residency in the United States. If that is granted, she hopes to someday have her family join her.
“I still have a lot of back pain,” she said, from carrying heavy loads for the family. She also has gaps in her smile from the teeth she lost during her service; she says in the complaint that the family had a dentist remove them rather than give her more expensive care. (Mayfield says that if she was taken to the dentist, it is more evidence she was not trapped in the home). She says she has headaches from years of barely sleeping.
“I was scared all the time,” she said. “I cannot forget these memories.”